OMNI ESSE DEO DVBITANDVM
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Beauty, like truth is subjective. We all have our own criterion when it comes to satisfying our individual human need for the aesthetic. For some of us, this craving can only be sated by the imbibing of unorthodox manifestations of visual delectation. And when in consideration of dissident visions of beauty, how many people have there ever been whose artistic gravitas is so powerful that their subjectivity continues to plangently affect others many years after their death? Very few I’m sure you’ll agree. One such epicure I will contend was Francis Bacon. For myself, I can assuredly say that there is or was no other painter of posthumous significance in the entirety of the past century, and I will risk holding this contention at the expense of Picasso. Since there have been so few individuals which I have ever encountered who have shared my aesthetic, I feel some what enjoined to share my thoughts about this particular maven who eclipses most artistic criticism by sheer wealth of originality and talent.
Francis Bacon was highly regarded in his lifetime, most especially in his native Britannia; he was born in Dublin and spent most of his adult and creative life in London. He had two major retrospections of his paintings during his life and just had a third posthumously in 2009 to mark his centennial. Most of this acclaim means nothing to me though as it was his aesthetic view of life and of human existence which continues to give me the most preternatural inspiration and pleasure.
Even though he was highly regarded in European art circles, throughout his lifetime he never had much of a following in this country beyond the purview of the subculture or artistic underground . In the excellent BBC South Bank Show documentary from 1985, he states that he felt his lack of acceptance or regard in the United States stemmed from an interview he gave in the 1950’s in which he derided the work of American painters Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko (and abstract expressionism in general) for being puerile and fatuous. This happens to be a sentiment and judgement which I share, even though when it comes to evaluating Pollock and Rothko, holding this view also means disagreeing to some extent with both Robert Hughes and Simon Schama—an action I do not take lightly. Beyond this observation, I feel that his lack of appreciation in this country actually stems from a more general puritan regard to self expression which America possesses, most especially when that aesthetic involves images of the macabre, outre, or sexual. So no matter what one feels towards his paintings, whether they disgust or intrigue, one can not easily disregard Bacon’s competence as a self-taught painter or his ability to induce a powerfully emotive response.
Bacon began his artistic career in his twenties as an interior designer. After garnering some attention in this field, he nonchalantly transitioned into painting (under the influence of Picasso) during the height of the surrealist oeuvre in the 1930’s. He was rejected by the surrealist schools for nominally not being surreal enough and after enduring quite a few of these rejections, he effectively gave up painting. It would not be until 1944 in which he would surface again as a painter, shocking and tantalizing the art world with his massive triptych, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. Bacon was always quite assertive in interviews in regarding this painting as his first true and competent work. Even with the most cursory inspection, it should appear patent that this self analysis was extremely poignant and judicious—everything one has come to expect from Bacon is present here. The intense color scheme, the preoccupation with the varying states of flesh in extremis, the gaping and putrid maw, and the underlying felicity in blaspheming theistic imagery–in short, a wondrous delight in seeing social mores and conventions fucked with; not at all intending to be glib here, but why shouldn’t they be? Is it not now quite easy to see from our temporal vantage point how and why this painting was able to so intensely induce repulsion and awe within the post-war artistic zeitgeist as well as to help us understand why Bacon continues to be aesthetically relevant?
This painting would bring him fame and adulation as well as avid criticism; a cultural dyad which would follow him throughout the rest of his life and career. This painting marked the beginning of his unique style and approach to the process of painting which he would also carry out for the rest of his life. He discovered his technique rather haphazardly when once he found himself in Monte Carlo short of money to buy new canvasses (he had a gambling addiction most his life coupled with alcoholism which caused chronic pecuniary troubles), so he was resigned to use the back or unprimed side of a canvas. Painting on the unprimed side means that if one makes and error or unwanted brush stroke, it can not be removed. It either has to be accepted or the canvass has to be thrown out. Yet through this technique, Bacon imbued his paintings with a greater depth of color which is an apparent quality of the unprimed canvass. A particular painterly fetish of Bacon’s was his infatuation with bringing the color of life to his images, and this approach to painting ostensibly allowed him this effect.
His other admitted obsession was with Diego Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X. He would do many incarnations of this portrait throughout the 1950’s-60’s and even a series based solely on the head—always a screaming head. By Bacon’s own admission, this obsession grew out of admiration for the Velázquez original as well as for the colors found in the human mouth. His other poignant confession found in the aforementioned documentary is that he felt he had completely failed in his screaming pope series. He states that he never got the color or the scream vibrant enough. Again and again you will find in Bacon interviews that it is the aesthetic of color which was his most central preoccupation. But what continuously ran alongside this importunate chromophilia was his never ending desire to see reality deformed and reformed. A need to distill imagery into its most pungent (therefore emotionally affective) manifestation.
By the middle of the twentieth century, Bacon’s prominence in the art world was cemented, while also at this time becoming a cultural fixture of the London pub scene until his death in 1992. Yet there is a another more poignant way in which to investigate Bacon’s cultural influence and that is by examining to what degree if any his homosexuality had on his approaches to self-expression. This is a question I have often considered for myself, Bacon, and others in the artistic subculture, such as Clive Barker, William S Burroughs and the band Coil, just to name a few. Whether it is self-expression or intellectualism that one is in contemplation of, I can not help but feel that one’s sexuality definitely has an effect on one’s overall consciousness along with every other way that cognition manifests itself. And how could it not when one is a member of a despised social collective? The most acute observation that I have taken note of, and the one most applicable to Bacon, is the sheer number of gay artists (now and throughout history) who have been involved in macabre and verboten spheres of the creative and expressive. Should we expect this contingency from a socially marginalized group or is there some other more deep rooted psychological exigency to explain this phenomena? I have yet to come up with a satisfactory explanation to this query but perhaps there is not one to find. I just think it is worth your consideration when you are examining Bacon’s artistic motivation to also keep in mind the impact of his being openly gay within a milieu of pernicious bigotry.
Ever since I was six years old, I have been keenly aware if not always fully conscious of my attraction to images of the macabre and surreal. By felicitous coincidence, it was at this point in my childhood that I transitioned from being afraid of horror movies and their images to being obsessed by them to a febrile extent. This also (since we are talking about contingency) happened to be a great era for horror films in general (the 1980’s); a cinematic epoch that is lamentably missed today with the banal and tedious trend of remakes being so regnant. Concomitant with this burgeoning appreciation for the outre was my discovery of past artists who also appeared to share my attraction and affection for imagery of the bizarre and thanatotic. By ten years old, I was quite beset (to say the very least) with the paintings of Bosch, Bruegel, and Goya. And it was at this juncture in which I came across the work of Bacon in one of my near daily trips to the library and found an immediate and intoxicating allure. It also seems of note that there was a similar artistic blandishment experienced when I first viewed the photography of Joel Peter Witkin, at about the same time, whose photographic tableauxs achieve what Bacon does in paint.
There is to this day something so unique to Bacon’s outlook (Witkin’s also for that matter, in spite of his confessed Catholicism) on the everyday surreal and depraved quality of our world which can consume one entirely. His genius laid in his ability to find the beauty in that which causes repugnance. This is most observable in his images of death and dismemberment showcasing all the palpable and potential dread in being a material creature. Finding the resplendence inside the human mouth or from the inside of an animal carcass takes an original and epicurean mind. Throughout his work, distressing images and distorted portraiture would be imbued with a power which goes straight to a primal source within the human mind, one thankfully not often explicable by conventional methods.
In the same South Bank Show documentary referenced earlier, Bacon explicitly stated that he preferred that people find disgust and abhorrence in his work for he then knew for sure that his painting was a success as it elicited a true visceral and unguarded response. It is the power of art to provoke a reaction, whether viewed as positive or negative in its effect, that is so sorely lacking in the creative ventures of today. If we believe that art has a value and power that is essential to human existence, then that power must be predicated by the human experience of shock and awe, the ability to express the ineffable and most intrinsically human aspects of our nature.
Viewed within this light, it is impossible to disregard Bacon’s power to emotionally provoke us along with his ability to push our idea of being human to its limits; all the while gazing at it unflinchingly in all of its limitless horror and reverie. If you can claim to know anything at all, you are keenly aware that you are alive (if only temporarily) and composed of easily defiled flesh and fluid when you’re in the presence of his paintings, a quality which is quite bereft from today’s so-called art (Koons, Hirst, are we paying attention? Of course not. Why worry about a dearth of talent when we occupy a culture where mediocrity is so readily lionized?). A power that will never lose its potency or aesthetic ascendancy in human life, or, at least that’s what one hopes for.