It is hard to recapture the existentialist aura that surrounded Bacon's imagery in postwar Europe: the comparisons with Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, the references to the Blitz and the horrors of Auschwitz; the grandiose overreadings and philosophical generalizations that his work almost inevitably attracted in the '50s and early '60s. Yet, another reading of these early paintings is also possible. The first work of Bacon's that I really got to know well was one in the series of variations on Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1650, which was best represented in the Pompidou show by Study for Portrait, VII, 1953. Now generally condemned as "too obvious" or "too illustrative," it seemed at the time that, far from being an image of generalized postwar angst, the papal portrait constituted an exemplum virtutis of sardonic concreteness. Despite the usual reading of the pope's open mouth as a sign of existential nausea - universal scream on the order of Edvard Munch's famous image - I always read it, in the Vassar version with which I was familiar at any rate, Study for Portrait, IV, 1953, as a sneeze, which reduced the papal being, or rather, Velazquez's famous image of Innocent X, to a modern photo-op, the pope's partially covered mouth agape in a vigorous and nonexistential kerchoo. In Bacon's portrait, temporal immediacy and mere physical reflex wittily undermine the pictorial effects of hierarchy and permanence. And this not merely in the captured gesture, but in the very transparency of the physical substance of the image itself, its reality as a chance instant enhanced by the neat lines of gold that encase the quivering papal form.
Almost from the beginning, Bacon's work has been engaged with temporality, making, at the very least, a flirtation with narration almost unavoidable. Or one might say, more accurately, that Bacon's imagery, his considerable formal gifts and his technical bravura have been harnessed to change - sexual struggle, the metamorphosis of man into meat, or vice versa; the disruption or coagulation of the structure of face and body, the blatant reduction of the dignity of human form to a trickle or a puddle of paint; and, at the end, time's grimmest depredation, the horror, bestiality, and meaninglessness of death. His whole oeuvre, with rare exceptions, can be seen as a gigantic figure of meiosis, a rhetorical belittlement of the human condition, except that, as Lawrence Alloway pointed out many years ago, it so often makes reference and aspires to the Grand Manner of traditional High Art: Velazquez, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Degas. Yet such references are always ironized, pulled to earth by the intervention of more "factual" imagery - photography, most explicitly Eadweard Muybridge's series of the human figure in motion, medical illustrations, movie stills, snapshots - and also by the artist's furious yet controlled will to debasement, his stated wish to create painting which, in its very materiality, its lack of idealism or transcendence might touch the nervous system directly.
As early as 1953, Bacon turned to one of his most obsessively reiterated subjects: men engaged in sex. Although the famous Two Figures of that date, "one of the most provocative homosexual images of our epoch," according to Daniel Farson is not included in the Pompidou show, the equally innovative Two Figures in the Grass, 1954, is. Here, Muybridge's photograph of two wrestlers serves as the basis of a hallucinatory image of intercourse. The men seem to be going at it in a kind of grass-covered boxing ring (another reference to wrestling, perhaps?), and the fragile and activated substance of the nude figures seems almost to merge with the windblown grass carpet on which they lie. These spasms of passion are bordered by a stark black band at the bottom of the canvas and something that looks like pleated curtains above.
Although Bacon certainly was drawn more frequently to the male nude than to the female variety, he nevertheless created several important paintings of nude women, most notably the 1970 triptych Studies of the Human Body, which featured three sculptural and voluptuously mutilated figures posed on a kind of ramp-armature against a flat, continuous, mauvish pink background, the central, frontal figure incongruously haloed by a large bottle-green umbrella. No less striking, Lying Figure, 1969, was based on a series of photographs depicting Henrietta Moraes naked on a bed. In the painting, the model is presented head down, legs up, her head and face aggressively eradicated by bold swishes of paint, her arm nailed to the bed by an extremely businesslike syringe, whose presence Bacon explains as a kind of formal and iconographic necessity: "I included the syringe not because she was injecting herself with drugs, but because it is less stupid than putting a nail through her arm, which would have been even more melodramatic." The uptilted figure, offered to the spectator as though on a tray, is surrounded on the one hand by a series of sordid, realistic details - an ashtray, cigarette butts, a light switch, a bare lightbulb - and then, as though to deny the reality of the setting, by almost abstract circular forms like that of the striped mattress, the blue appendages of the bed, the yellow oblique oval of the "light" in the background.
It was in the late '60s and the '70s that Bacon created his great triptychs, not all of them successful but many of them powerful and disturbingly original. According to Gilles Deleuze, in Francis Bacon: Logique de la sensation (Francis Bacon: the logic of sensation, 1981), the triptych form enabled the artist to engage with the human figure without being drawn into the conventional storytelling mode. "It's not only that the painting is an isolated reality, and not only that the triptych consists of three isolated panels and the fundamental rule that they never be united into a single frame: it's rather that the Figure itself is isolated in the painting. . . . And Bacon has often told us why: in order to avoid the figurative, illustrative, and narrative character that the Figure would necessarily assume if it weren't in isolation." In one of the most memorable of the great triptychs of the '70s, Triptych, May-June 1973, Bacon is, however, less set than usual on staving off demon narrative. Here, contrary to Deleuze's assertion that the triptych form serves an isolating function, it seems to me that the images beg to be read as a story, from left to right. And the story, at once personal and melodramatic, is riveting: the suicide (right before the opening of a major retrospective of Bacon's work in 1971-72 at the Grand Palais in Paris) of the artist's lover, George Dyer, at the Hotel des Saint-Peres. Here, the ignoble furniture of daily recuperation - the toilet, the sink - become the instruments of Dyer's Passion. To the left, he shits; to the right, he vomits; to the center, he hovers against the black background which is transmuted into a giant shadow, his shadow. In the opaque darkness, death itself assumes the form, however inchoate, of a giant bat, a demon, a revenging angel. Sex, death, and the throes of creation are at one here, as Jean-Claude Lebensztejn points out in his brilliant catalogue essay, an extensive analysis of the recurrent squirt of white paint streaking across the surface of many of Bacon's most intense canvases of the period. Figured as a kind of materialized sexual spasm, a jet of sperm, the white spurts up in the final, right-hand images of the triptych, in which Dyer, who has overdosed, spews his soul into the hotel washbasin.
One may ask: Why this persistent "fear of narrative," permeating not only Bacon's own statements about his work, but most of the critical analyses of his work both pro and con? Almost everyone who has discussed Bacon - most prominently Deleuze - hastens to defend the artist from charges of illustrativeness, jumping in with an account of his antinarrative strategies, strategies in which the format of the triptych, the isolation of the human figure, and the patent flatness of the pictorial siting play an important role. This defensiveness is understandable enough in the heady days of Abstract Expressionism (which Bacon ostensibly hated but which obviously exerted a certain seductive power on his formal language), an era when "illustration" and "decoration" figured as the two sides of artistic failure. Nevertheless, nobody really explains just why illustration and narration are such terrible sins, temptations to be avoided at all costs. After all, British art, from Hogarth to the pre-Raphaelites and later, has had a considerably positive engagement with narration - and with narration in the service of morality at that. Perhaps that is why Bacon and his supporters have been particularly avid to separate the artist from this tradition, to make sure that he is seen and judged as a player in the game of International Modernism, as a painter whose formal inventiveness and up-to-date anguish sever his work completely from all connection with the fuddy-duddy past of pre-Roger Fry and pre-Clive Bell British achievement.
Finally, it would be interesting to compare some of Bacon's late, kinky, often campy male nudes, such as Study of the Human Body, 1982 - a rearview torso, isolated against a reddish-orange background, adorned with cricket pads, no less - with Warhol's extensive repertory of the same subject created at almost the same time. The Bacon-Warhol comparison is never attempted, but should be taken seriously. Bacon's male nudes, though less deadpan, share with Warhol's an equivocal delight in the body, a fascination with the seductiveness of technical finesse, and with the scars of an incorrigible materialism.
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|Title Annotation:||retrospective of painter's works at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, France|
|Date:||Oct 1, 1996|
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