To the extent that Bacon’s works have been read philosophically, such readings have tended to move in one of two directions: towards a version of existentialism or towards the reading of Bacon put forward by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. On the existentialist reading (now perhaps the most clichéd of all philosophical approaches to Bacon), the artists’ work is understood to deal primarily with the ‘horror’ and ‘absurdity’ of post-War existence. Works such as Head VI (1949) and Study for a Portrait (1949) are taken to present ‘extreme situations’, evoking the claustrophobia, abandonment and despair found in existentialist texts such as Sartre’s Huis Clos. According to one commentator, ‘the screams and cries that many of Bacon’s figures emit can […] be viewed as [arising from a] confrontation [with] the primal horror of existence’. Moreover, Bacon is said to present the spectator with a Godless world; or more specifically, his painting provides a ‘visual representation of the death of God’ – evidenced by the fact that traditional theological symbols such as the Pope and the crucified Christ become, in the artist’s hands, subjects of ‘ridicule and subversion’. Such a reading is, without a doubt, helped along by Bacon himself, who, in his famous interviews with David Sylvester, often adopts a kind of existentialist register:
I think that man now realizes that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without reason. I think that, even when Velasquez was painting, even when Rembrandt was painting, in a peculiar way they were still, whatever their attitude to life, slightly conditioned by certain types of religious possibilities, which man now, you could say, has had completely cancelled out for him. Now, of course, man can only attempt to make something very, very positive by trying to beguile himself for a time by the way he behaves, by prolonging possibly his life by buying a kind of immortality through the doctors. You see, all art has now become completely a game by which man distracts himself.
Bacon is, however, no existentialist painter (whatever that might mean). If existentialism turns absurdity and meaninglessness into a kind of universal doctrine, then Bacon’s work simply takes it literally – often, we should say, to the point of parody. At the same time, Bacon’s paintings are not ‘about’ alienation or despair; they are not attempts to say anything philosophical about the so-called condition humaine. Rather than articulating a ‘message’, Bacon’s whole artistic enterprise – at least as he conceives of it – is concerned with unlocking ‘sensation’; with bringing the image – usually a distorted re-working of a photograph or a film still – directly and violently onto the beholder’s ‘nervous system’. As he puts it, paraphrasing the writer Paul Valéry, ‘I want […] to give the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance.’
1. Robert Hughes, ‘Horrible!’, The Guardian, August 30, 2008. [accessed 19/11/2019]
2. See, for example, David Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1987), p. 43.
3. Rina Arya, ‘The Existential Dimensions of Bacon’s Art’, in Francis Bacon: Critical and Theoretical Perspectives (Oxford: Lang, 2012),
4. Ibid., pp. 100 & 92.
5. Sylvester, Brutality of Fact, p. 29.
6. Ibid., p. 58.
7. Ibid., p. 65.