'Bacon and the Mind' is the first in a new series by the Francis Bacon Estate, delving deep into Bacon's life and work to explore his relationship with memory, mind and trauma.
The first in a new series inaugurated by the Francis Bacon Estate, Bacon and the Mind sheds fresh light on one of Britain’s most revered, intricate, and shocking modern painters. Five essays from scholars of art, psychoanalysis, clinical psychology, and neuro-aesthetics delve deep into Bacon’s life and work, offering new ideas and original perspectives on his visceral exploration of memory, sensibility, and trauma.
“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”.
“If I go into a butcher’s shop I always think it’s surprising that I wasn’t there instead of the animal.”
Bacon’s interest in vulnerability often found expression in haunted hybrid creatures, neither human nor animal, but rather, in the words of clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst Steve Jarron, a “zoomorphic coming into being”. The artist owned several books of animal imagery and was fascinated by Muybridge’s chronophotography of the movement of deformed animals as well as pictures of animals about to be slaughtered. Several Bacon figures are endowed with bovine, equine, ape-like, or canine characteristics, from the long, horse-like necks and square teeth in Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion to the primate squat which recurs in Figure Crouching and Portrait of George Dyer Crouching (below). There’s no particular evidence that Bacon liked animals, says Jarron, but much indication that he experienced a “profound empathy” with them as fellow creatures in an inexorable cycle of life and death. “Throughout his life, Francis Bacon remained preoccupied, deeply troubled, even, by the absoluteness of birth, as well as that of sexuality and death.”
You can learn more with Bacon and the Mind: Art, Neuroscience and Psychology, the first in a new Thames and Hudson series of books that seeks to illuminate Francis Bacon’s art and motivations, published under the aegis of the Estate of Francis Bacon.
Words by Eliza Apperly