Francis Bacon was obsessed with tortured bodies and carcasses his entire life, which he sought to capture on canvas in horror images. The Staatsgalerie Stuttgart pays tribute to one of the most outstanding and controversial artists of the 20th century with the exhibition “Francis Bacon. Invisible rooms”.
Francis Bacon was of the opinion, that his works didn’t even come close to the horror of life itself, but for many viewers his paintings are aesthetic and at the same time repugnant by the carnality voyeuristically displayed. To date his work hasn’t lost anything of its fascination and importance, with 40 mostly large-scale paintings, among them four triptychs, the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart dedicates a comprehensive exhibition to Francis Bacon for the second time after 1985. Starting off with his important early work “Crucifixion”, the tour conceived by curator Ina Conzen takes through all periods of the work by the artist, seldom exhibited drawings and in addition documents provide an insight into the development of Francis Bacon’s image concepts and his working methods.
Francis Bacon, Three Studies of the Male Back, 1970
Violence had a significant impact on his life since his early childhood, as son of British parents he was born into the Irish religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Dublin in 1909. On the outbreak of World War I his family moved from Dublin to London and commuted between both cities for several years. Due to the turmoil of war and asthmatic troubles, he suffered from, Francis Bacon didn’t attended school at a regular basis.
When he comes out as gay at the age of sixteen, his violent father throws him out of the house. He blunders into a spiral of drinking excesses, violence and gambling in the environment of the demimonde. Initially he muddles through in London, then his father sends him to Berlin in 1927, where he resides at the Hotel Adlon together with a rich friend in return for sexual services. Soon Francis Bacon settles in Paris, where he tries his luck unsuccessfully as a furniture designer and interior decorator. An exhibition of the “Bathers” by Pablo Picasso becomes his artistic awakening experience. Without ever having attended an art school, he starts to paint in oil as a self-taught painter under the guidance of the Australian artist Roy de Maistre.
His first noteworthy work “Crucifixion” from 1933 is presented at the exhibition “Art Now” at the London Mayor Gallery without any success. Also the Surrealists reject Francis Bacon in 1936 for being not surrealistic enough, as he applies for the international Surrealist exhibition. With this assessment the Surrealists proved to be right, as despite common role models such as Hieronymus Bosch and Goya the work by Francis Bacon never could be classified in established categories, he always remained an artistic outsider.
Francis Bacon, Seated Figure, 1961 – Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror, 1968 – Man and Child, 1968
After continuing failure as an artist he becomes a professional gambler in the 1930’s and during World War II he destroys almost his entire early work except for 15 images. In 1946 Francis Bacon settles in Monte Carlo and commutes between Monte Carlo and London until 1950. When he loses all his money at the casino and can’t afford new canvases in Monte Carlo, he uses the unprimed side of already painted pictures. This proves to be a lucky chance to him, as the oil paint penetrates the raw canvas immediately, no brush stroke can be corrected anymore, which requires a greater determination when painting. From this very moment on Francis Bacon continues to prefer painting on unprimed canvases.
For Francis Bacon screaming popes and monkey cages are one and the same: expression of a godless universe.
The gallery owner Erica Brausen dedicates his first solo exhibition to Francis Bacon in 1949 at her recently opened Hanover Gallery, which means the final breakthrough for him. With the triptych “Three studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” from 1944 he had achieved a surprising artistic maturity and mastership, that shaped his entire later work. At that time he also starts to paint his series of screaming popes, he had been inspired to by a black and white reproduction of Pope Innocent X by Velazquez. Francis Bacon was a professed nonbeliever, however, he embraced the western Christian tradition of painting, that’s why he also adopted the image format of the triptych. The scream of the pope is a revolt against liturgy and the world view of the clergy.
Francis Bacon, Study for Portrait VII, 1953
Film still from Sergei Eisenstein’s ”Battleship Potemkin”
The mouth opened to scream is the quintessence of various inspiration sources. On the one hand Francis Bacon had been fascinated for a long time by illustrations in a medical handbook on mouth diseases, which he had discovered in Paris. But also the depiction of the crying mother in “The Massacre of the Innocents” by Nicolas Poussin and the film still of the nurse from Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin”, which has been fatally shot in the eye, captured Francis Bacon. Moreover he owned a copy of the magazine “Documents” from 1930 with an article on the mouth written by Georges Bataille, which he described as the most important tool of man to experience enjoyment and pain, thus putting man and animal on the same level. The psychological sexual meaning of the mouth has been used also by Pablo Picasso for his figures, the recurring theme of the “Vagina dentata” may have unconsciously played a role for Francis Bacon as well. In his bodies deformed beyond recognition often it is only the sparkling rows of teeth, which give the viewer a hint on the facial physiognomy and form the figurative culmination of his gestural expressive painting technique, which he applies to model the flesh.
Francis Bacon was attracted by men inclined to violence his entire life. In 1952 Peter Lacy, a bar pianist, became his lover. When he pushed Francis Bacon out through a window, he suffered serious injuries in the face. His subsequent lover George Dyer was a depressive and violent criminal, who had committed burglary in the flat of Francis Bacon, which didn’t prevent him from entering a relationship with Dyer.
Francis Bacon, Triptych, 1967
The depiction of violence plays a major role in the work by Francis Bacon. The struggle for existence deforms and mutilates man. Distorted bulges of flesh and bloody carcasses are the protagonists in Bacon’s bizarre spatial constructions. Partly these monstrous torsi can be identified as human creatures only through their extremities or their mouths wide open, the transition to the animal is always smooth, they are unable to articulate themselves and suffer without meaning.
While Picasso deconstructs his figures into their pieces and puts them together anew, Francis Bacon condenses his heaps of flesh dough with expressive brush strokes, but aborts its anthropogenesis at the very moment it turns from abstract color matter into figuration. They don’t get beyond the threshold of an embryonic homunculus, as if god had been drunk and messed up his blueprint of life. Francis Bacon achieves the image effect of these incarnate nightmares, which “come across directly onto the nervous system” of the viewer, exactly through the same painting techniques, which he disapproves of with the Abstract expressionists. Being a figurative painter Bacon was a loner in a time that was characterized by the triumphant success of Abstract expressionism.
The world of Francis Bacon is full of black holes. In their maelstrom there is no escape for matter.
His squashed lumps of flesh are crouching on chairs, leaning on tables and lying in beds. The bodies are put in straitjackets, nailed down with syringes, entangled in the sex act and in their desperate struggle for life they don’t need to hope for god’s assistance, because god is dead. While they are yelling against their senseless suffering, they are shown up and embarrassed in Bacon’s arenas like slaughter cattle. Francis Bacon expressed his interest in slaughterhouses and raved about the beauty of meat. He was consistently astonished that it was not himself, who hung at the hook.
The figures of Francis Bacon always interact with the space, that surrounds them, figure and space are mutually dependent. Space condenses the abstract color matter to crude clusters of flesh on the verge of figuration between life and death, with their vitality and pain charging the spatial concept with energy. Francis Bacon is a master of contrasts and applies them brilliantly to enhance the intensity of the image. Clear monochrome areas encounter gestural expressive brush strokes, dark shadows represent a counterpoint to the color of the background, and the architectural linearity of the indicated cage structures contrast with the swelling forms of the figures.
Francis Bacon, Triptych – Studies from the Human Body, 1970
The Staatsgalerie Stuttgart places the hardly explored spatial concept in the images by Francis Bacon at the centre of their exhibition “Francis Bacon. Invisible Rooms”. The spatial stages in the painting by Francis Bacon turn his figures into prisoners, that are convulsed with the Horror Vacui and are shown up to the audience. Cubic lines force them into cages of glass, elliptic areas remind of armchairs, beds, tables or railings. They are running beyond the image borders and disrupt the frame, at the same time the aggressive colors of the backgrounds, which Francis Bacon has borrowed from Pop Art, attack the figures and approach towards the viewer. With the picture-in-picture theme of the linear framing Francis Bacon refers to the cagelike wire sculptures by Alberto Giacometti from his surrealist period dating back to the 1930’s, as well as his method of accentuating the portrayed figures in his drawings by zooming out the image section through lines.
Often Francis Bacon puts his tormented creatures on pedestals like exposed sculptures in order to satisfy the voyeurism of the viewer. They become exhibits in a freak show or a zoo, with the audience having to be protected from the excesses of violence by glass cases and cage structures. This effect is enhanced by the fact, that Francis Bacon had his unvarnished paintings framed behind glass to achieve a homogeneous image look. Like behind bulletproof glass the artificial horror scenarios are isolated from real space.
Like an architect Francis Bacon designed the most aesthetic torture chambers in the history of art.
These unreal arenas behind glass are of enchanting beauty. They are aseptic like operating rooms and hermetic like torture chambers, the sparse furniture charges the composition with tension and directs the look of the viewer to the protagonists contorted by pain, they are painted installations as it were. Abstract reduced furnishing with hard surfaces reminds of tubular steel furniture as by Le Corbusier or Eileen Gray, Francis Bacon’s attempt to eke out a living as a furniture designer in the 1930’s certainly plays a major role in designing the interior of his stylish image spaces. Mirrors, ellipsoid screens and doors multiply the rooms and enhance the magnetic appeal of the images to the viewer. Interior and exterior, claustrophobic narrowness and agoraphobic spaciousness become one. At first glance the staged space appears simple and clear, but in reality it is a mazelike hall of mirrors, which traps the objects and the viewer as well. To make the images increasingly “simpler and more complicated”, was the declared goal of Francis Bacon.
In doing so he also used the principle of simultaneity. Eadweards Muybridge’s photographic studies of motion “The Human Figure in Motion” from 1901 or “Animal Locomotion” from 1887 had a strong influence on the development of his aesthetic world view. The sequential presentation of motion had already been explored by Marcel Duchamp in his image “Nude Descending a Staircase” from 1912 and also by the Futurists. Francis Bacon’s ambition was to make his “pictures 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”.
Eadweards Muybridge, The Human Figure in Motion, 1901
The simultaneous depiction of perspectives is frequently supported by the use of the triptych format. In the relative space-time continuum of his images he saw the objects in a permanent metamorphosis und expressed these sequential snapshots in a triple view extended to a triptych. The Christian iconography of the altarpiece didn’t play any role for Francis Bacon, however, it helped him in charging his slaughter scenes with the religious dimension of passion painting.
Obviously photography has only been invented to be transformed into painting by Francis Bacon.
The most important inspiration source for him was photography, art historical references as the pope portrait by Velazquez, film stills, contemporary shots of athletes or dictators, but also of his private environment and self-portraits are brought together in this medium and transformed afterwards in a destructive process. Photos are painted over, crumpled, torn and pieced together anew, with the deformation being the creative starting point of the development of his large-scale paintings. Especially the depiction of boxing and wrestling matches strongly fascinated Francis Bacon, he associated the entangled bodies of wrestlers with the homoerotic sexual act. The medical manual “Positioning in Radiography”, an instruction for X-ray positioning techniques, was a resource for him to fasten his figures to bedframes and operating tables.
Francis Bacon, Portrait of Isabel Rawthorne Standing in a Street in Soho, 1967
He executed his visual ideas directly on the unprimed canvas without any initial sketches. The drawings exhibited at the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart prove, however, that Francis Bacon indeed sketched ideas on paper to execute them later on loosely as paintings. The dramatic effect of the pictured objects notwithstanding, the overlaying color matter always remains breathing and transparent. The partly visible texture of the canvas gives his painting a dry velvety surface, that comes close to the pastels by Edgar Degas, which Francis Bacon appreciated very much. In addition he mixed sand and dust to the oil paint and treated it with big brushes and worn out pullovers, which left their marks on the canvas like a stamp. In order to maintain the matt texture of the paint layers, Francis Bacon deliberately dispensed with varnish and had his pictures framed behind glass instead, which contrasts with the color matter through its light reflection and enhances the three-dimensional effect of the images.
The decorative effect he has considered as the main evil of abstract art, along with illustration and sentimentality. Francis Bacon always has refused to interpret his pictures, he left it to the viewer, what he wanted to see in them. He ignores the narrative consistently and makes his figures act isolated from the story of the image, thus the senselessness and irrationality of existence is pointed out. Nothing could be farther from his mind than wanting to change the world through art, in his opinion they were just pictures after all, nothing else.
Francis Bacon lived like a modern Diogenes in the jar. To live he didn’t need any more than a tiny studio.
The life and world view of Francis Bacon were shaped by the bipolar tension between order and chaos. This is reflected not only in his works, but also in his tiny studio flat in London at Reece Mews, where he lived from 1961 until his death in 1992. Bacon himself was considered to be disciplined and reliable, even when he was drunk, for his creative work, however, he needed the greatest possible chaos, that’s why his studio was worthy of a compulsive hoarder. Only very few chosen ones were allowed to enter the studio and even more seldom he would allow to be watched painting. For Francis Bacon painting has always been an intimate ritual act and his studio kind of a secret harbor.
Francis Bacon’s studio, 7 Reece Mews, South Kensington
He needed the disorder in order to transform it into order through the creative process and to give coincidence the chance to take command over ratio. The studio was a junk room in the attic, the floor was littered with paintstained photographs, books, tin cans and painting utensils. He used the walls as a huge palette to test the effect of colors. This chaos was the breeding ground for his ideas and for outsiders it remained a mystery, how he could produce such reduced and clean triptychs in this claustrophobic chaos, which barely fitted through the door of this storage closet.
Francis Bacon, Sand Dune, 1983 – Jet of Water, 1988
The experience of two world wars evoked the strong need in Francis Bacon “to tear away the veils that fact acquires through time”. In a pitiless analysis of his time and his own life he has unveiled the ugly truth of the 20th century. Today we experience a new dimension of horror with the presentation of human tragedy in the media, the propaganda war of international terrorism has ultimately robbed man of his dignity and reduced him to slaughter cattle, just as Francis Bacon always had foreseen it. His painted nightmares haven’t been the spawn of a bizarre mind, but the look of a visionary at reality. “We are born and we die, and in between we try to give meaning to this meaningless existence by our driving forces”.
07.10. – 08.01.17 Staatsgalerie Stuttgart