“A visual shock”
Bacon, whose first US exhibition was described in Time Magazine as a ‘chamber of horrors’, famously told Melvyn Bragg on The South Bank Show that he wanted to give a ‘shock …not a shock that you could get from the story [but] a visual shock.’ For scholars in neuro-aesthetics, Semir Zeki and Tomohiro Ishizu, Bacon achieved this assault by subverting the brain’s inherited concepts of what bodies and faces should look like. In visual perception, faces and bodies occupy a very privileged position, helping us navigate identity and emotions through our interactions with others. Bacon’s figures remain holistic enough to be recognized as heads and bodies say Zeki and Ishizu, but with gross aberrations of scale, symmetry, and surface that register as a threat in our face-recognition system and activate subcortical brain areas associated with disgust and fear. “He violated and subverted the brain template for registering faces and bodies, leading to an almost universal experience of his portraits and bodies as disturbing.”
“The greatest art always returns you to the vulnerability of the human situation”.
Over nearly half a century, Bacon projected himself into an art history of suffering. From Cimabue’s crucifixion to the horrified nanny in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, vestiges of a visual tradition of pain imprint his painting — sometimes explicitly, sometimes allusively, sometimes – apparently – unknowingly. Of particular interest is his assimilation of the iconography of Saint Sebastian. In Head II, 1949 and Figure at a Wash Basin, drawn arrows honing in on the subject seem to echo those that pierce the martyred saint. In Two Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer, 1968 (below), two arrow-like blind cords dart down above the seated Dyer with similar effect. In the background, five nails pin his image to a black wall. There is a fascination with “porosity” suggests painter and writer Christopher Bucklow, a poignant feeling for the “damaged body”, and with it the “injured state of the inner figure”.