Francis Bacon was an extraordinary and extreme artist and one of the greatest painters of the twentieth century. He was also a Right-wing elitist and individualist who approached the problem of creating art in the twentieth century with an honesty and intensity that have not really been matched. Generally speaking, it is probably true to say that most of the Right dismiss Bacon along with other contemporary artists mainly because of his unique treatment of the human form. But in my view his art enunciates a violent assault on the complacency of conventional thinking and perception that should be seen as deeply consonant with the project of the Alt Right. In particular, his extreme interrogation of the human subject in a world after God will be seen to provide a denunciation of the triviality engendered by secularism.
Tate Liverpool’s current exhibition, Invisible Rooms, provides a perfect opportunity to look again at Bacon and his enduring importance. The exhibition is themed around the strange, floating cubes that hover around the subjects in so many of Bacon’s paintings. These “invisible rooms” both elevate and entrap the subject, and this sort of tension is central to Bacon’s art.
The beginning of the exhibition space is dedicated to two paintings concerned with the crucifixion. The triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (c. 1944) is one of Bacon’s most recognizable and disturbing images. The figures are conceived as being the Eumenides (or Furies) from Greek tragedy and are depicted as bestial entities. Their status as subjects isn’t clear. The title of the painting encourages us to anticipate human subjects but their form clearly belies this. They have a solid, fleshy appearance but their form is unlike any product of natural selection; neither human nor animal. Each of the figures appears to be blinded in some way but their gaping mouths are prominent, suggesting some urge to inhuman vocalization. It is as though they are an attempt to depict an embodiment of the alien horror of subconscious drives.
The second crucifixion painting is 1933’s Crucifixion. The Christ is only recognizable as a human form in the most rudimentary sense. In fact, it barely even achieves a skeletal sense of solidity; the figure becomes transparent in certain places suggesting the ghostliness of Christ, and this is reinforced by the oppressively dark interior in which the crucifixion appears to have taken place. But more than this, the painting is structured so as to bring to mind Rembrandt’s painting Slaughtered Ox (1655). By drawing this parallel Bacon is treating the enactment of the crucifixion as the hanging of meat on a wooden frame. When discussing his work, he was always keen to foreground the structural reasons for his compositions but he was also clear about the religious implications. The body of Christ is meat just like all other animals.
Considering Bacon’s unambiguous atheism, it is noteworthy that he returned to religious themes throughout his career. One painting that he returned to again and again is Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650), and there are two examples of Bacon’s treatment of that painting here. Throughout this series of “screaming pope” paintings Bacon was concerned with the framing of the figure within the confines of the throne. He was also obsessed with drawing out the full implications of Innocent X’s semi-sneering facial expression. Untitled (Pope) (c. 1954) pulls back the skin of the Pope’s face so that the expression becomes fully bestial, the head being a means of supporting the underlying gape of the skull.
This expression can also be found on other paintings here. Study for a Portrait (1952) shows the human subject enclosed within one of those suggestive glass boxes that seems to hover in the air. The screaming subject is also seated before a banal blue curtain which somehow adds a Lynchian sense of the sinister to the scene. Chimpanzee (1955) has the titular figure grimacing in similar fashion, caged within both an invisible box and within a more literal zoo enclosure. It is as though we are witnessing the same fixed realization of mortality emerging from the animal, human and divine worlds, crystallizing in the dreadful rictus grin of death.
Bacon was entirely insistent regarding the implausibility of religious doctrines such as life after death. He realized that life is a very brief unfolding in time, a struggle full of difficulty and suffering that would very soon end in total annihilation of the self. In fact, it was this sort of clear sighted nihilism that provided much of the motivation behind his work. In a 1974 interview, he explains that he has no time for ideas of social justice or the welfare state because, in reducing the extremities of experience, they promote boredom and complacency: “I think [social injustice] is the texture of life. I know that you can say that all life is completely artificial, but I think that what is called social justice makes it more pointlessly artificial. . . But I think, as I live in a country where there has been a certain amount of wealth, it’s difficult to talk about a country where there has always been extreme poverty. And it’s quite possible that people could be helped in extremely poor countries to exist on a plane where it was possible for them to escape from their hunger and their general despair. But I’m not upset by the fact that people do suffer, because I think the suffering of people and the differences between people are what have made great art, and not egalitarianism.”
What is important about this view of art is that Bacon is not attempting to ameliorate the suffering of life in any way, neither through the comforts of religious belief nor through egalitarianism. Whether salvation is offered as a religious or a secular solution to the problem of existence it is seen by Bacon to be an illusory comfort, simply augmenting the artificiality that one already experiences in the form of being alive.
Most of the other paintings in the exhibition are concerned in one way or another with the human form and the problem of how to make representations of this form more real in an age of photography. One of the reasons why Bacon is such an interesting artist is that he was concerned with the problem of form and the problem of representation. He recognized the banality of Abstract Expressionism and insisted on a representational form of painting. But he knew that something approaching a photographic form of representation (what he referred to as “illustration”) was no longer adequate to the business of creating serious art. In this respect he is a fascinatingly liminal artist, seeking to re-present the human form in a violent and extreme manner so that the shock of reality can be reignited within it. And key to this manner of re-presentation is the isolation of the human figure in a hauntingly empty, decontextualized interior.
Consider Study for the Nurse in the Film ‘Battleship Potemkin’ (1957). Despite what shallow critics of Bacon’s work might assert, the face does bear a likeness to the relevant shot in the movie. But Bacon is so obviously not trying to recreate that image (what would be the point?), rather he is using the image as a sort of visual template on which he can work to discover something more profoundly and ambiguously important to communicate. In Bacon’s rendering, the figure has become a nude and is reasonably coherent but again there is the insuppressible scream and the disturbing quality of the flesh: part meat, part something else. The background manages to be simultaneously inviting and inhospitable. The beautiful richness and texture of the emerald green draws you in but the sense of almost cosmic isolation and emptiness repels. The background of the picture invokes Rothko, but Bacon saw that type of painting as being merely aesthetic and something of a cop out. He wanted the human form to be present so that the question of the real could be attacked again and again. The Abstract Expressionists completely sidestep this question and simply paint feelings in more or less attractive patterns.
The final question, when confronting Bacon, is to understand how the distortion of the human form can return it to a higher level of reality. Obviously distortion in itself can tell us nothing, it is just a manipulation of surface appearance. If Bacon’s art really is expressing something important, there must be a deeper form, or at least something behind the appearance, that Bacon is trying to excavate otherwise his pictures would just be badly rendered portraits. When discussing this question, Bacon again and again talks about the importance of violence, how he wants to return violence to the image.
“When talking about the violence of paint, it’s nothing to do with the violence of war. It’s to do with an attempt to remake the violence of reality itself. And the violence of reality is not only the simple violence meant when you say that a rose or something is violent, but it’s the violence also of the suggestions within the image itself which can only be conveyed through paint. When I look at you across the table, I don’t only see you but I see a whole emanation which has to do with personality and everything else. And to put that over in a painting, as I would like to be able to do in a portrait, means that it would appear violent in paint. We nearly always live through screens — a screened existence. And I sometimes think, when people say my work looks violent, that perhaps I have from time to time been able to clear away one or two of the veils or screens.”
In Study for the Nurse, the thick and messy oils making up the human form contrast with the sinisterly cool background so that the figure is presented in oppressively stark terms. In this way, the violence inherent in the image is brought forcefully to bear upon the viewer. Additionally, the sort of distorted facial expressions that Bacon specializes in produce a jolt of shock due to the uncanny similitude these figures bear to real human faces. The key thing with Bacon is not that the appearance has been distorted, it is rather the fact that from the clockwork nullity of a world without God he has been able reconfigure something that resembles the person. Looking at a Bacon portrait is somewhat like looking in a mirror in that we see an image of the human face that seems to coexist with a personality, an autonomous self. But with Bacon we fear that we might be seeing what is really there, rather than a flattering image of what we believe is there.
Bacon is a figure of enduring importance for two primary reasons.
Firstly, he resisted the twentieth century’s urge to erase form, to exult in pure abstraction or conceptualization. The uncanny appearance of his figures has to do with his struggle to render reality in a really primal form, prior to ideological abstraction.
Secondly, in his attempt to show the human form in a world without God he did not retreat to a position of hyper-triviality or consumerism. Instead he hacked away at the human form like a butcher trying to find out what it really is that lies beneath the meat. He would not accept a religious answer but perhaps it is significant that in the above quotation he talks of “a whole emanation” coming from a person. He resisted a spiritual or mystical interpretation of this but nevertheless it is significant because it gestures towards a non-material source of whatever it is that we understand to be human.
Bacon’s art allows us to glimpse the horror of what it might be that lurks behind the curtain, through the screen or under the skin. If we do not like what we see it is necessary to keep looking deeper and deeper so that the numinous violence of existence becomes apparent. We might then begin to see something of his dark theology of meat.
1. Francis Bacon in David Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon (London: Thames & Hudson, 1987), 125.
2. Ibid., 81-2.