Torments of the Unknown
Why the work of Francis Bacon gives rise to the most unsettling of sensations
The anomalous nature of a painting will always resonate with more truth and immediacy than the use of any empirically based motifs or devices. The nervous system registers with subconscious ease the grotesque and disturbing nature of an image and even if it can not disentangle its origins or meaning is forced to digest what it may find unpalatable.
When the world as Francis Bacon perceived it, melted into his psyche and mood the result may indeed appear horrifying. From Bacon’s viewpoint life was “ghastly”- his work reflecting the horrors of interiorized pain and anguish. That the horrors of inner torment are inexpressible is where the power of his work rests, for it evokes a feeling of undiluted terror, charging the observer with a mysterious and unsettling sensation. In short, the de-familiarization of horror.
His work is concerned with sensation and the unsettling immediacy of that feeling. Indeed Bacon himself is quoted as saying “if you can talk about it why paint it?” To look at a Bacon is to be overcome with the beauty of colour, particularly the fleshy iridescence many of his paintings possess, but it is also to be assailed by the stench of death, to bear witness to perpetual screams, stifled moans and distorted human forms.
Bacon successfully merged a sense of slaughter with sacrifice, drawing heavily from iconic symbols of Christian religion- Pope Innocent, The Crucifixion- and then subverting them to create works of richness and gasp inducing potency. Works such as Painting (1946) release the raw magic of meat and flesh onto the canvass, because as Bacon put it “there is great beauty in the colour of meat.” The flesh appears like carrion; at once flush with ripeness, but at the same time on the cusp of a foul decay.
Fingering their way under the skin and not infrequently straight to the bone, these glorious nightmares communicate the most peculiar sense of terror- haunting the mind for reasons that are as elusive as they are disturbing.
Where’s the benefit in that you may say. Why traumatize your mind with morbid disturbing imagery, when there’s an abundance of less confronting work out there? That Bacon’s work is not for everyone is a given. Many find him too confronting and bleak. Yet what intrigues and mesmerizes when absorbing the twisted contours and fractured figures is the disquieting effect it has on one’s viscera. On a very basic, even masochistic level, his paintings give rise to the sensation of being alive, which as the ever obscure definitions of “art” are concerned could be said to be the most compelling reason for viewing more of his work, particularly where primal expressions of emotion are concerned.
Expression doesn’t get more primal and basic than screaming, often thought of as the most honest, pure and potent display of feeling. It can be a celebration of life, or a vicious condemnation of it- its representation allowing for a joyful explosion of ecstasy or the manifestation of suffering. It is charged with vitality, sadness, anger and pain.
Take “Head VI” as an example, painted in 1949. In this painting Bacon captured what was thought to be an almost impossible task for the painter- the scream on canvass. In it, he creates a sense of ceaselessness, as if the moan/scream is being released at the instant you look at it. The figure is framed within what feels like a suffocating cage, trapped within himself and his surroundings there will, one senses, be no reprieve from the pain. The teeth, crooked and jagged, reek of decay. Suspended just above a gaping vacuum of mouth which appears to be both frozen and desperately gasping for life the sense of helplessness is instantly felt.
Bacon rarely, if ever divulged the meaning of his paintings allowing the reaction of the observer to become its voice. In this case the raw power of the work could be said to reside somewhere between the barbarous savagery of the mouth- crude and indelicate- and the violent sense of release.
It’s little wonder that Bacon was so impressed when he saw Sergei Eisenstein’s kinetic masterpiece “Battleship Potemkin.” Entranced by the famous Odessa steps sequence he was to use the image of the screaming nurse as the departure point and template for subsequent works. The image itself is one of cinematic legend. Shot in the eye as the chaos escalates, her glasses become cracked and twisted, slanting precariously across her brow. As the camera focuses in on her face, the skin stretched tight in terror, a hellish cry can almost be heard to punctuate the cinema (note; it’s a silent film) The mouth, like a gaping wound screams out in vain. It is a chilling moment, visceral and horrifying, the embodiment of savage and pure communication.
There is irrelevant, so called “art” everywhere and as the intellectual dissection unfolds with inane and clinical monotony one is left to ponder what it all means. Fashion trends and the vibrations of the art world pervade the critical arena, occasionally giving it a shot to the arm, but more often than not leaving it to languish in a mire of pastiche and repetition. “Time is the only critic” Bacon once remarked, when scorning the hefty prices his paintings were fetching. Few people would be bold enough to question the relevance of his work today.
On the edges of consciousness lurk the residue of past nightmares and the absolute terror of suppressed emotion. Anger, hate, anguish and jealousy distill endlessly in the maw of modern man. If this immutable force could be given a voice, or something that comes close to capturing it, then it could be said Francis Bacon was that voice.
The works of Francis Bacon can be seen at both the Tate Modern and Tate Britain.
There is also a joint exhibition with Damien Hirst at the Gagosian Gallery, 6-24 Britannia Street WC1. Monday to Saturday 10am to 6pm, free. Tube; Kingscross.