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Francis Bacon – Tate Britain – Autumn 2008

It’s possible to pontificate lots on Francis Bacon (and I shall probably try here), but there is a raw, burning intensity in Bacon’s best work that forces an immediate and rapid response. One can walk through this exhibition in twenty minutes and get just as strong as a reaction from the paintings as you could from an hour and a half of measured academic study. Indeed maybe even the charred, dark faces, the contorted flesh, the monstrous teeth are at their most dramatic when seen for the first time – innocent eyes exposed to twenty minutes of compressed horror.

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Francis Bacon, Triptych, 1973, Private Collection

Nevertheless my brain went through some strange mental processes when visiting the Tate’s Bacon blockbuster, and I began thinking of the impressionists.

Like Bacon, the impressionists were creating artifacts that could be easily assimilated by the viewer in a short space of time. For Monet, Sisley and the like, the bright palette and the unambiguous emotional unity give the viewer an immediate visual impact, as do the dimensions of the landscapes; rarely panoramic in scope but based on dimensions the human eye can immediately absorb. Of course, the gentleness of many impressionist works is the polar opposite to Bacon’s emotional register. But the similarity is not in the content, but the way in which the image can be immediately apprehended by the viewer – unlike say work by Velazquez, David or Picasso.

Bacon also shares the impressionists’ lack of interest in telling stories. There is no need for the viewer to decipher expressions and gestures to understand what the painting and its characters are about. This, too, enhances the immediacy. Bacon’s poor sitters are ripped out of their context, their life reduced to flesh, blood, violent unbalanced copulation. Critics (and Bacon himself) have alighted on the cinematic nature of his paintings and certainly the emotional punch has similarities to the effect of the silver screen. But cinema, whilst being dramatic, still demands a narrative around which its characters are wrapped; Bacon does not offer his paintings this context – the genre he develops is very much his own.

The exhibition booklet reminds you that Bacon is a portraitist, and the effect is somewhat jolting – when one thinks of an English portraitist one things of coiffured hair at a Regency club, or an aristocrat surveying his estate with proprietorial pomp. Yet it is useful to bear in mind, for it emphasises how Bacon, like many grandees of twentieth-century art, carves out a space which floats between the inherited traditions of representation (in this case the tradition of the portrait) and the modernist urge towards abstraction. Paint as a tool for representation merges into painting as an end in itself. This gives Bacon’s paintings not only aesthetic weight but also emotional impact.

His portraits struggle to asset their physical appearance. As soon as they make themselves apparent on the canvas they began to become deformed under the weight of being represented on a flattened plane of paint. Extraneous detail in background is eliminated, locking the sitter in the immediate foreground. Thin yellow bars that frequently act as cages jut awkwardly into non-existent space, framing and trapping the sitter. Like Richter’s anonymised portraits, as soon as the character is represented they become lost in the painted surface, the thickened oils scraped along the surface, almost erasing their features.

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Francis Bacon, Study after Velazquez, 1950

The series of Innocent X portraits are the most striking examples. The 1950 Study After Velazquez, painted exactly 350 years after the Spaniard’s stunning papal portrait, shows the pope trapped behind flat grills of paint, his screaming face evaporating into the gloomy darkness; his very identity being wiped out. As the shutters descend downwards on the canvas, they develop into large waves of kinetic energy, as if representing the lifeforce being dragged out of the unfortunate Innocent. Interestingly, these waves also reveal themselves to be folds of a curtain – once can see the curved bar with the rings holding the folds in place. With this motif, a new horror for the sitter is implied – that the curtain can be pulled shut, and the sitter will disappear into the darkness, out of sight, out of mind. It is motif that reoccurs within the exhibition.

Amongst all this pain, there is pleasure too, violent, sensuous pleasure. Bacon takes an arrogant pleasure in these bodies, creating tactile, sculptural forms with large chunks of flesh that one wants to meld and push. Equally the painted surface itself is pleasure, stained solemn backgrounds (the rich colouration of which would not disgrace Rothko’s palette), then tougher scratches, and then the thicker blobs of impasto that construct the bruised faces, only to find themselves flattened out so as to emphasise their entrapment within the frame of the canvas.

Nevertheless it is the immediate visceral horror that predominates – the echoes of the slaughterhouse, the grim torture chamber – the horrific immediacy of it all. And it can’t help but create a certain image of Bacon in your mind – the tortured post-Romantic artist, obsessed with sex, flesh and death, a visionary world documented in layers of paint, with each canvas a failed exorcism of the demons haunting his living hours.

But this exhibition has another angle of interest. Besides the paintings themselves, the Tate also includes the Bacon archive, the massive jumble of papers, documents and images torn or ripped out from newspapers, journals or whatever source Bacon came across. It provides a fascinating and vital gloss to Bacon’s work.

Often these are the rooms the visitor skips through – irrelevant social details in tiny print that require a different mental approach to assimilating the images on view. But here the Bacon archive is stuck almost in the centre of the exhibition, and the mass of material provides a much richer perspective on Bacon the artist; not as an artist that responded solely to his own lone, tortured view of the universe, but one who responded to the wider world around him, soaking up its images, it own ways of seeing. With this, Bacon comes across as a much more calculating, analytic artist, and also one with a broader range of sympathies and concerns.

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Francis Bacon, Pope I – Study after Pope Innocent X by Velazquez, 1951

Parts of the archive provide tiny visual clues – the vaulting in a photograph of some Vatican dignitaries was used as the ghostly outline of a church in the 1951 Pope I – Study after Pope Innocent X by Velazquez. Other parts reveal broader thematic preoccupations. Bacon, for instance, often alighted on laboratory images of animals in caged captivity, or scientific studies of human forms walking or growing over time. This gave him an immense range of source material for the captured and caged sitters in his portraits. Again, some of this is about details – in one or two of Bacon’s paintings there are ghostly echoes of the measuring tape and slide rules that appear in the scientific images. But it also illustrates the obvious resonance for Bacon between scientific and artistic modes of control.

One can see why Bacon had such interest in this genre of documentary images, for it provided him with a pool of visual and intellectual ideas which he could adapt, expand and incorporate. But the curatorial decision to exhibit such work also provides a different emotional context to Bacon’s oeuvre; seeing the Bacon paintings not as only his projections of the artist’s own emotional state, but as desperate stabs at empathy with his sitters, reflecting a world that objectivises under a scientific gaze.

This should not distract from Bacon the painter – what the curators have assembled here is a magnificent roll call of his work – and such paintings still speak with their garbled eloquence whether the contextual evidence is present or not. But we should also be thankful to Tate for exhibiting the Bacon archive; it does a tremendous job in breaking down the Hollywood reflex of thinking of the artists as a tortured genius instinctively responding to the manic visions in his head, and replacing it with a much more human, complex person.

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Filed under Francis Bacon, Modernist Art, Tate Britain