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Essay: Dr Ben Ware on the Works of Francis Bacon

Posted on 15 Jan 2020

Read the first half of Dr Ben Ware's essay on how we can interpret Bacon’s art philosophically.

© The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2019.

Dr Ben Ware (Editor of Painting, Philosophy and Psychoanalysis) is the Co-Director of the Centre for Philosophy and the Visual Arts at King’s College London, as well as the Philosopher in Residence at the Serpentine Galleries, London. This is the first half of Ware’s essay on how we can interpret Bacon’s art philosophically.

Confronting one of Francis Bacon’s canvases, the first emotion felt by the spectator will no doubt be a combined sense of bewilderment and disorientation. What are we to make of the sucked-in and brutalised faces, the bulging and contorted bodies, and the large fields of colour which enframe the deconstructed figures? The paintings are clearly important – in 2008, on the eve of a MET centenary retrospective, the critic Robert Hughes described Bacon as ‘the toughest, the most implacable, lyric artist in late 20th-century England, perhaps in all the world’[1] – but how should we begin to read them? Can these distorted and troubling images even be read at all?

Bacon is certainly not an ‘abstract’ painter, as some critics have argued. Indeed, Bacon himself hated abstraction, describing a room of Rothko paintings at the Tate as ‘depressing’ and ‘the most dreary paintings that have ever been made’. He is, as he says in numerous interviews, a ‘figurative painter’; but at the same time, he clearly breaks with conventional figuration, elevating the figure to a new level of disconcerting prominence, depicting the human body in a permanent state of discomfort or agony. Bacon’s figures-in-pain are, however, not damaged by war, disease or torture: they are ordinary bodies in ordinary situations – friends or lovers sitting on chairs or reclining on beds. It is the artist himself, therefore, who inflicts the injury: a violence which bespeaks a complex and contradictory relation towards the subject – a simultaneous tenderness and hostility. As Oscar Wilde famously remarked (and Bacon himself quoted): ‘Each man kills the thing he loves’.[2]

© The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2019.

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’.[3] 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’.[4] 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.[5]

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’.[6] As he puts it, paraphrasing the writer Paul Valéry, ‘I want […] to give the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance.’[7]

References.

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),
p. 89.
4. Ibid., pp. 100 & 92.
5. Sylvester, Brutality of Fact, p. 29.
6. Ibid., p. 58.
7. Ibid., p. 65.

 

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