The Art of Francis Bacon
Bacon Not Stirred: A short essay born of an exhibition visit.
The notion that you need a huge cache of second-hand knowledge, along with the acquired language of art-speak, to appreciate works of art is convenient for institutions charging upwards of £9,000 a year for such second-hand knowledge, as well as the owners of the latest definitions, but otherwise it’s inverted taxi-driver bollox.
In fact, a solid case could be made for the opposite: that people are less well equipped to judge the individual merits of a work if they come to the game burdened with too much curricula, because art theory is akin to a controlled diet, which can strip away your faculty for criticism – best if tha’ comes wi’ vision untaint’d, lass.
The Francis Bacon Exhibition at Tate Britain some years ago, provided a good opportunity; not so much to put this notion to the test, as exercise that very freedom, because, apart from one newspaper article in the run up to the exhibition, I’d read nothing of Francis Bacon – never seen a painting in the raw and had only a sketchy knowledge of his work.
Nor am I schooled in the endless isms by spouting ists. But I do enjoy looking at and reacting to art, which presumably is what the makers of it intended?
The one article I did read about Bacon (in the Observer) quoted Damien Hirst as saying that the quality of Francis Bacon’s work with a brush forced him to give up painting. When I visited Hirst’s subsequent exhibition of paintings, ‘No Love Lost’, (more about that another time) I saw why – for the sake of posterity he should’ve let fools keep their money and stayed dormant.
I can only speak as a writer (photography doesn’t count), but I doubt reading William Blake or Vassily Grossman has stopped any wordsmith from being what he is by a combination of birth and graft, even if the market is stacked heavily against him in favour of those who merely draw up sentences on demand (or have others do it in their name). As genius is born into individual skin, not man-made, this revealing statement says less about what Damien Hirst is than what he is not. It further suggests that his eye was always focussed on profiting from the main chance, rather than toiling towards the walls of history.
If you missed it, the Tate Bacon exhibition was spread across ten themed rooms and a preliminary scoot revealed a spectacular array of Bacon’s work, with adequate notes at the entrance to each room to help us plebs form a learnedly lazy opinion.
Simon Schama recently described The Black Triptych as being ‘among the most profound things ever painted by anyone in this century.’
Perhaps it is. Or maybe the paucity of truly inspired work over this period – inspired above and beyond self-indulgence – allows us to project profundity into places where the profound does not live.
‘His approach was to distort appearance to reach a deeper truth about his subjects‘, read a note in the ‘Portrait’ room.
Is this profundity? Or the kind of art-speak shite that should never be left unchallenged, but invariably is?
How is it possible to reach a deeper truth about anything through distortion?
This is like trying to find lyrical meaning in a randomly assembled David Bowie or New Order lyric, or mysticism through strong skunk weed or acid (ask Paul and Ringo), when the clear truth is you can’t―only clarity clarifies. This is especially true in the highest art of the written word, where the clarity of a Dostoievsky or a Montaigne tramples the fashionably vague into the dusts of time, and the mysteries of the most spellbinding poetry is cast out by famously clear minds.
Isabel Rawsthorne & Henrietta Moraes
Bacon’s Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne is quietly amusing, and in the ‘Lying Figure’ of a naked Henrietta Moraes, she has been stuck with a syringe, which Bacon informs us ‘simply fixed the image down’, though having been so heavily bitchered by Unsaint Francis she doubtless needed a dig of morphine to kill her pain.
Francis does distort well, but then so does Photoshop and a convex mirror. In fact some of Bacon’s studies for portraits, including his self-portraits, look like in-camera multiple exposures, or Photoshop filters in the hands of someone who can’t wait to try them all out.
George Dyer bikes back
Bacon did numerous studies of George Dyer and Francis twists and distorts poor George with the relish of one who, well…who loves to twist and distort. Like much of Bacon’s work, his doings of Dyer stem from the shallow pool of (clippings and) photographs, and the painting entitled George Dyer Riding a Bicycle is a spectacular piece of enslavement. As Bacon wills Dyer along the road to nowhere, George peers forlornly from within the frenzy of movement in which he is trapped, making uneasy viewing for any kindly viewer who might feel the urge to set him free.
For me, George Dyer’s ride to nowhere is Bacon’s star turn. Although most of Bacon’s efforts are wilfully disfigured, George’s bike ride is different. I doubt wilful Bacon surrendered willingly, but in this painting George Dyer makes a last stand and the subject conquers the hand of the master, effectively forging a life beyond art-captivity and George achieves an uncomfortable relevance in the viewer’s midst.
Alas, a tired ‘In Memory of George Dyer’ is from the same photograph by John Deakin―and shows all the lifelessness of a distorted painting of a photograph.
Bacon appears to have lived in twilight, and the shadows are where he works best. He is at home in the mess of his studio and the parched gene pool of his subjects, and grand literature cannot be contained beneath such a low ceiling. This makes his implied love of T.S. Eliot hard to fathom, because Francis never looks beyond and above.
‘Birth, copulation and death’ may well have echoed the painter’s view of life, but it did not echo Tom Eliot’s.
I cannot relate to any of the later works, which seem to me entirely commercial enterprises and the busying of an old body groping over old grind. So whilst at the Tate I wandered back to the old old ground of his Portrait of Pope Innocent X, ‘The Screaming Pope’. This forms part of the body of his most famous and ferocious works, and the noise of Bacon’s intensity assault’s the eye drums from the outset.
But what I’d really gone back to view were the bars and frames he imposes on these earlier works. To my eyes these are manifestations of a restraining order on humanity, which Bacon grasps in a vague, worldy sort of way, though neither he nor his art can struggle free of them. These cages have a futuristic whiff of formaldehyde, too, as Bacon unrips the human form. But too much of the human condition eludes the aptly named Bacon and he finds nothing inside, except his own butchering hand; along with the blood and guts that figure in many archived clippings, and which he plays with in cold view of a detached retina.
The Crucifixion – Quid est Veritas?
Francis Bacon’s take on The Crucifixion gets nailed to no higher a plane than the abattoir – the cage in which Francis chooses to exist bars him entry to the realm of the non-physical. This his Crucifixion is the antithesis of Ribera’s best efforts, because Francis either doesn’t know there’s another domain or – more likely – he doesn’t want in: as with Picasso, the gifted surrender of humility is not of his world.
Like much bad religious art, Bacon sees the Crucifixion as ‘just an act of man’s behaviour’. Rather than lend his brush to the heart of the matter, he subordinates it to appetite or ego, and by inflicting the abattoir he reveals the limitations of the cage and no transfiguration takes place.
Graham Greene once wrote that writing was the best kind of therapy and that he didn’t know how people who didn’t have this safety valve survived. Bacon had a brush in place of a pen, but the outcome is a kind of botched exorcism, in which Bacon fails to rid himself of his demons and the spreading of paint only manages to expand his shadowy innards across the canvas.
His failure to feel deeply forbids him entry to a place that would’ve tested his ability to the full and taken him out of his self-inflicted comfort zone, rather than gorging on his own entrails – what for others might’ve borne the fruits of a labour of love always turns into a messy wank in Bacon’s hand(s).
But this only makes Francis less of a visionary, not less of a spreader of paint, and as Wanker’s go, he is one of the very best.
There is a marvellous Bacon interview on the BBC website (scroll down the page), from 1965 (produced by Melvyn Bragg), in which Julian Webb gargles with a mouthful of marbles as he encourages Bacon to demonstrate just why he paints (as opposed to more precise methods of communication).
‘The great recording of fact today can only be made through accidents…out of which he (the painter) finally chooses the marks’.
One of the best demonstrations of the muddying effects of ‘profound’ art-speak bollocks I’ve ever seen/heard.