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Displace Complacency in Viewers Essay

Artist Francis Bacon, quintessential rebel without a cause, was born in Ireland on October 28, 1909 to an overly conservative and equally domineering horse-trader, Edward Bacon. From all accounts his mother, Christine Firth’s manner was as friendly as his father’s was acerbic. Edward Bacon, no longer in possession of the family title Lord of Oxford, traced his linage directly back to the famed Elizabethan scientist Sir Francis Bacon.

His mother, also well-placed, hailed from a wealthy family though Bacon’s childhood was characterized by his immediate family’s lack of it (wealth). In fact, Bacon’s father took a job with the War Department and in 1914 moved the family back and forth between London and Dublin with regularity. This resulted in Bacon’s sketchy and rather unconventional education. That is to say it was not a formal one, especially as he spent considerable time with his maternal grandmother. An interesting woman, it turns out, who it seems was embarking on a fourth marriage prior to her death.

This grandmother yielded, in a manner of speaking, the first of what remains constant in Bacon’s life, a brush with a strange character who provides him with endless opportunity to study the foibles of human nature. Alongside the grandmother was great-uncle Charles Mitchell, who painted after the Pre-Raphaelite tradition and first introduced Bacon to art. Then there was Charles’ wife who rented castles which she subsequently invited the entire family to stay in, including Bacon, and on one occasion refurbished the interior of a London townhouse entirely with black marble.

As a member of a family given to eccentric behavior Bacon grew to adulthood where strange passed for normal. An equal sense of strangeness characterized Bacon’s young adulthood after an argument with his father in 1926 resulted in his leaving home. It seems Bacon’s unconventional penchant for trying on his mother’s undergarments offended his very conventional father. At this point Bacon became something of a drifter and according to John Russell, friend and biographer, never really settled.

His intent seemed to do nothing of significance while associating with a disreputable and by turn’s dissolute crowd in Ireland. In 1928 he began to drift internationally, leaving Ireland for Berlin and Pre-Nazi Germany for Paris, France. By 1929 Bacon returned to London and had some insignificant showings in 1933 and 1934. As an artist of note, his career’s beginning coincides with a showing of his work in 1945. Up till that time Bacon was what Russell calls “Marginal Man personified” (“Francis Bacon” 19); meaning he espoused no ambitions, followed no followings and painted no paintings.

Ineffective as a soldier due to asthma and eventually to ill to continue in the ARP rescue service, Bacon resumed painting upon discharge, completing the works shown in 1945. Bacon lived a full life, yet one full of tragedy. His death in 1992 in Madrid, Spain had been preceded with years of creating expressionistic art from the 1940s into the 1990s; the tragic suicide of his lover George Dyer in 1970, before a showing; and the death of many of his loved ones over the next twenty years. In fact, Russell describes Bacon’s portrait work as a means of preserving friends he would shortly lose.

His portraits, by no means the sum of his work show concern with how the human form reflected the human condition, a painful state from which he believed true beauty began. Always himself a work in progress and the product of some of the twentieth century’s most violent episodes, Bacon’s work reflects a concern with evolution beyond some tragic, even cataclysmic event as symbolized by his triptychs and three studies. As well as a fascination with the latent animalistic savagery in men which gave rise to his earlier work, often fraught with slaughterhouse imagery.

Over time, during the 1950s and 1960s, Bacon’s work contained less sensational imagery but always displayed a violence imprinted upon the artist experiences from the Irish Civil War of 1922 and the break up of Sinn Fein, WWI and WWII in addition to air raids over London which he personally experienced. In a word Bacon’s imagery is nightmarish and never more so than in the earlier works which contain such horrific imagery that they must truly express the feelings engendered in war survivors.

Michel Leiris, a friend of Bacon’s, describes beauty in a manner applicable to Bacon’s untitled work Painting 1946: “‘what constitutes beauty is not the confrontation of opposites but the mutual antagonism of those opposites, and the active and vigorous manner in which they invade one another and emerge from the conflict marked as if by a wound or a depredation’” (Russell, John. 1993. page 89). Painting 1946 is beautiful in the manner that Leiris describes with opposing images of hot reds, pinks and warm browns with cool blues, blacks and whites.

In it are concerns which reoccur in Bacon’s later works, especially those of war, meat and the dictator. These are depicted alongside other images of which Bacon displayed fondness: “tubular furniture, a red Turkey carpet, blinds with their dangling cords, the seated figure, the two sides of beef that form a crucified figure and the umbrella image borrowed from the surrealists (page 25-26). The pale red walls bring to mind blood-covered tiles which stained instead of washing clean.

And cords dangling from dark pink blinds suggest blood dripped from them all over the lower crimson, maroon, brown and black half of the canvas. In fact, the slaughterhouse image is carried further by the hanging beef carcass. The black suited figure in front of the carcass and at the left center of the painting contrasts with the red room, its umbrella covered head exposes a yawning shark-like mouth above a conventional white collar with black tie and yellow carnation in pocket.

Draped across the top of the canvas is what appears entrails of some unknown creature, its loops and curves echoed in the tubular furniture at the bottom, Straight rails embraced by curved. Laid out before the black-clothed figure is one split carcass, hovering parallel to the rails and a multi-colored red carpet. Bacon’s grotesque, “charnel-house” images appear in huge form, on a canvas measuring 78 x 52 (198 x 132). His choice of medium has the texture-less appearance of watercolor, and lacks the gloss and shine usually associated with oil and tempura on canvas.

In fact, the paint seems to lack a presence. Yes, it adds depth of color and oil and tempura can; however, any texture originates from the images rather than the manner of paint application to canvas. The black-clothed figure and split beef carcass compete for the focal point. But there is a circular flow to the canvas that pulls the viewer from the focal point up to the garland-like entrails draped across the top of the canvas. The eyes move down to capture the blinds and follow the dangling cord to the perpendicular tableau of additional split carcass, tubular furniture and red Turkey carpet.

The work is very expressionistic, particularly after the style of Matisse with the fauvist walls, their dimensions lost to uniform color and the carpeted floor like one large multi-colored plane. The amount of color in Painting 1946 pulsates with violence as much related to Bacon’s palette choices as the manner in which they are used. The entire canvas is awash with red, the color of wounds, rage, and bloodlust. At the very heart of this massive work of bloodletting, the black-clothed figure, a dictator and ultimately a figure of depravity, a shark with a giant maw of razor sharp teeth.

Over his head is a surrealistic umbrellas\, adding to the figure’s funereal aspect and reminding viewers of his similarity to the grim reaper. Behind him are the results of his work, the crucifixion made of split beef carcass. Before him lies another carcass. Bacon’s Painting 1946 clearly expresses the violence and despair left in the wake of two world wars. But more important it advances rather telling social commentary, passing judgment on the society which enabled dictators to gain power. It also speaks to the society willing to sweep the horrors of the two world wars under the proverbial rug.

In the case of the former anyone could be the black-clothed figure, careless enablers of dictators. With regard to the latter the painting shocks them out of complacency, reminding viewers that the horrors of Guernica, the Zeppelin air raids and most important Auschwitz were factual. From Bacon’s perspective people were all too often willing to become complacent. He on the other hand never wished to acquiesce to the superficial and sought to depict something with depth. His portraits, the form his work often took, best expressed Bacon’s intentions for a painting.

His friend Michel Leiris called them “‘mythic translations of our inward structure which move us to the extent to which they throw light on ourselves while at the same time resolving our contradictions in a harmony not to be found elsewhere’” (89). His Study for Portrait of John Edwards 1989 is a series of three: two black, white and grey paintings and one in color. In the former monochromatic images, subject John Edwards is blurry in the first, animalistic in the second. The color painting seems to blend the two in terms of conveying facial features and the subject’s pose.

Yet in the color painting Bacon’s fondness for red carpets, seated figures, tubular furniture and the senses that there is a blind somewhere, reappear. It is also worth noting that Bacon’s three Studies for Portraiture of John Edwards 1989 show an evolution in the subject from suited figure to a dichotomous figure with one half still clothed in a suit he is bursting from. And the other half in what appears to be a work-shirt with a t-shirt underneath. This figure finally emerges as the casually dressed figure in the last painting.

An insouciant figure in an unbuttoned white shirt and casual shorts, chin in hand, legs crossed and in deep though or light repose. As with all portraits the focal point is clear, the figure and with the first two studies Bacon illustrates the complexities informing the final study. The first monochromatic study is a blurred rendering of the subjects face and it is worth nothing that the subject’s face is the only distorted object. Likely, Bacon created the effect on canvas and the texture suggests the use of acrylics.

The source of light in the painting highlights two-thirds of the subjects face while throwing the other one-third into shadow. It has the overall aspect of chiaroscuro. The same holds true for the second monochromatic study which is more expressionistic than the first, even cubist as the subject’s head takes on the extra dimensions with the metamorphosis or rather the manifestation upon canvas of the artists deeper examination of his subject. The color painting and culmination of the two monochromatic images is the most expressionistic with is fauvist use of color where dimension is lost to chromatic application.

The use of color: black, burgundy and pale ochre frame the figure in the chair. As with the previous studies, the light still rests upon the same portions of the subject’s face as do the shadows. Everywhere is Bacon’s resolution of contrasts: the black portion at the top with the pale ochre lower half; the pale ochre as it surround the strip of burgundy; the burgundy with the figure it frames, the white shirt of the figure with the black fabric of the chair; the black fabric with the blonde wood of the chair; and the subjects skin with his attire, the chair and framing colors.

This portrait of contrasts manifests as the ideology informing Bacon’s technique. Traditional portraiture does not allow for the full expression of a portrait’s subject, hence the monochromatic studies which evolve into the chromatic study. The first study shows the artists own uncertainty about his subject’s true nature and the second study is a closer look. It reveals a latent animalistic side of the subject: playful monkey/violently criminal ape. The playful monkey is bursting from the remnants of the suit from the first study, sharing that form is a darker side dressed in what appears to be institutional garb, suggesting a prison inmate.

The duality disappears into the lounging figure of the third painting, a more complete rendering of the subject. In essence Bacon captures the true person “tearing to pieces his friends [in order] to ‘record the facts of them more clearly’” (86). As with all his work, Bacon’s intent is to violently disturb his viewers out of any sense of complacency, whether the violence is done to the subject of a portrait or is the subject of a painting.

Works Cited

Russell, John. Francis Bacon. Revised edition. Thames and Hudson Inc: New York. 1993. Bibliography Browness, Alan. Modern European Art. Thames and Hudson Inc: New York. 1995.


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