From Francis Bacon to Francis Bacon: The Slice of Life

Curator's Note

The work of British artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992) stands as one of the exemplars of modern art’s dissolution of the human figure. Many of Bacon’s portraits offer a glimpse of the human as a riven by external forces, with impetuous paint strokes used to render bodies like meat finely cleaved and oozing out of the viscous porosity of the flesh.

Why, if indeed Bacon’s work conjures up such grotesque images of human dissolution, does it continue to command the attention of so many, especially amongst those of us whose lives appear, by contrast, to be ostensibly governed by civility and orderliness? I submit that our fascination with work of Francis Bacon the artist may be read genealogically from our existential situation in societies ruled by the methods put forward by an earlier Francis Bacon (1561-1626), better known as the "father" of the modern scientific method.

According to the earlier Bacon, human understanding of the world should be reoriented to the rational inquiry of particular problems without recourse to substantive meanings that may have existed prior to the inquiry. Yet as Jatinder Bajaj points out, although such notions as good and evil are eliminated, the Baconian method subjects knowledge to a new ethos: power. For Bacon, "there is a most intimate connection between the ways of human power and human knowledge." Put simply, knowledge should bring greater control or, in modern parlance, management.

In time, this Baconian worldview would serve not only as paradigmatic for the natural sciences, but also as the foundation of modern approaches for the government of social life. From this point, it is not difficult to establish a genealogy between the work of the earlier to that of the later Francis Bacon: the proliferation of knowledges in the human sciences–behavioural, economical, criminological, sexual, etc.–has also meant the multiplication of powers acting upon persons, managing the ever more divisible parts of existence like the escalloped pieces of meat in Bacon’s paintings juxtaposed with the figures, which are rendered translucent under the scrutiny of knowledgeable gazes and leaky from their multiple penetrations.

Perhaps, then, the enduring allure of Francis Bacon’s art owes not so much to its obsession with decay and death as in its uncovering of our modern, ordered and civil lives as that which is truly morbid.

Comments

Nedda Ahmed's picture

Paying a Premium for Death & Decay

Thanks for getting the week started, Remy!

I think it’s interesting to note that a triptych of Bacon’s paintings—portraits of fellow British painter Lucian Freud—sold at record prices late last year: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/13/arts/design/bacons-study-of-freud-sells-for-more-than-142-million.html?_r=0.

The NYT piece on the Sotheby’s auction (where the triptych was sold) highlights the spectacle that art sales have also become: dramatic bidding wars, mystery buyers, and over-the-top, record-breaking sale prices.

Greg Blair's picture

Abject Bacon

Remy, This is really great stuff! Reading your posting also made me think of Kristeva’s theory of the abject (http://www.cla.purdue.edu/english/theory/psychoanalysis/kristevaabject.html) in relation to Bacon’s paintings. Perhaps they have a sublime quality, simultaneously repulsing and attracting us. Perhaps they make us question our civil lives as well as the wholeness of our subjectivity and identity. These paintings seem to reveal the fragmented, contingent, and temporal nature of individual subjectivity, as they oscillate between being horrific and fascinating.

Heather Lusty's picture

Existential literalism

Interesting connections. I wonder how much artists’ perspective on the literal carnage of war influenced renderings of the human body. Otto Dix’s WWI drawings distort the human figure to represent pain and anguish (http://detectivefiction.wiki.nhvweb.net/WWI+Art), (http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2013/11/5/1383...); Boccioni’s futurism uses the same color palate and geometrically configured human figures (http://www.phistars.com/2013/05/umberto-boccioni-1882-1916-italian.html). It seems that perceptions of the body and mortality shift from spiritual representations of death to more literal depictions in the mid twentieth century.

Being towards death and decay

Thanks for your insightful and thought-provoking comments!

@Nedda: Thanks for bringing that up! The sale of that Bacon work was one of the triggers that got me thinking about the allure of Bacon’s paintings. Given Margaret Thatcher described him as “that man who paints those dreadful pictures”, it is interesting how the beneficiaries of Thatcher-type economics are now on the market for those very pictures. Or perhaps it is an ironic reminder of the brutality of modern existence where money is the main metric by which we measure value. In any case, it seemed like Bacon himself was not impartial to the economics of his work.

@Greg: Thanks for your kind words and the Kristeva reference. I agree with your linking the notion of the abject with Bacon’s work and why it has a push/pull effect on us. Just like in our ordered and civil cultures we hate to think of ourselves as creatures of blood, mucus, plasma, saliva, urine, semen, pus and shit, I think we also dislike thinking of our civilisations as undergirded by contingent and arbitrary forms of power, control and forces that bend, twist and penetrate the body.

@Heather: Thanks for your thoughtful response and also for your great post, which I will comment on this evening. I think Bacon certainly thought of himself as a realist or literalist of sorts; he’s on record expressing his dislike for abstract expressionism. For Bacon, it seems like life itself, even in its most intimate (like during sex or a gaze at a lover) was imbued with violence that is comparable to the violence of war in the work you mentioned. In many ways, I think Bacon was trying to see the world as Nietzschean, where force and struggle permeates everything. So I think you’re absolutely right to say it is connected to a line of figurative painting that expresses pain and anguish.

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