Bringing Home The Bacon

Vulgar, crude, bizarre, grotesque, and provocative: all words used to describe the art of Francis Bacon. As an atheist in the first half of the 20th century, Bacon was a new and controversial thinker of his time. Viewing all humans as meat he believed that crucifixion was ‘just an act of man’s behaviour’. He saw himself as revealing the human predicament, in a godless age, where man is only here for the duration of his life. Furthermore, as an untrained artist, his ambition was for his own form, revealing a unique and rare artist of his generation.

{{ quote By forcing the figures into these psychological spaces, they react and reveal their true vulnerability }}

On entering the Tate Britain, there is an excited yet apprehensive atmosphere as the exhibition doors open. What follows are dark figures juxtaposed with bright backgrounds; black versus orange. An open and screaming mouth with eyes covered and a cloth concealing a body which is not there; rubbed out faces, replaced with open mouths revealing pointed fangs. Bacon’s fixation with the head and its expression is immediately apparent. In Head 1, it is as though the figure has been waiting for death to come and in its final moment it releases its inner, darkest, perverse self. These works epitomise what Bacon does.

The Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X painted in 1953 is one of Bacon’s most famous pieces Velázquez, a seventeenth century Spanish royal painter, and his painting of Pope Innocent X became an obsession for Bacon, one that he shaped and moulded as his own.

In Bacon’s version the Pope, who is normally represented as contained and trite, becomes engulfed with emotion and is seen encaged in an area delineated by white lines, clenching onto the arms of his chair while gasping for air. The brush strokes sweep down, over the figure symbolising cells, creating a prison like effect. All of this ‘staging’ provides the viewer with a sense of the restrictions of inside and outside space.

Bacon described the creation of different confined spaces in these paintings as ‘opening up areas of feeling rather than merely an illustration of an object’. By forcing the figures into these psychological spaces, they react and reveal their true vulnerability. The artist exposes the frailty of the human figure as well as the expression of repressed and violent anxieties. The scream can be interpreted as a reaction against conformity and the pressure of expectations. Playing with convention and order, Bacon provides the Pope with humanity, and in turn reveals the insecurities of his power.

In many of Bacon’s paintings, the transformation of the stern appearance of the original into an expression of terror was widely recognised as a comment on the isolation of modern man. Yet Bacon’s focus extended to animals. He recognised the bestial in humans and drew the connection that both are imprisoned. This is revealed by comparing The Study of a Baboon, 1953 and his perception of Pope Innocent X. Although one sits in a chair and the other in a tree, both are caged, both are shrieking and an air of desperation permeates the paintings. In essence, Bacon is revealing the trappings of civilisation for both man and animal.

The human body is another entity that came to fascinate Bacon. His paintings of human figures have been described as sinister, undignified, distorted, and ravaged. For Bacon this obsession with distortion was created so that he could reach a deeper truth about his subject. It was an attempt to portray the human condition in his terms. Room 8, titled ‘memorial’, is dedicated to George Dyer who was the artist’s closest companion. Dyer committed suicide two days before one of Bacon’s greatest moments- the opening of his exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris. After his death, Bacon was influenced by loss and guilt, and these works were made of Dyer in his memory.

Much of our knowledge of Bacons work has been mediated through his own commentary. He asserted ‘I want an ordered image but I want it to have come about by chance’. While the artist would have us believe that his work was spontaneous, the exhibition reveals an artist who did adhere to some kind of plan. After his death, lists of potential subjects and preparatory drawings were discovered which he had denied making. Drawing inspiration from reproductions, books, magazines and photographs, they came to be Bacon’s main tools for thought. He was an artist who wanted to probe beneath the surface appearance of normal objects and provide new ways of viewing them.

Living as a homosexual and an artist in a time of conformity, tradition and banality, Bacon was seen as breaking through the regularity of every day life and coming to terms with society’s trappings. When the beat generation was rebelling in America, Bacon was challenging conformed roles in England. He was viewed as obscene and crude, shocking many of his viewers. Raymond Mortimer asserted ‘I have no doubt of Mr. Bacon’s uncommon gifts, but these pictures expressing his sense of the atrocious world into which we have survived seem to me symbols of outrage rather than works of art’. While opinions like Mortimer’s were prevalent, Bacon continued to break through the surface and the propriety of every day life to reveal truth, ugliness, blood, and horror. This is what vitalises his work and continues to encourage others to question tradition and conformity in its path.


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