Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Sides of Bacon: 1. Streaky

Francis Bacon: Five Decades
Art Gallery of New South Wales
17 November 2012 - 24 February 2014

Crucifixion (1933)
 Artists are often lauded for capturing the zeitgeist and being representative of their time. Francis Bacon, however, was decidedly not of his time, resisting movements such as abstraction and drawing for ideas on a hodgepodge of sources from other artists (such as Velasquez, Picasso and Van Gogh), cinema, Nazi leaders, media images and religious iconography. Despite this, he managed to produce a profound impression on later artists including Brett Whiteley and Damien Hirst, and is considered by many critics to be the greatest British artist since Turner.

Contemporary thinking suggested that for art to be meaningful, it had to be abstract, but Bacon was fascinated with the human form and with flesh. His figurative compositions are still bold, confronting and intense. The exhibition of half a century’s work opens with Crucifixion (1933), a ghostly black and white depiction of a human form with an X-ray quality. Less a spiritual symbol than an emblem of human brutality and suffering, this manipulation of the human form, inspired by Picasso, is a recurrent theme throughout his art.

In the 1940s and the final years of WWII, Britain was shattered by profound violence and destruction. Bacon was excused from active military service (due to his asthma) but worked for the Civil Defence. He paints many screaming figures, gasping for air, crouched beneath umbrellas or enclosed in cage-like structures and claustrophobic boxes. Much has been written about the symbolism of the scream; is it a cry of pain, an asthmatic gasp or even a cry of orgiastic ecstasy?

He was also profoundly influenced by the silent film Battleship Potemkin, directed by Sergei Eisenstein, particularly the shot of a screaming nurse with broken glasses and bloodied face on the Odessa Steps. Furthermore, he was affected by a book on diseases of the mouth and wrote, ‘I like the glitter that comes from the mouth... I’ve always hoped to paint the mouth like Monet painted a sunset’.

The open-mouthed image frequently appeared in his artwork, including the Head series. Bacon paints heads rather than faces, rubbing and brushing the face itself until it loses form. He substitutes black shadows and voids for where the body might be. These paintings blur the line between human and animal; the fangs suggest aggression but the expression hints at deep suffering. He emphasises the emptiness above the heads, using delineated boxes to cut down the scale of the canvas and direct the eyes down to the image.

Head I
These paintings are almost sculptural in their black and white thick impasto rendering. He painted repeatedly on the back of canvases, preferring this raw, untreated surface and also the ‘frisson of difference’, working in oils and applying many coats. It took him over four months to paint the layers, which weighed down the canvas, giving it the heft and feel of a curtain. In his Study after Velasquez I, II, and III (1950) he expressed a desire to ‘paint like Velasquez but with the texture of hippopotamus skin’.

Study after Velasquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X
Diego Velasquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, painted in 1650 conveys the dignity, glory and authority of the most powerful figure in the world at that time. Bacon was obsessed by this image and painted around 45 variations on the theme. His pope seems to be in a living hell or form of perpetual torment with his golden throne morphing into an instrument of torture. And again, the scream which evokes so much conjecture.

Many of Bacon’s works of this period feature figures in awkward postures in cubes, as those displayed as exhibits of torture or go-go girls. Men in blue suits are trapped against pin-striped backgrounds like conformist attire or circus tents – cabined; cribbed, confined. Francis Bacon was homosexual in an era where it was outlawed (it was not officially decriminalised until 1957) and perhaps his figures are subject to torture that is mental, physical, and sexual.

He was inspired by photos of supposed ectoplasm and ghostly forms, echoed in his tropes of white prisms, frames, contortionism and crouching nudes: a crouch being a posture that implies oscillating energy, squeezed into a ball ready to burst outwards. His insistence on gilt frames gave the work status and suggested value, combining subversion with respectability. Bacon also liked to have his paintings shown under glass, which forces the viewer to confront his own reflection in the midst of the painting, thus negating distance and detachment.

Study from the human body (1949) displays striking tenderness alongside a gentle erotic charge, as a figure steps through a transparent curtain. The painting suggests both depth and mystery as we ponder themes of imprisonment, concealment, danger and homosexuality. Bacon’s own comments are designed to obfuscate: “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.”

Study from the human body (1949)
Bacon’s paintings appear highly visceral, from the violence of technique to the frequent interaction between two men, which is neither affectionate nor relaxed but turbulent and traumatic. The wrestling men in Two Figures (1953) imply sexual violence and eroticism. Both protected and trapped within a cage-like structure, the grappling men are thrown into sharp relief by the white sheets and dark background. They are simultaneously strong and vulnerable.

Two Figures (1953)
Likewise The End of the Line (1953) embraces the ambiguity of affection and brutality in boxer’s stance – all big head and bulging arms - amidst the linear landscape of train tracks and station shed; a clandestine meeting place for coupling?
The End of the Line (1953)

Figure with Meat (1954) is a masterpiece of composition. The dry brush marks of red, orange, cream and blue that depict the carcasses flank the authoritative male figure in purple/blue. Bacon said without discernible irony, “We are meat. We are potential carcasses. If I go into a butcher’s shop I always think it’s surprising that I wasn’t there instead of the animal.”

Figure with Meat (1954)
While the figure in isolation is a familiar theme for Bacon, the background in Untitled (half-length figure in sea) 1953-54 is unusual. The figure is barely discernible, demarcated only by a vertical brushstroke against the horizontal brushstroke of sea. Both the figure and the sea are dark, mysterious and indistinct. There seems to be a dark pier or jetty in the background but before we can attach too much symbolism, Bacon explains, “I’m just trying to make images as accurately off my nervous system as I can.”

Untitled (half-length figure in sea) (1953-54)
Just as this figure seems released from the cages of his previous works, so Study for a running dog (1954) exudes energy and a feeling of liberation. The sense of movement is captured through the blurred painterly marks, achieved by dragging fabric through wet paint. A later work, Untitled Dog (1967) displays a similar canine exuberance as a few broad sweeps of paint (including pink) on a green background imbue the painting with a lithe animated quality.

Study for a running dog (1954)

Untitled Dog (1967)
A trip to Tangiers (where homosexuality was legal, incidentally) led to splashes of colour in his art. Figure in a Landscape (1956-57) incorporates patches of orange and yellow under layers of ochre and green, which reflect the intense light of the country. He also added sand to dark paint to create a heightened texture – the landscape literally making an impression on these works.

Figure in Landscape (196-57)

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