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Bacon: Painter with a Double-Edged Sword

An article by Mariano Akerman

His pictures are ambiguous and among the most expensive ever brought to auction. They easily sell for millions of pounds and maintain a top position in the art market. Bacon is the UK’s most expensive artist at auction. Last week a single painting reached £21.6m ($33.3 million). Bacon's artwork is provocative and perplexing. With a British Council Grant, Argentinean researcher Mariano Akerman investigates the artist's imagery in England and Europe. He discovers a most extraordinary element in his paintings and explores its ultimate raison d'être.


The Anglo-Irish artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992) was one of the most original and powerful painters of the twentieth century. He was particularly noted for the intensity and paradoxical nature of his pictures. His figurative work is renowned for its boldness and visceral intensity. Bacon achieved fame and notoriety for his disturbing figures and his constant preoccupation with the torment of the human condition, including an unusual interest in bare flesh, wounds, and fluids. His imagery speaks for loneliness, violence and degradation. And it does so in a grotesque manner. Not in vain commentators hold that Bacon seemed quite joyful in his personal life, but the fact is that he also gained reputation for being a perceptive observer of the darker aspects of humanity.

Francis Bacon was born October 28, 1909, in Dublin. At the age of 16, he moved to London and subsequently lived for about two years in Berlin and Paris. Although Bacon attended no art school, he began to draw and work in watercolor around 1927. Picasso’s work decisively influenced his painting until the mid-1940s. Upon his return to London in 1929, Bacon established himself as a furniture designer and interior designer. He began to use oils in the autumn of that year and exhibited a few paintings as well as furniture and rugs in his studio. His work was included in a group exhibition in London at the Mayor Gallery in 1933. In 1934, the artist organized his own first solo show at Sunderland House, which he called Transition Gallery for the occasion. Bacon painted relatively little after and in the 1930s and early 1940s he destroyed many of his works. However, he began to paint intensively again in 1944. His work gained prominence only after World War II. By this time he painted the human figure, subjecting it to extreme distortions that made it look bizarre and disturbing. His first major solo show took place at the Hanover Gallery, London, in 1949. From the mid-1940s to the 1950s, Bacon’s work reflected certain influence of Surrealism. The pictures that made his reputation were of such subjects as an opened-mouth figure bending over and partly covered by an umbrella or a vaporizing head in front of a curtain. These startlingly original works were considered to be powerful expressions of anguish, remarkable because of the grandeur of their presentation and unusual painterly quality. Bacon was interested in suggestion. In 1952 he declared, "I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail, leaving a trail of the human presence and memory trace of past events, as the snail leaves its slime." Crucifixion and scream were recurrent two motifs in his work. He wanted to paint a smile, but he never succeeded. "I've always hoped in a sense to be able to paint the mouth like Monet painted a sunset." Yet, the mouths he painted convey unprecedented tension. By the 1950s Bacon had developed a treatment of the human figure and based his work on clippings from newspapers and magazines and from the nineteenth-century photographs of humans and animals in movement by Eadweard Muybridge. He also drew on such sources as Diego Velázquez’s famous Portrait of Pope Innocent X of 1649–50 and Sergei Eisenstein's film Battleship Potemkin of 1925. A combination of motifs drawn from completely unrelated sources was usual in Bacon's imagery. At the same time the contemporary imagery he developed was given a grandeur presentation akin to that of Baroque masterpieces. Bacon's first solo exhibition outside England was held in 1953 at Durlacher Brothers, New York. His first retrospective was held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, in 1955. From the 1950s through the end of Bacon's painting career and life (in the early 1990s), the recurrent theme of his work was the isolation and anguish of the individual. He often painted a single figure, usually male, seated or standing in a windowless interior, and framed by a geometric construction, as if confined in a private hell. His subjects were his friends, lovers, and himself. Working almost without preliminary sketches, Bacon used expressive deformations to convey every possible nuance of feeling and tension. His painting technique consisted of using rags, his hands and whorls of dust along with paint and brush. In 1962, the Tate Gallery of London organized a Bacon retrospective. Other important exhibitions of his work were held at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1963 and the Grand Palais, in Paris, in 1971. Paintings from 1968 to 1974 were exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1975. Although Bacon had consistently denied the illustrational nature of his paintings, the facts of his life led art critics and historians to draw links between the personal life of the artist and the subject matter of his paintings. An example of this was the suicide of his model and closest friend George Dye. One of Bacon's triptychs evokes Dyer’s suicide and shows him shadowed in a door frame, vomiting into a sink and dying hunched fetus-like on a toilet. Bacon admitted that painting to be a most personal work and one which verges on illustration. Yet, he also kept each panel of the triptych framed individually and arranged it so to alter a logical sequence and avoid storytelling. In a period dominated by abstract art, Bacon stood out as one of the greatest figurative painters. Often large in scale, Bacon's works bring back traditional themes, but in an iconoclastic way that involves grotesqueness and the meaningless. In 1962, he said, "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." And significantly, "all art has now become a game by which man distracts himself." Bacon wanted to make "not illustrations of reality, but images which are a concentration of reality and a shorthand of sensation." His paintings were supposed to be "a deeply ordered chaos.” The artist died of heart failure brought on by asthma in Madrid, on April 28, 1992.

The Grotesque in Francis Bacon's paintings


Perhaps one day I will manage to capture an instant in all its violence and all its beauty. — Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon's paintings are mysterious and suggestive. They are ambiguous in nature and tend to constitute symbols of multi-leveled significance, being this is conveyed through the artist's manipulation of the Grotesque.

In Aesthetics, the Grotesque is a category that comprises ambiguous, abnormal and uncanny configurations, which suggest the monstrous (defamiliarization, abnormality, dehumanization). The Grotesque has a long tradition in the visual arts. Initially this type of imagery was ornamental and playful, but later was to become prevalently distorted, visceral, and unsettling. Significantly, the Grotesque is neither attractive nor repulsive, but both at once. Moreover, as an art critic once put it, the Grotesque involves "certain things that are deformed, and thus please by giving great displeasure." In this sense, the Grotesque is a problematic, double-edged realm where the one aspect always goes hand in hand with the incompatible other thus creating a visual paradox.

As configurations of the ambiguous, Bacon's mysterious pictures engender both curiosity and perplexity. The often produce mixed feelings such as attraction and repulsion at once. For a well-balanced yet disquieting interplay between fear and desire, vulnerability and cruelty, suffering and apathy is characteristic of Bacon's idiosyncratic imagery.

Tension and intensity, the combination of incompatible elements, and suggestions of the monstrous or the inhuman abound in the artist's imagery.

Bacon uses the grotesque as a means of self-expression that enables him to ambiguously communicate not only a fascination with power and violence, but also his haunted condition. The grotesque thus becomes a means of purgation and transcendence.

Even if extravagant, Bacon's double-edged figures are far from being accessories. It is appropriate to think of them as inalienable personal reports encapsulating a private truth, in other words, the artist's contradictory feelings and sensations, which are neither ornamental nor entirely evasive.

Through what Bacon has called instinctive painting (1966), he willingly walks along the border of an emotional precipice, suggesting an obsession with sex and death, apathy in matters of vulnerability and suffering, and a fascination with power and aggressiveness.

The suggestiveness of Bacon's art simultaneously reveals and conceals the artist's ultimate intentions, and in such a blurred way that identity itself becomes problematic in his imagery. By depicting the ambiguously combined and the equivocally suggestive Bacon disorients the viewer, who can establish no precise meaning in his ever-changing images. Various readings are thus possible and they may be all equally valid.

Considering that instinct implies the abolishment of morals, at the time of contemplating Bacon's paintings, we are to arrive at our own moral conclusions, certainly irrelevant to the artist and his calculated lack of concern. At this point, everything melts under our feet, because in Bacon's paradoxical realm the only safe given is insecurity.

Besides, Bacon’s instinctive paintings are certainly not the product of accident or chance, as the artist liked to claim from the 1960s onwards. They constitute carefully planned compositions which are inextricably related to the artist's personal life and also function as mysterious, anti-illustrational traps which suggest the monstrously cruel.

In this context, one realizes Bacon's manipulation of the grotesque and the artist's fundamental intervention in turning it into a useful vehicle for self-expression. Bacon's instinctive images are profound but also problematic—a grand manner of painting that merges the defiantly powerful, the disquietingly extraordinary, the suggestively monstrous, the sarcastically allusive, the theatrically manipulative, and the extremely personal.

As a species of confusion par excellence, the grotesque suspends belief and invites a search for meaning. Pushing one to consider alternative possibilities, the grotesque paralyses language and challenges categories. Grotesque art is thought-enlarging art. This is true in Bacon's peculiar case, whose grotesque art conveys immediacy and suggests multilayered ideas that grant one an active role as spectator and interpreter. This is possibly the ultimate meaning of the artist's pictorial freedom, which he has undoubtedly achieved through an admirable manipulation of the grotesque.

The ambiguous element that inhabits Bacon's instinctive paintings has an immense capacity to open the valves of feeling. It is this expressive, ever-changing element of Bacon's suggestive art which proves to be extraordinarily rich. For, expressed as paradoxical and grotesque, pictorial freedom becomes a provocative element, one that coherently unites Bacon's truth and our freedom.

Inspiration in a clipping

Francis Bacon prized intensity and had an obsession with being able to paint a mouth as Monet painted a sunset. In a considerable number of his paintings the mouth seems to be an important element. The snarling mouth of one of Bacon's Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion 1944 has its referent in a clipping that was found in the artist's studio when he died in 1992. The visual referent, which is part of a bigger plate, was published online as a black and white image in 2000. It was then that I detected a significant formal similarity between the mouth Bacon painted in the 1944 Tate picture and the one in the work document later found in his studio. Showing a strange mouth, the clipping was a fragment of a plate taken from a book the painter said he bought in Paris in 1929.

He was only nineteen or twenty years-old then. In a 1966 interview with David Sylvester, Bacon recalled that second hand book which had "beautiful hand-coloured plates of diseases of the mouth." It was in 2000 that I detected a significant formal similarity between the mouth Bacon painted in the 1944 Tate picture and the one in the work document later found in his studio. In 2003, the clipping was reproduced once again, this time in colour.

The coloured fragment suggested that Bacon’s assertions of 1966 were true. Julian Bell referred to that clipping in an article written in The New York Times Review of Books in 2007: "Some 40 percent of a plate has been ripped out of the Atlas-Manuel des maladies de la bouche, a French translation of an 1894 German medical textbook. The torn-away trapezoid shows "Fig. 1": a heavily retouched photo of lips prised apart by forceps to reveal gums disfigured by an abscess, chipped teeth, and froth about the tongue. The chromolithograph with its flesh reds stands as an oval vignette on the creamy fragment of coated paper. But then the scrap has been scuffed by brushes loaded with green and cerulean; there are fingerprints to the right in blue-black and mauve, little splats of yellow and scarlet. The paper’s edges are frayed and nicked, it has a riverine crack where those clutching fingers have bent it: a vertical sever being a further result of decades of overhandling."

As an invaluable work document, Bacon's clipping is preserved in the Hugh Lane Gallery, in Dublin (F105:140). A copy of the very book the painter bought in 1929 (and to which he referred to in the 1966 interview) is kept in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, in Paris.

The volume was written in German by Dr. Ludwig Grünwald, indeed in 1894, and subsequently translated into French by Dr. Georges Laurens, as Atlas-Manuel des maladies de la bouche, du pharynx et des fosses nasales. The French version was published in Paris in 1903. Among other things, Grünwald's medical manual contains 42 chromolithographs and 106 hand-coloured plates of diseases of the mouth. They are impressive. After having myself examined the various illustrations in that manual (which can be found online), I have no doubt that the much disfigured mouth reproduced in Grünwald's book as "Tab. 5, Fig. 1" cannot be other than Bacon's predictably grotesque source of inspiration.


See also Enthusiastic Despair: Inspired by Dr Grünwald