Art of the flesh

Art of the flesh

“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 the screens.


Francis Bacon

On February 7 last year, a headline in The Guardian newspaper asked a teasing question: “What recession? Bacon sells for £26.3m.” Arts correspondent Mark Brown went on to describe how a Francis Bacon triptych was sold to an anonymous buyer the previous night at the Christie’s postwar and contemporary art sale in London, creating another record as the highest price ever paid in Europe for a postwar work.
“The work, Triptych 1974-77, is either deeply disturbing or faintly optimistic depending on your point of view,” wrote Brown. “It was painted as Bacon mourned the loss of his lover of seven years George Dyer, who took his own life in 1971. Part of a ‘black triptych’ series, it depicts Dyer writhing and struggling on a near-deserted beach watched by two disconcerting figures.”
Over the years, critics and observers have routinely described the paintings of Francis Bacon (1909-1992) as dreadful, frightening, cruel, spiteful, vindictive, violent and haunting. “I was made aware of what is called the possibility of danger even at a very young age,” recalled the Ireland-born British painter, considered to be among the most powerful artists of the 20th century, in one of his interviews. “I could say, perhaps, I have been accustomed to always living through forms of violence.”
Bacon was born in Dublin a hundred years ago. His father was a professional racehorse trainer. Bacon is known to have had violent conflicts and disagreements with his father, who besides being dictatorial and intolerant, was also a habitual gambler.
In his childhood, Bacon had — what he himself described as — ‘a very limited education’. When he was about 17, his father caught him trying on his mother’s underwear and banished him from the house. Earning an allowance of £3 a week from his mother, Bacon went first to London, and later to Berlin and Paris.
In Paris, he saw an exhibition of Picasso and that moment, “I thought, well I will try and paint too.” Throughout his life, Bacon acknowledged that Picasso was the reason why he painted. “He is the father figure, who gave me the wish to paint.”
Bacon also reasoned that Picasso was the first person to produce figurative paintings which overturned the rules of appearance. “Picasso suggested appearance without using the usual codes, without respecting the representational truth of form, but using a breath of irrationality instead, to make representation stronger and more direct; so that form could pass directly from the eye to the stomach without going through the brain.”
Bacon who took up various jobs — as an internal decorator, telephone operator, cook and waiter in his early 20s, slowly gained recognition as an artist of unique talent. One of his images was published in Herbert Read’s famous book, Art Now in 1933; and one of his works was also acquired by a famous collector the same year. ‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’, which is among his best known works, was painted when he was just 35.
Bacon painted continually, participated in shows, held retrospectives in major cities of the world, and came to be critically acclaimed for his unique style and visualisation. While being in awe with Picasso, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, van Gogh and Velázquez, he himself went on to become a most compelling figure artist of his time.
In his paintings, the self-taught artist shockingly and chillingly distorted the human body and placed them in mysteriously seductive or nightmarishly brutal chairs, cots, or boxlike enclosures. His figures seemed to continually be in pain, despair, violence and loneliness; they often appeared mutilated or in organically copulating positions. Many of them seemed to be fatefully confined in glass cages.
Bacon confessed to have always been “very moved by pictures about slaughterhouses and meat”. In his work, he unabashedly focused on the sensational aspect of raw meat while painting decapitated heads, crucified carcasses, outstretched bodies, self-embracing figures — most of them contorted to the point of shapelessness. In doing so, he strove to widen his own pictorial language and reinforce the immense possibilities of distortion and deformation — borrowing extensively from old photographs, newspaper cuttings, and horror films.
“The real peculiarity of Bacon’s figurative style is that it manages to be both precise and ungraspable, for its distortions of face and limbs bear little relationship to anything that painters have done to the human body since Cezanne,” wrote art critic Robert Hughes in The Time magazine (Singing Within the Bloody Wood / July 01, 1985). “Among those artists who, in the past century, have tried to represent the inwardness of the body, Bacon holds a high place, along with Schiele, Kokoschka and Giacometti. He breaks the chain of pessimistic expectation by taking his prototypes beyond themselves into grandeur. Much has been made of his reliance on chance, but it seems to have affected his life (he is an inveterate gambler, an addict of the green baize) more than his art.”
Describing Bacon as an utterly compelling artist who would die without heirs, Hughes affirmed that no one could imitate Bacon without looking stupid. “To ignore him is absurd, for no other living painter has set forth with such pitiless clarity the tensions and paradoxes that surround all efforts to see, let alone to paint, the human figure in an age of photography.”
Bacon called himself a maker of images (“The image matters more than the beauty of the paint…”) and held a fascination to the moving image (“Perhaps if I was very young I would be a filmmaker; it is a most marvellous medium.”)  Always in quest of  ‘a very ordered image’, he was also notoriously famous as a ruthless destroyer of his own pictures.  
“Francis frequently left behind canvases which were sold by those who came after him,” writes Daniel Farson, who knew Bacon closely and was an active member of Soho’s gay art scene in the 1950s and 60s (The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon/1993). “In the 60s, the playwright Frank Norman witnessed a scene in Bond Street when Francis passed a gallery and spotted a picture of his which he had discarded in Tangier. Going inside, he asked how much it cost and was told 50,000 pounds. Writing out a cheque without a moment’s pause, he carried the picture outside where he stamped it to death on the pavement.”
Farson also narrates another memorable incident when Bacon was asked by someone what he did. ‘I am a painter.’ ‘That’s lucky,’ said the man. ‘I’m doing up my house at the moment and can give you some work if you want it.’ ‘How very kind of you,’ said Francis with his broadening smile.
Only a few days earlier one of his pictures had sold in New York for 3 million pounds.

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