After Muybridge

Francis Bacon
After Muybridge--Study of the Human Figure in Motion
Woman emptying a Bowl of Water and Paralytic Child on All Fours
Oil on canvas, 198 x 147.5 cm.
Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

Perhaps in line with the lively atmosphere of London, in the sixties, Bacon’s compositions became more daring than before. He began to use areas of flat, high-key colour to frame and isolate his figures, and painted portraits on a smaller scale. These portraits are among his most adventurous works, conveying a distinct likeness with thick twists of paint which seem to consist of only a few wild strokes and turns of the brush.

This painting, which brings together a woman with a bowl of water and a paralytic child on all fours, acknowledges the groundbreaking photographs of Eadweard Muybridge in its title. When Bacon considered turning his hand to sculpture, this was one of the works that he thought could form the basis for a three-dimensional object. He proposed constructing the railing in the image and setting both of the figures on tracks so that they could be moved along it.

The image reflects the motion that Muybridge studied in his photographs. Here the woman’s body seems to capture not one moment in the movement but the entire gesture (AG NSW).

Paralytic Child on All Fours (after Muybridge), 1961
Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague



100% Bacon
A Realm of Singularities
Acerca de lo Grotesco en las pinturas de Bacon
After Muybridge
Art Documents: Francis Bacon, Remarks
Art Documents: Francis Bacon, Remarks 1985 and 2007
Artworks, Sources, Comparisons
Aspectos grotescos del arte de Bacon
Bacon: A Painter with a Double-Edged Sword
Bacon at the BBC
Bacon by Akerman: Best of Google Knol
Bacon recalls Cocteau
Bacon's Position
Bacon's Studio: A Deeply Ordered Chaos
Baconian Concerns
Baconiana 1
Baconiana 2
Baconiana Issues, 1998-2009
Beautiful Deformity reaches £21m
Britannia Awakes
Careful Planning
Centenary Exhibition 2009: Paintings, Sources of Inspiration and Other Work Documents
Centenary Exhibition Reviews: London
Centenary Exhibition Reviews: Madrid
Centenary Exhibition Reviews: New York
Clipping as Source of Inspiration
Considerando que leyó lo que publicó ese al que se le dijo qué es lo que posiblemente pudo haber sucedido...
Double Silence
El juego de Bacon
El maletín de Bacon: ¿Grotesco tocinesco?
El taller y sus contenidos
Figura en el espejo, 1971
Five Decades
Foam of Feeling and Existential Wasteland
Focus on Francis Bacon: Newsweek 1977 and The New York Times 1989
Francesco Pianta
Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon: Decoration and Rugs, c. 1929-30
Francis Bacon the Painter
Francis Bacon y lo Grotesco
Georges Bataille: The Mouth
Grand Guignol
Grotesqueness in the Triptych
Hanging Some Favorites
Inspired by Dr. Grünwald
Interviews with Francis Bacon
Jean Cocteau: Orpheus
John Edwards
La peinture du cri humaine
Las fuentes hispánicas del arte baconiano
Lo Grotesco en las pinturas de Bacon
Lo Grotesco en las pinturas instinctivas de Bacon
Love is the Devil
Observaciones peninsulares
Painter Francis Bacon Centennial Birthday
Peintre des émotions enfouies
Pintor de la violencia y el horror
Poetry after Auschwitz
Pope with Owls, 1958
Potential Carcasses
Pride and Prejudice
Queer Francis
Realism in extremis
Sadomasoquismo implícito
Tate Biographic Data
The Greatest Painter or a Fascinating Mess?
The Grotesque in Bacon's Paintings
The Human Zoo
Three Reviews from Studio International
Transatlantic Viewpoint
Triptych 1976
Turbulent Modern
Una mirada al grotesco vital
Viewpoint: Zervigon on Bacon
Wrestlers' Contact Sheets, 1975
Zissou on Bacon

Silver Yad, By Joseph Zweig, London, 1901

1951 Figure with Monkey
1952 Man Screaming
1953 Two Figures
1954-55, c. Untitled (Pope)
1958 Pope with Owls (Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels)
1961 Two Figures
1962 Three Studies for a Crucifixion (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York)
1963 Portrait of Henrietta Moraes
1967 Study for Bullfight No. 2 (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon)
1968 Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid)
1971 Lying Figure in a Mirror (Museo de Bellas Artes, Bilbao)
1976 Self-Portrait (Musée Cantini, Marseille)
1976 Triptych
1979 Triptych Three Studies of the Human Body

artwork development. Five Decades
bibliography. Resources.
biography. Francis BaconFrancis Bacon the Painter; Tate Biographic Data.
Cocteau, Jean. Orpheus.
comparisons. ASCFlaxman, Grünwald-1Grünwald-2, Pianta.
effect. 100% BaconZissou, Hervé.
Grotesque, the. Akerman: Painter with a Double-Edged Sword, Grotesqueness in the TriptychSER Y NO SER, Francis Bacon y lo Grotesco, Aspectos grotescos del arte de BaconEl juego de baconThe Grotesque in Bacon's PaintingsLo Grotesco en las pinturas de BaconLo Grotesco en las pinturas instinctivas de Bacon; Acerca de lo Grotesco en las pinturas de BaconUna mirada al grotesco vital
homosexuality. Queer Francis
mirror. Bacon recalls CocteauOrpheus.
method. Careful Planning.
monsters. The Art of Francis Bacon
Nazi imagery. Britannia Awakes.
New Figuration. Realism in extremis.
Picasso, Pablo. Distortion
Poe, Edgar Allan. Double Silence
remarks and quotations. Art Documents, Remarks, BBCBacon's Position, Francis Bacon y lo Grotesco, Aspectos grotescos del arte de Bacon, El juego de BaconPainter with a Double-Edged Sword, Peintre des émotions enfouies.
reviews. London; Madrid; New York; The Human Zoo; Foam of Feeling and Existential WastelandThe Greatest Painter or a Fascinating Mess?; Pride and Prejudice; Vidal.
resources. Centennial Birthday.
studio. Bacon's StudioEl taller y sus contenidos.
sadomasochism. Sadomasoquismo implícitoConsiderando.
themes. Baconian Concerns; Bacon's Position
visual sources. Interviews with Francis BaconClipping as Source of Inspiration; El taller y sus contenidos; Inspired by Grünwald; Grand Guignol; Wrestlers' Contact Sheets; Centenary Exhibition 2009Careful Planning; El maletín de Bacon; Las fuentes hispánicas del arte baconiano; Incunabula; A Mind on Fire; ASC, Love is the Devil

Electronic Sources

Akerman, Luis Mariano. Acerca de lo Grotesco en las pinturas de Bacon, Buenos Aires, 2008

-----. "The Grotesque in Francis Bacon's Instinctive Paintings," Knol: A Unit of Knowledge, 30.10.2009
http://knol.google.com/k/the-grotesque-in-bacon-s-instinctive-paintings ; http://fb-akermariano.blogspot.com/2011/07/google-knol-best.html

-----. Lo familiar vuelto inquietante, Imaginarium, blog, 13.3.2009

-----. "Bacon: A Painter with a Double-Edged Sword," Blue Chip Magazine, Vol. 8, Issue 88, Islamabad, February-March 2012, pp. 29-33

Alarcó, Paloma. Retrato de George Dyer en un espejo, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, 2001, ficha obra 764 ( 19.2.2009).

Argullol, Rafael. "La estimulante desesperación de Bacon," El País, Madrid, 13.02.09

Bacon, Francis. "Francis Bacon," interview by David Sylvester, broadcast on BBC The Third Program, 23 March 1963

-----. Francis Bacon, peintre anglais, excerpt from interview in French, by Pierre Koralnik, film presented in Continent sans visa, Télévision Suisse Romande, 2 July 1964 (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, 25.2.2013).

-----. Pilot "Francis Bacon," excerpt from an interview by Julian Jebb, 1965 (not broadcast).

-----. Statement, London, October 1962, as recorded and filmed in London by the BBC Television, May 1966

-----. "Francis Bacon: Fragments of a Portrait," interview by David Sylvester, TV documentary, broadcast on BBC1, 18 September 1966

-----. "Stripped Down to What's Real," interview by David Jones, Paris exhibition review, broadcast on BBC2, 29 October 1971

-----. "Titian's The Death of Actaeon," Arts Commentary, presented by Andrew Forge, broadcast BBC Radio 3, 4 March 1972.

-----. "Francis Bacon," interview in French by Pierre André Boutang and Pierre Daix, video, Annonceur, Paris, 14 January 1984

-----. "A Man without Illusions," presented by Richard Cork, broadcast on BBC Radio 3, 16 May 1985

-----. "Francis Bacon," interview in French by Thierry Ardisson and Frank Maubert, video, Bains de minuit, INA France, 9 October 1987.

-----. "I'll Go On until I Drop," interview by Richard Cork, Kaleidoscope, broadcast on BBC Radio 4, 17 August 1991.

-----. "Innocent Screams," Centurions, produced by Hellen Castell, broadcast on BBC Radio 3, 24 January 1999.

Barrot, Olivier. "Les Entretiens de Francis Bacon, par Michel Archimbaud," news video, Un livre un jour, INA France 3, 28 October 1992

Bragg, Melvyn, interviewer. Bacon, filmed and directed by David Hinton, London: Arena for London Weekend Television, The South Bank Show, 1985.

Buffalo, NY, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Francis Bacon: Paintings from the 1950s, videoclip, May-July 2007

Cork, Richard. "Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion," One Hundred Great Paintings, broadcast on BBC2, 5 April 1982

Ebert, John David. The Art of Francis Bacon, Cultural Discourse, 21 June 2012

Eindhoven, Van Abbemuseum, Francis Bacon, Mixed Messages: Living Archive, April-September 2009

Étude pour une corrida n° 2, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon (30.10.2009)

Gale, Matthew. Artist Biography: Francis Bacon, Tate, London, December 1997

Hervé. Comment on Bacon's Étude pour une corrida n° 2 (Study for Bullfight No. 2), Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon (25.2.2013)

Francis Bacon: Biography, Marlborough Fine Art, London

Morris, Desmond. On Francis Bacon's Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, Tate Etc., Micro Tate Issue 8, 1 September 2006, 31.10.2009

Muñoz-Molina, Antonio. "Carne de Bacon," El País, Madrid, 14.03.09, Suplemento Babelia

Serraller, Francisco Calvo. "Bacon, la sensualidad de la herida," El País, Madrid, 07.02.09, Suplemento Babelia

Shafrazi, Tony. Text excerpt from New York, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, Francis Bacon: Paintings, April-May 2002

Stephens, Chris, retrospective curator. Francis Bacon at Tate Britain, videoclip, London: Tate, 1 September 2008
http://www.tate.org.uk ; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M58t3IMeTr8

Spector, Nancy. Three Studies for a Crucifixion, Guggenheim Museum, New York (30.10.2009).

The Art of Francis Bacon, with Derek Jacobi quoting the painter, UK: The State of Francis Bacon and Illuminations, 2007

The Hague, Gemeentemuseum, Francis Bacon, 2001

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, London, Tate Gallery, display caption, May 2007

Tranter, Rhys. "Francis Bacon: Tate Exhibition 2008," A Piece of Monologue, blog, 14.09.08


Poetry after Auschwitz

"Great art is always a way of concentrating, reinventing what is called fact, what we know of our existence […], tearing away the veils that fact acquires through time." Francis Bacon, interview by Hugh Davies, June 26, 1973 (Hugh Davies and Sally Yard, Francis Bacon, New York, 1986, p. 110).

Francis Bacon : Untitled, detail, c. 1954-55
It is perhaps the most singularly devastating personification in figural art of the post-war period. It is a vision so universal and immediate that it threatens to traverse the threshold between viewer and object, simultaneously leaping into our domain and sucking us into its own. It is an unrepeatable image, borne specifically of its time and of the unique experiences of its creator, yet stands as an allegory for perpetuity. Emerging from the desolate shadows of the Second World War and its abject annihilation of over fifty million souls, a Pope looms forth from the depths of Francis Bacon’s formidable genius and draws near, into our focus. The Vicar of Christ, Successor of Saint Peter and God’s temporal representative on earth; this Supreme Pontiff has transmogrified into a chimera of awesome terror. It has become the anguished epitome of humanity’s excruciating scream: deafening to our collective interior, yet silent in the existential void. Encaged within insufferable isolation, this Pope - totem of enlightened perception, of authoritative faith, of order against chaos - is violently racked by the brutal fact of the human condition. It is the proposition of a world turned upside down, of established systems shattered, and, as such, is the perfect response to Theodor Adorno’s legendary 1951 axiom "There can be no poetry after Auschwitz." Having remained in the same private collection for over thirty years and hidden from public view, this painting embodies, of course, Bacon’s most celebrated and recognizable iconography. Even more than this, as a Pope it crystallizes a thunderous climax in the long arc of that elusive and indefinable engine of innovation known as artistic genius. Within the Twentieth Century, perhaps only Picasso’s Guernica, with its monumental, monochrome nightmare apparition of a Nativity scene being torn apart by massacre, parallels the impossible figurative potency of Bacon’s Screaming Popes.

Francis Bacon, Untitled (Pope), c. 1954-55
Oil on canvas, 152 x 94 cm.
New York, Sotheby's, auction, 13.12.2012
Sold U$D 29,762,500.-

The phenomenal specter of papal imagery and its inspiration had seeped into Bacon’s work since the end of the 1940s, but the present painting is more precisely allied to his most revered cycle of Popes; the eight Study for Portraits that were executed in the summer of 1953 for his first exhibition outside England, at Durlacher Brothers Gallery in New York in October to November of that year. Constituents of this corpus today reside in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Hirshhorn Museum, the Minneapolis Institute and the Lehman Loeb Art Center. However, it is to the seminal masterpiece Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X of 1953, housed in the Des Moines Art Center, that the present work bears especially close parity. In terms of the composition of space, the bodily expression and the figure’s portrait, the two paintings harbor close formal correspondence. Indeed, the visceral physiognomic intensity of the contorted features and flashing teeth of the gaping mouth in the present canvas, so deftly fashioned by the artist’s daubs of writhing paint, achieves a heightened psychological import – shooting the desperate papal cry straight into the realm of the viewer – that surpasses any of the eight Studies and is matched only by the Des Moines work. Bacon’s painting here is unleashed and urgent, unencumbered by any stodgy deliberation or revision, and his unbridled protagonist delivers a primal clarion call that summons Georges Bataille’s potent proclamation: “Terror and atrocious suffering make the mouth an organ of searing screams.” (Georges Bataille, ‘Dictionnaire – Bouche’, Documents, No. 5, 1930, pp. 298-99)

Bacon’s typically eloquent declaration that he wanted to “unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently” aptly explains how the genesis of this most ambitious body of work was seeded by an inspirational touchstone of resounding familiarity. The archetype Bacon appropriated as starting point for his Pope series was Diego Velázquez’s extraordinary Portrait of Pope Innocent X of 1650, held in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome; a painting for which Bacon was "haunted and obsessed," given "its perfection” (Francis Bacon interviewed by Hugh Davies, June 26, 1973, in Davies and Yard, Bacon, p. 23). Having travelled to Rome from the Spanish court of Philip IV in 1649, Velázquez was afforded the great honor of depicting the Pope, Giambattista Pamphilj, known as Innocent X, whom he had met as papal nuncio in Madrid in 1626-30. The painting was executed in a Jubilee year when 700,000 pilgrims descended on Rome, and Velázquez dutifully portrayed the Bishop of Rome as the most powerful man in the world, encased by the trappings of his office. Yet the spectacular achievement of this portrait is that within the gold, silk and lace vestiges of papal supremacy resides a mortal human being beset by flaw and fallibility. While Pope Innocent X resides literally ex cathedra in the papal throne, official document clutched in hand and glinting ring proffered for all to pay homage; the man Pamphilj wears a pained and suspicious countenance that betrays the unscrupulous and duplicitous pitfalls of his tenure as Pontiff. The brilliance of Velázquez’s embedded juxtaposition, pitting the Papacy’s supposed omnipotence against Man’s inevitable frailty, while also delivering a likeness that was so highly received that he was awarded a golden medallion for his services, ignited an ambition within Bacon to equal this achievement, albeit in a godless world that had been literally torn to shreds by chaos and destruction. Moreover, beyond the substrate of canvas and layers of oil paint, Bacon perceived the voice of the artist speaking across the centuries: “If you look at a Velázquez, what do you think about? ... I don’t think about his sitters, I think about him… I think about Velázquez, I think people believe that they’re painting other people, but they paint out their own instincts.” (Francis Bacon interviewed by Hugh Davies, August 13, 1973, in San Diego, Museum of Contemporary Art, Francis Bacon: The Papal Portraits of 1953, 1999, p. 34).

It has previously been noted that Bacon had not at this stage in his career seen the Velázquez painting in Rome firsthand, and for this initial series of papal portraits he worked from a black and white illustration of the work. This in turn has been suggested as the cause for the purple color of the garments in these paintings differing from the original cardinal red. However, while Bacon’s extensive enlistment of and reference to photographic sources is beyond question, it also seems more than likely that he was familiar with another version of Velázquez’s painting; one that has resided in Apsley House, the seat of the Duke of Wellington in London, since the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. This smaller painting by Veláquez, either a study made before or copy made after the larger work, was gifted to the Duke of Wellington by the King of Spain in 1816. Under the Duke of Wellington’s great-grandson, Apsley House and its art collection was opened to the public in 1952, the centenary of the first Duke’s death and, conveniently, shortly before Francis Bacon initiated a grand cycle of papal portraits including the present painting. That Apsley House sits at Hyde Park Corner, about fifteen minutes’ walk from the Royal College of Art where Bacon was using a studio between 1951 and 1953, readily invites the hypothesis that he was able to study this highly accomplished version at close quarters.

However, the Velázquez painting is merely a template that becomes a delivery system for Bacon’s radical and unrelenting reinvention. Indeed, the present work is Bacon’s concrete realization that "Great art is always a way of concentrating, reinventing what is called fact […], tearing away the veils that fact acquires through time." (Davies and Yard, Bacon, p. 110). Thus Bacon replaces the subjective idiosyncrasies of the grand state portrait with an intimate visage of pain and suffering that stands as proxy for the torment of the human race. His source for this all-encompassing cipher was provided by a film still of a screaming female character in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 movie The Battleship Potemkin. Bacon had first seen the movie in 1935 and viewed it frequently thereafter, and this specific still was reproduced in Roger Manvell’s 1944 paperback Film, though Bacon also kept other reproductions of the startling image. The frame shows a pince-nez wearing elderly woman, commonly referred to as a nurse, shot through the eye and caught at the instant of death. It belongs to the movie’s massacre sequence on the Odessa Steps which, though it veers wildly from historical accuracy, remains one of the most iconic pieces of propagandist film ever made. Within its remorseless tragedy it is this character, part blinded and dying while also witnessing a baby in a pram being brutalized by the sword of a tsarist soldier, that embodies the conception of absolute horror and the abandonment of all hope. By supplanting Velázquez’s portrait of Innocent X with this twentieth-century essence of ultimate despair and its tortured last gasping breath, Bacon unites two extremes of enduringly vehement imagery.

Bacon’s papal figure is caught in a symphony of movement; its representation comprised all of shadows and flashing motion and evolving in constant flux. This also recalls the photography of Edweard Muybridge, which used multiple cameras and an elaborate trigger device to capture successive stages of motion. Bacon possessed many illustrations of Muybridge's images and this Pope’s right hand, veering towards us out of the darkness, recalls something of Muybridge's photograph series 'Striking a Blow with the Right Hand', a fragment of which was found in the artist's studio after his death. While the right hand of Velázquez’s Innocent X hangs limply from the support of his gilded throne, Bacon’s papal fury lashes out at the viewer with a clenched fist, once again destabilizing the barrier between viewer and subject.

The drama of all this corporeal expression is greatly intensified by the artist’s complex framing of the composition and the many facets that define an uneasy sense of flux and unknowable dimensions within the canvas. Bacon’soverlapping linear schema here act as cage-like space frames that enclose this Pope inside its solitary nightmare. Indeed, the present work proves to act as prototype for Bacon’s consequent declaration: “I like the anonymous compartment, like a room concentrated in a small space. I would like to paint landscapes in a box […]. If you could enclose their infinity in a box they would have a greater concentration.” (Bacon, interview by Davies in 1973, in Francis Bacon: New Studies, ed. Martin Harrison, Göttingen, 2009, p. 111). This compositional organization echoes Picasso’s strategy of reducing three-dimensions to a scored network of diagrammatic black lines, such as in the groundbreaking Painter and Model of 1928. It is also strongly redolent of the frantic inscribed urgency of Giacometti’s autograph portraiture style and architectonic construction, so harshly graphic in his visceral drawings, and evident in Portrait of Peter Watson of 1953, which was a work that Bacon probably knew. It is also reminiscent of Bacon’s work as a furniture designer in the late 1920s, where he defined the parameters of actual space with folding screens and curved metal tubes inspired by the Bauhaus, Le Corbusier and Ozenfant, and which are well-evidenced in a 1930 article in The Studio magazine and the documentary paintings of his fellow painter and friend Roy de Maistre. The space frames of the papal portraits mark the mature inception of these translucent compartments of literal, psychological and somatic space that would also trap anonymous businessmen within midnight blue voids and imprison countless actors in triptychs throughout Bacon’s oeuvres of the subsequent three decades.

Perhaps more than any other theme associated with his canon, the threat of mortality inhabits every pore of Bacon’s art. Danger, violence and death constantly linger in the recesses of his canvases, acting like a continual incantation of his deft maxim: “Consciousness of mortality sharpens one’s sense of existing.” (Ibid., p. 96). Of course, many of his greatest later works became directly associated with the sudden and brutal deaths of his respective lovers Peter Lacy and George Dyer, but in fact the risk of impending fatality imbued his existence from its most formative stage. Alongside the actual events of his life, Bacon became a devourer of the canon of western Art History, and he purposely sought out those most powerful narrators of the tragedy of the human drama, from Michelangelo to Velázquez to Poussin to Picasso, to provide an analytical framework for his own experience. The dramatic shadow of this illustrious precedent is readily evident in the present work.

Bacon’s coming of age was thus forged in a crucible of uncertainty and risk, and this heritage violently coursed through his subsequent life and art. Fifteen years after Paris, in 1944, he delivered the searing cry of his masterpiece Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion; shrieking into existence to announce that figurative art could never be the same again. A decade after that, the Popes declared that everything we thought we knew - the history that was meant to bind us, the psychological and emotional journeys we supposedly shared, the promise of futures entwined together - were all merely veils to mask the thunderous yet silent solitary scream that lies within us all. It remains one of the most pertinent, universal and affecting visions in the History of Art, and the full force of its power is trapped forever on the surface of this sensational painting.

Painter of a Double-Edged Sword


A Realm of Singularities

The following essay on Bacon's art is thought-provoking and possibly one of the finest ever devoted to the Anglo-Irish painter.

John David Ebert, "The Art of Francis Bacon," Cultural Discourse, 21 June 2012


Francis Bacon’s art is the kind of art that surfaces into view when a World collapses. Like the art of Hieronymous Bosch or Pieter Brueghel, which unleashed a cavalcade of horrors at precisely the time when the Christian macrosphere was undergoing disintegration due to the impacts of new tools and principles of the scientific age then dawing — i.e. the perspectival grid captured in Durer’s 1525 woodcut of a Draughtsman Drawing a Recumbent Woman; the retrieval of Platonic mathematics by Copernicus — such an art opens up the Gates of Hell, as it were, and unleashes a flood of cosmic monsters which the functioning macrosphere had been specifically erected to defend Civilization against. Just as the walls of Medieval cities had kept the siegeing armies of the Vikings and later, the Moors at bay, so too, the Western mind had built ontological walls designed to keep the demons from the world Out There from infiltrating the collective consciousness of European society.

In Bacon’s case, it wasn’t the Moors armed with their newly acquired technics of gunpowder that brought down the walls, but the Nazis with their V2 rockets and their corporately manufactured Zyklon B nerve gas that ruptured, and then exploded, the West’s final metaphysical bubble, that bubble which the Swiss philosopher Jean Gebser termed the “Integral Sphere,” and which had come into being as a collective endeavor of all the arts and sciences of the nineteenth century, where it had served as an ontological sphere that gave a unity of purpose and metaphysical meaning to the project of Modernity taken as a whole.

It was in the aftermath of the great apocalyptic war that ended history, then, when the ancient monsters which the Christian mythos had captured, bound and thrust down into the underworld — sealing it with a huge cosmic rock — found that the entrance to their world had been blown open and that they were free, once again, to crawl about the surface of the earth. Such monsters, like the cosmic beings out of a Lovecraft tale, are invisible and not readily apparent to the senses, but it is precisely the task of the artist, of any age, to make the invisible visible.

And so the canvases of Francis Bacon came into being as an attempt to render these demons perceptible to our faculties of vision and sense in an age in which the structuring scaffolds of grand metanarratives no longer existed to defend us moderns against them.


The first such group of monsters to concern us are, of course, the three creatures of Bacon’s great work Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), a work which he always regarded as marking the inception of his oeuvre. He had already been painting since 1929 or so, but he regarded these early works as gauche and awkward attempts to find a style, a style which crystallized all at once in the 1944 triptych, his first real achievement as an artist.

It is important to note that, as the title indicates, this is a crucifixion, not the Crucifixion, for Bacon’s work is concerned with the formation of singularities, not the repetition of archetypes, which had been one of the main concerns of Modernism. For Bacon, it is true, does borrow the three figures at the foot of Grunewald’s great Isenheim Crucifixion — Mary Magdalene (left panel), Christ (center panel, indicated by the blindfolded Christ he has taken from Grunewald’s Mocking of Christ) and the lamb (right panel), but he transforms them beyond all recognition into monsters, and in doing so, articulates (albeit in the picture language of images) a complex theory of the morphogenesis of monsters. For Bacon’s work, despite all his hand waving at any attempts to find meaning in his canvases, is about the formation of singularities, and this early triptych represents the inception of that project.

Bacon’s theory here — even if only unconscious on his part — is that monsters are created through a complex process of morphological folding and stretching of organisms such that they are torqued and twisted until they no longer conform to any preexistent animal patterns. As Deleuze and Guattari point out in A Thousand Plateaus, it was the eighteenth century biologist Geoffrey St. Hilaire who proposed, in opposition to Cuvier, that all animals in nature are really only one animal, a primordial Uranimal that has been elongated, stretched and twisted during the processes of embryogenesis in order to specify all the earth’s animal forms. You get a cephalopod, he said, by folding a vertebrate in half from head down to tail: voila, a squid! Or a giraffe by stretching the neck of a vertebrate while simultaneously shortening its torso. Or a snake by removing the legs of a lizard and stretching it out lengthwise. And so on.

Deformities, likewise, St. Hilaire held, were created when a human being was born before the morphogenetic process was completed: a heteradelph, for instance, is really an individual arrested at a very early stage of embryogenesis before the organism has been fully differentiated. And indeed, when one glances at a page of nineteenth century drawings of embryogenetic processes throughout the animal world — such as those famously drawn by Ernst Haeckel, for instance — with all their pre-formed, half-formed and yet-to-be-formed embryos, and then back again at the creatures of Bacon’s triptych, one does begin to see that monsters are indeed created when the morphological folding of the organism during embryogenesis is arrested.

Henry Vandyke Carter (illustrator), Head of a four week old human embryo, engraving, from Henry Gray, Anatomy: Descriptive and Surgical (Anatomy of the Human Body), England, 1858, 41.

Certain things can happen to an embryo which would destroy the skeleton of a fully formed vertebrate: it can be folded in half, twisted asunder and shifted around as though it were a Creature Without Organs. But it is only the finished creature which corresponds to a pre-existent animal pattern and which is therefore not a singularity, but rather conforms to a Type that is already in existence. If the embryo, however, is born before the topological foldings are complete, then you have a monster: that is to say, a creature that does not conform to a pre-existent and therefore recognizable pattern.

Bacon’s project, then, which he announces in this first great triptych, is to create new forms, whether human or animal, by appropriating the folding and stretching processes of embryogenesis, forms which are, therefore, completely novel and which correspond to no known patterns or archetypes: singularities, in other words. This is why his project is so radically different from Modernism — despite its superficial similarities of figuration, etc. — because it is based on an ontological theory not of matching but of making. Modernism, and indeed, the entire history of Western art, was based on — or at least, consistent with — the old adequatio theory of truth in which there exists a correspondence between things and pre-established truths. A thing is true because it can be said to correspond to a pattern, usually Platonic, that pre-exists and makes possible, the truth itself.

But in an ontology of singularities, such as that which, for example, Deleuze articulates in his Difference and Repetition, truth is not about the correspondence of knowledge with its object. For Deleuze, the philosopher creates concepts by extracting singularities from the flow of cliches, banalities and conventions. Truth is not, for Deleuze, an old-fashioned matter of Platonic matching of the thing with the archetype that makes it possible in the first place, but rather the creation of really novel, and therefore fresh ideas, or in the case of Bacon, new forms.

Modernism, on the other hand, despite its ethic of “make it new,” was nonetheless Platonic in essence, since it was all about the rediscovery of mythic — and mathematical — archetypes, precisely the Jungian archetypes of the collective unconscious, which it made visible through the works of Picasso, Klee, Beckman, Chagall, etc. etc. who were all concerned, to one degree or another, with myth-making.

This is not the case, though, with contemporary art, which actually creates its own truths as it goes along. It does not match them to Platonic Forms, Ideas or otherwise already known categories, and it is therefore based on an ontology of making, not matching. This is why it is so hard for most people to grasp: because it does not refer outside of itself to some other, already known metaphysical world of Forms, and the mind therefore has difficulty getting a grip on it.

And this is precisely why Bacon belongs as one of the founding fathers of contemporary art and not, as he is commonly seen, as one of the last belated stragglers of Modernism. Everything in his work is new: nothing corresponds to or refers to other worlds or archetypes, mythic or otherwise, beyond the work of art itself. Bacon creates his own world as he goes along, constructing a semiotic of meaning that is entirely his own and which has significance only within the world of unique forms that he creates. It is, therefore, a hermetically sealed, self-enclosed and also self-referential world whose semiotics derive only from signifiers that refer to his own made up signifieds.

It is an art that takes place outside the metaphysical age, and all of its structures and metanarratives, which ended with Modernism and also, incidentally, History itself during World War II.

And so, lacking a pre-existent metaphysical universe within which to make sense out of his images, it seemed to Bacon (mistakenly) that what he was doing had no meaning and meant nothing. On the contrary: Bacon was like an alchemist constructing a tiny world of his own inside of a glass beaker; hence the significance of the famous perspectival cubes that he often used as staging for the exhibition of his images. They are hermetically sealed vessels inside which he invents tiny homunculi that he then proceeds to torture with his experiments. But what takes place inside these glass terrariums has no reference to any other world existing outside them. Such meaning as they have refer only to Bacon’s microverse and not to any other metaphysical macrosphere inside which his art takes place.

Bacon, that is to say, does not create in a world; his images are worlds unto themselves and therefore cannot be understood along the lines of any sort of Platonic theory of matching that tends to burden much art criticism, which often proceeds by examining the relation of this or that painting or work of art to earlier pre-existent works of art by way of which they are measured. There is some dialogue with the past, it is true, in Bacon: his fascination with Velazquez and Van Gogh come to mind. But of course his semiotic is not a pure one: it is still mixed with striations of Modernist agendas in which dialogues with the Old Masters were de rigeur. But such dialogues do not compose the fabric of Bacon’s microverse. They are merely atavistic organs left over from previous epochs of art evolution which are in no way essential to understanding how the new organism functions in the contemporary milieu in which it finds itself situated.

Bacon Descends Into Hell

The first such archetypal atavism, then, that we encounter as we proceed through Bacon’s oeuvre is his descent into the underworld, which begins with his shocking Painting 1946. This painting of a hanging side of beef split down the middle, and a man with the top of his head sheared away standing beneath an umbrella, functions in a way that is directly analogous to the ancient entrances to temples and cathedrals that were usually adorned with frightening threshold guardians. Think of the Kirtimukkhas of the Far East or the apocalyptic Christs on the west portals of European cathedrals.

Indeed, for the next decade or so, Bacon will spend his time sojourning in a murky, cavernous World Below populated by self-luminous figures that radiate their phosphorescence out of a dim and uncertain all-surrounding darkness: a collection of Popes and mysterious, anonymous businessmen that remind one of Homer’s twittering shades. This is the period of Bacon’s dialogue with Velazquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X, which appears to grow out of the series of heads that he paints beginning with Head I of 1948, especially since Head IV is actually the first of the Pope paintings.

It is in Head I, furthermore, that Bacon first begins to construct his hermetic cube, a corner of which can be glimpsed surfacing into view above the screaming head in the top right corner. By the time of the first of the Velazquez Popes with Head IV, the cube has been constructed, and the screaming Pope sits securely within it, a prisoner of its semiotic overcoding.

This geometrical cube is a sort of apparatus of semiotic capture that Bacon constructs as a miniature coordinate system within which his laboratory experiments can take place. In the Age of the World Picture, as Heidegger described it, back in the 17th century, the entirety of Western science and philosophical thinking unfolded inside of a similar cube in the form of the Cartesian x, y and z axes, which were also an apparatus of semiotic capture, since anything that appeared inside them, such as the Scientific Object or the Philosophical Self, was immediately overcoded by the sign regime of the scientific episteme. Objects were deworlded, becoming pure things in themselves, and the Subject, too, in philosophy from Descartes’s cogito to Husserl’s Transcendental Ego, became a pure subject-in-itself, floating free of all world parameters. That particular cube signified the knowledge apparatus during the metaphysical age, and in the 19th century it disintegrated and gave rise to an epistemic sphere: as Jean Gebser points out, Modernist art is painted on the curved space of non-Euclidean geometry. By Bacon’s day, however, both Cube and Sphere were gone, bombed out of existence by the horrors of World War II, horrors which were so extensive that they reached all the way into the metaphysical plane and wrecked it, too, with the thoroughness of one of those Allied firebombings of German cities. Bacon, therefore, had to construct his own apparatus of semiotic capture in his art since there was no longer an extant one to overcode all of his art inside of a metaphysical and encompassing sphere of significance. Thus, it is precisely while journeying through his underworld that this semiotic cage, essential for all the rest of his art, is constructed.

The other thing that Bacon works out during his sojourn is his particular facial semiotic. It is precisely on the features of his anonymous businessmen that he proceeds to recode the human face by “defacializing” it, to use D&G’s term, in which he scrambles facial features in order to undo their signifying codes. Bacon’s faces are masks that do not signify on the West’s traditional plane of signification, but are, rather, asignifying masks that refer to nothing beyond themselves. In contrast to tribal art — which Picasso’s facializations often signify — in which the mask is always a mask of some spirit being or other entity that pre-exists the individual wearer and defacializes him by absorbing him back into the ancestral realm of the tribe, Bacon’s masks do not point to a signifying plane of recognizable entities or archetypes, for their facial features are completely scrambled and therefore signify, as he always said, nothing. They are, rather, masks that undo the codes connecting the figure to this or that pre-existent system of meaning, masks in which Bacon is unplugging the human figure from all such narrative systems whatsoever.

Color Event

Long about 1956-57, an Event transpires in Bacon’s art, an Event that indicates his emergence from the underworld. This is the Color Event that begins with his dialogue with Van Gogh in the series of eight paintings that he did in 1957 as reworkings of Van Gogh’s 1888 Painter on His Way to Work. It is as though Bacon has come up from the dark, lightless underworld that had formed the interior of his world space for a decade and brought up from that underworld the shade of Van Gogh, like Orpheus attempting, but in this case, succeeding in bringing Eurydice back to the day world with him.

In Van Gogh’s painting, furthermore, there is a shadow cast upon the ground by the artist as he strides down the road in the middle of the day, and in reworking this image, the figure of the Shadow enters into Bacon’s canvases as a permanent acquisition, a sort of etheric scar of his journey to the underworld, which is composed of nothing but shades. In his lightless underworld paintings, there had been no shadows because there was no exterior light source, and a shadow cannot be cast without one. The figures were themselves shadows. But once he emerges from the underworld into the day world, with all its primary colors, the shadow can now be cast upon the ground before him as a reminder of the underworld etheric double that trails us as a sort of absent signifier throughout all our life, as Peter Sloterdijk puts it in his Spheres I: Bubbles.

From this point on, Bacon will keep largely within the daylight world in his canvases, where objects are not self-luminous but rather illumated by exterior light sources (Van Gogh was a painter who was at his best in daylight scenes). Indeed, it is almost as though the shade of Van Gogh has been brought forth from the underworld, so that Bacon can sacrifice him and infuse his substance into Bacon’s canvases as a new Color Event that signifies the artist’s shift from Night to Day.

But the Shadow, from henceforth, never leaves Bacon’s canvases, where it remains as a floating signifier waiting to be filled in, as indeed, it was, by the time George Dyer entered his life.

n-Dimensional Images

Dyer entered into Bacon’s life in 1964 and became his primary lover until Dyer’s death by suicide in 1971. Bacon’s first portrait of him, a triptych, appears in 1964 at just about the time that Bacon was becoming preoccupied with portrait studies of specific individuals, an obsession that would remain characteristic of his canvases for the next decade (in addition, of course, to the interiors). Bacon painted very few portraits of people he did not know, and his immediate circle of friends appear and reappear all throughout his canvases, sometimes as close up head shots, sometimes as figures in his interiors, during this period: Muriel Belcher, Isabel Rawsthorne, Lucian Freud, Henrietta Moraes and Dyer himself all form a kind of tribe for Bacon, whose features he defacializes and then refacializes onto the plane of his own signification.

In doing so, Bacon is, of course, operating within the convention of the portrait study that extends back to Jan van Eyck and Giovanni Bellini, but whereas those portraits took place within the great metaphysical age, Bacon’s take place within the post-metaphysical age and therefore, do not have the same codes of signification as the great portraits of classical Europe. The great European portraits are facializations of men and women that signify their coding into the Age of the World Picture, in which they are transformed into Pure Subjects beholding a realm of Pure Objects in infinite space. The cogito of Descartes and the transcendental subject of Kant are basically the metaphysical scaffolding into which the great European portraits are plugged, and from Descartes to Husserl, the subject of the Portrait is simultaneously the transcendental subject of the metaphysical age.

But with the collapse, as I have said, of Cartesian phase space by the time of Modernism, the portrait study had to be reterritorialized onto the curved sphere of non-Euclidean geometry that formed the cosmology of Modernism, an art of which Picasso was, of course, the great master. By the time of Bacon, this world is gone, and so his portrait studies no longer refer to such planes of signification. The asignifying mask that he had developed during his journey through the underworld in the 1950s of his anonymous businessmen is now transplanted to the specific faces of real, actual individuals, who are thereby refacialized onto the plane of Bacon’s own personal realm of signification, which is a realm of singularities and novelties, and not, as I have pointed out, Platonic archetypes.

His 1968 painting, Two Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer, is the closest thing to an aesthetic credo that can be found in his art, and shows the viewer exactly what he is up to: Dyer is depicted sitting cross-legged in a chair beside one of Bacon’s own portraits of him, which leans up against a blue wall. The portrait is a work in progress, and only the figure of Dyer, with a head that looks like it has been split in half, has been completed.

Dyer is, of course, Bacon’s main subject during this period: he is painted so often as a figure in Bacon’s art that one begins to suspect that he functions in the role of Bacon’s alter ego (Bacon, in the early 60s, had just begun to execute self-portraits, but when Dyer showed up in 1964, these largely ceased). In this respect, he functions as an equivalent to the electronic avatar which all of us, nowadays routinely, cast forth as a shadow into the electronic flatland, one of Baudrillard’s famous simulacra that are currently replacing the Real.

So, in other words, the Shadow that had first appeared in any significant way in Bacon’s art beginning with the Van Gogh series in 1957 is a role that is now taken over by Dyer himself, who becomes a sort of three-dimensional personification of it. Dyer was, in other words, Bacon’s shadow, and Bacon plugs him into the role of the Shadow in his art.

Thus, in the painting Two Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer, Bacon is showing us how Dyer functions as Bacon’s Shadow, his substitute avatar, as it were, on his canvases, by representing a half-finished canvas of his him as figure minus ground leaning against the wall. The series of nails that Bacon has painted onto Dyer’s image on the unfinished painting within the painting tell the viewer that Bacon is nailing his refacialized figures onto the plane of his own semiotic significance (in this painting, represented by the black, unfinished surface of the canvas which functions as a stand-in for the hermetic cube) where, because they do not refer to any pre-existent faces or achetypes, they signify non-specific, that is to say, n-dimensional entities. They are like topological complexities in n-dimensional space that are very difficult for the mind to get a grip on. But the key thing to understand is that by not referring back to the plane of Modernist signification, where they would be tribal or mythic figures, they are not merely two-dimensional figures, for the figures of myth and tribal facializations are of fewer not more dimensions than the physical world. Myth flattens out three (or perhaps four) dimensional reality into the two-dimensional world of eternal repetitions and shorthand abbreviations into single images of complex cosmological processes. Myth compresses and flattens; it does not complexify.

Bacon’s project in this respect should be starkly contrasted with what Andy Warhol was up to at exactly the same time in New York City. Warhol, as I have discussed in my study of him in Dead Celebrities, Living Icons, was the great Icon painter of the world of the celebrity. What Warhol captured in his silkscreens was not three-dimensional celebrities themselves but rather their two-dimensional avatars as processed through electric and photographic vision machines. The celebrity’s descent into electric circuitry, which really began to take off in the 1950s with James Dean, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, was a process of generating two-dimensional avatars that took on their own independent life in the mediatized world, often gaining strength in direct proportion to the loss of the real celebrity’s own vitality.

But the classic 1950s larger than life celebrity was a forerunner and prophet of the world which we all inhabit today, for with the democratization of the cult of the celebrity via YouTube and other social media, everyone nowadays generates their own electronic avatars as a matter of course. We now live in the 2D Society that came into being immediately after the collapse of the Modernist macrosphere at the end of World War II, during which period a landscape of shopping malls, resort hotels, business buildings and theme parks emerged as a world of non-places void of meaning and historical significance, culturally denuded and therefore flat. A world of advertising logos, in other words, that has come to replace the traditional complexities of the Old European metaphysical world of nation states signified by flags and coats of arms.

But the task of the contemporary artist is to resist all this by creating microworlds as little machines that reverse entropy with n-dimensional, not two-dimensional, constructions that no longer refer to traditional planes of signification, such as those of the mythic or Cartesian kind, but which also do not refer to the two-dimensional plane of virtual reality, either. Bacon’s facializations of the 1960s, then, counter this flattening of the human being into electric avatars by creating a plane of signification upon which his Figures are n-dimensional complexities that must be understood on their own terms. Bacon’s project, then, though it may not have been known to him consciously, was nevertheless to create a realm of singularities and complexities that specifically function as a counter-environment to the prevailing ad logo world that was then in process of closing down around us and has now captured all of us into its codes.

Disintegration of a World

With Dyer’s death by drug overdose, then, in 1971, another major Event transpired in Bacon’s art, the last, and perhaps the most transformative of all. In committing suicide by drug overdose, Dyer played the role that is normally played by the disoriented celebrity whose avatar has the paradoxical effect of shrinking him down into a realm of dissolution and disintegration into drugs and alcohol. But it is Bacon who is the star of the show, not Dyer, who merely played the role of the shadow, but a shadow which, by being represensted obsessively in Bacon’s paintings, was nevertheless made famous. When Dyer died, however, two things happened to Bacon’s art: first, Bacon began to represent himself in a series of obsessive self-portraits that extended all throughout the 1970s, as though he were trying to fill in the gap left by the missing signifier of Dyer’s sudden absence from his world. And secondly: the impact of Dyer’s death resulted in the slow, gradual disintegration of Bacon’s interiors along with his hermetic cube.

At first, Bacon wrestles with Dyer’s death in a series of triptychs, as for instance in the 1971 triptych called In Memory of George Dyer, in which Dyer is represented in the center panel specifically and unmistakably as a shadow reaching up to unlock a door (probably on his way back to Bacon’s underworld). And in the famous Triptych May-June 1973, where Dyer’s death is represented in a sequence of images that show him vomiting into a sink in the right panel and dying on the toilet in the left. But in the center panel Dyer is show being nearly engulfed by an ominous and mysterious Shadow with a shape that does not resemble Dyer, or any human being at all, but which is unmistakably that of a demon, and specifically the demon that most art scholars identify with the Furies that now come to haunt Bacon’s work from henceforth.

Monsters, mostly absent from Bacon’s art for nearly a decade, now begin to reappear in his art, heralded by the death of Dyer at precisely the point at which the walls enclosing his interiors in a protective membrane now begin to come down, leaving him vulnerable to their impact. This is immediately evident in the Triptych May-June 1974, which depicts, for the first time, one of Bacon’s interiors — minus walls — as a sandy island out on a beach with the sea and the sky looming in the background. [...]

With the opening up, then, of what had hitherto functioned as a closed, hermetically sealed box inside which Bacon’s experiments could take place, the monsters begin to enter in: the creature that had formed Dyer’s shadow in the Triptych May-June 1973 makes its first appearance in the Seated Figure of 1974, where it is seen floating into one of Bacon’s interiors in which a seated figure is turning away from a rectangle that opens up the entire right side of the canvas to a blue void (the sea?) from whence the ominous creature comes floating in.

We also see this same creature hovering over the geometric cube in the 1976 Figure in Movement, as though it were an avenging angel of death come to destroy Bacon’s semiotic machine.

The same figure turns up in its most vivid form as the left panel of Bacon’s 1981 Triptych Inspired by the [Oresteia of Aeschylus], which confers on it its identity as an avenging Fury.

But all through the later 1970s, the walls of Bacon’s interiors have been melting away into featureless orange or vanilla colored voids; or else huge black rectangles begin to come in like swallowing mouths where they dominate the canvases, as in Triptych August 1972.

It is precisely at this point that Bacon’s landscape paintings begin to appear, just as the walls of his interiors are disintegrating. With this spherological collapse, as Peter Sloterdijk would put it, the outer world of Nature which Bacon had so assiduously excluded from his canvases for so long begins to surface into view, announcing the end of his microworld. In Landscape 1978, the semiotic cube becomes transparent to a field of grass upon the curved surface of the earth.

Then it disappears altogether in A Piece of Waste Land in 1982.

In the first version of Jet of Water in 1979 (reworked in 1988 as one of his final canvases) a gush of water that had first been glimpsed as the sea on the horizon in the earlier triptych now comes in like a drowning flood to begin washing Bacon’s interiors away for good.

By the time of the 1983 Sand Dune, the semiotic cube that had once contained his hermetically sealed interiors is now completely buried beneath a huge hill of sand, like a civilization that has been swallowed up at the end of its cycle by Nature.

It was Dyer’s death that had set in motion this chain of disintegration that led to the collapse of Bacon’s microsphere and his semiotic cube, and so, with his last painting, the Study from the Human Body of 1991, the viewer is confronted with a final, enigmatic image, one of the strangest and most innovative of Bacon’s entire career.

Dyer is depicted at the edge of one of Bacon’s interiors, now shown receding into the background, but he has somehow sunken halfway down into the floor of the interior, while the semiotic cube has retracted and withdrawn to the point where it just frames Dyer’s head. Dyer’s form hangs near the edge of a precipice, and it is as though we are shown, for the first time, the hidden stage set, constructed out of a series of wood panels, upon which Bacon had been staging all of his art for his entire career. The image is like the final image of Peter Weir’s film The Truman Show, in which the character of Truman, while guiding his boat, punches a hole into the stage wall of what he had assumed to be a real sky but which turns out to be only a set. In Bacon’s final image, the exhibition space is gone and Dyer is shown as though he were the meteorite that had crashed into it, signifying the beginning of its dissolution into the abyss. Whatever world exists on the canvas to the left of the painting, we cannot see.

But perhaps it is only Death.



Bacon worked on his Pope paintings, variations on Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X, for over twenty years. He acquired endless reproductions of the Velázquez painting from books, but famously did not see the original when he visited Rome in late 1954. Bacon was already exploring the pope idea while in the South of France in late 1946. The first surviving version, Head VI, dates from late 1949, and he finally stopped the Pope series in the mid-1960s. Subsequently, Bacon declared he thought the works "silly" and wished he had never done them.

Francis Bacon
Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X
Oil on canvas, 153 x 118 cm.
Des Moines Art Center

Clearly Bacon was not just producing homages to a picture he loved. Artists have always made copies as creative exercises, and Bacon seems to have been inspired by the example of Vincent van Gogh (who made many transformations of pictures that he especially admired by Eugène Delacroix, Jean- François Millet, and others). However, Bacon’s popes depart even further from their source, often replacing the pontiff’s head with the equally recognisable screaming face of the wounded nurse mown down by the soldiers’ gunfire in the Odessa steps sequence of Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin.

The insertion subverts the encapsulation of power and self-assurance projected by Velázquez. The screaming mouth, isolated from other facial features and divorced from any narrative context, suggests existential agony. The pathos of human vulnerability and loss of faith or conviction are accentuated by the precisely rendered space frames in many Bacon images of popes, which make the figures register as "enclosed in the wretched glass capsule of the human individual," to cite the evocative phrase used by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy (1872), one of Bacon’s favourite books.

The papal theme may have had a more contemporary resonance for Bacon. He may have been attracted to the Velázquez picture as an iconic distillation of power. In later works in the series, Bacon inserted references to photographs of the then pontiff, Pope Pius XII, a controversial figure who was always conspicuously silent concerning the Nazis. A photograph of Pius on his throne, being carried from St Peter’s, appears in one of Sam Hunter’s 1950 studio montages, and was clearly the basis for some of the subsequent pope pictures.

Bacon’s obsessive reworking of the papal theme suggests that it may have possessed further significance and perhaps psychological charge for the artist in relation to his sexuality. It has been remarked that the Pope in official garb is in a sense the ultimate drag queen, or less literally that depictions of the Holy Father, known in Italy as "il Papa," may encapsulate Bacon’s traumatic feelings about his own father. The latter was a conventional, inflexible military man to whom the teenage Bacon had felt sexually attracted, as he recalled many years later, but who brutally admonished and rejected him when he discovered his son’s homosexual inclinations. Such speculations about the possible "subconscious" content of the pope pictures involve perhaps a rather crude application of the methods of Freudian psychoanalysis.


Hanging Some Favorites

Martin Harrison and Rebecca Daniels, Incunabula, London: Thames & Hudson, 2009.

By 1949 Francis Bacon found his main subject, the human body, and from then on it remained his principal theme. But he did not paint from life. Instead, he took from images from the mass media and drew on them for his paintings. A previously unpublished selection of Francis Bacon's source material (photographs, books, magazine and newspaper clippings) offering insight into Bacon's method. This book presents 180 of these documents, about which Bacon was secretive but which, it emerges, were integral to creative process, along with some of the works that the material inspired. Culled from thousands of pieces of original material found in his studio, these items have each been researched to provide for the first time comprehensive details of the artist's sources. Previously unseen, these visually thrilling documents demonstrate Bacon's tactile, visceral relationship with his sources and his unerring eye for seeking out visual stimulation in the most unexpected places.

By Incunabula are meant the circa 180 full page illustrations of various objects that were found in Bacon's Reece Mews Studio formerly located in London and consequently moved to the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin. There is no Index, but the objects are divided into the following categories:
1. Art - Photography, mostly photos ripped out of Muybridge's book, The Human figure in Motion, books on sculpture, and erotic magazines.
2. Conflict - Mass Media, mostly images torn from newspapers and magazines, many of which depict violence or the aftermath of violence, such as dead bodies, effects from injuries, etc.
3. Action - Painting, more images from Muybridge, but also photos from art and sports magazines.
4. Science - Nature, images torn from K.C. Clark's book Positioning in Radiography, Schrenk-Notzing's Phenomena of Materialization, more Muybridge, and also images from cookbooks, etc.
5. Art - Photography, images torn from art books and catalogs, including Bacon's own work.

A mind on fire. Francis Bacon always said he worked entirely by chance. Images found in his studio - from plucked chickens to close-ups of skin diseases - show that this was far from the case, revealing a process of careful creativity at work.

"Even though it is claimed that many of the images have not been published before, I have seen more than three fourths in other books on Francis Bacon. I really do not know what purpose this book can serve, other than the fact that the objects are shown in a larger size than before with one image per page. As a collector of book on Francis Bacon I continue to be amazed how many recent books concentrate on his Studio instead of his art. The objects in the studio are supposed to be the "key" to Bacon's paintings, but I would argue they are in most cases only an inspiration. [...] The authors fail to make a case of how the majority of the images in this book are related to Bacon's paintings, which one would think is the whole point of the exercise." -Walter O. Koenig


Jonathan Jones, "A Mind on Fire," The Guardian, 6.9.2008

The painter looks back at you from behind his easel, a palette resting on his left arm, a long thin brush in his right hand, the ends of his moustache curling upward, the cross of Santiago on his chest. This is the self-portrait of the Spanish master Diego Velázquez, on a page of an old art book smeared with a cloud of pink paint, fleshy and warm, as if a human body had burst in the air above it - the aftermath of a conversation between two great artists across the centuries.

It was found among the forest of paintbrushes, dollops of pointillist graffiti and enigmatically suspended bare lightbulbs in the studio of the artist Francis Bacon, a tiny space in a mews near South Kensington tube station where he worked virtually every day from the early 60s until his death in 1992. Today the studio is preserved in its entirety at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin. You enter a chilly refrigerated room and peer through narrow windows into the terrifyingly claustrophobic interior of the studio, that has in its own right taken on the intense living presence of a work of art. Bacon joked that the daubs of paint he splashed on its walls were his only abstract works; now the studio has become his only installation. It is fearsome with its rust-flecked mirror, its gory detritus of paint cans and pigment. There's an incredible power to this place and the creativity it commemorates. The images on these pages are part of its pungent archive of a life lived in the magic space between mind and bodily act - the life of a painter.

Francis Bacon didn't always tell the truth about his painting life. He said he worked entirely by "chance" and "accident", yet the secrets of his studio revealed since his death include plans for paintings, rough sketches, and precise sources for images - such as the photograph of a plucked and trussed chicken from the Conran cookbook that he directly copied on to a canvas. Evidently his work was more thought-out and intellectual than he liked to make it look. The survey of his paintings about to open at Tate Britain will stress this. Further evidence is provided in Bacon's Incunabula, a fascinating publication of the research materials from his studio that's the source of the pictures here. Its author, Martin Harrison, says Bacon's hoarded photographs of everything from physical deformities to the faces of close friends, reproductions of Old Master paintings and pages from magazines on cookery, golf and soccer "appear to be essential to a proper understanding of his aims and methods". Most of all, though, and in an intensely moving way, these photographic fragments are part of Bacon himself, marked by his brush, recycled through his enigmatic imagination. With their beaten up, torn, stained scrappiness, you might almost imagine them as digested and - to be Baconian about it - regurgitated or defecated by him. Anyway, to me they seem organic. Alive.

Work document: "Poultry"
A poultry page from a 1980 Conran cookbook
The Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin

Francis Bacon
Triptych 1981-82, left-hand panel
Oil on canvas, 198.1 x 147.3 cm
Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York

Take that portrait of Velázquez. It is a souvenir of love. Bacon idolised this 17th-century portraitist of the Spanish court. How is it, he eloquently wondered, that an artist can so accurately illustrate the faces of real people and "at the same time so deeply unlock the greatest things that man can think and feel?" He collected books about Velázquez for their reproductions and in talking about his favourite, a portrait of Pope Innocent X, explained how "it haunts me, and opens up all sorts of feelings and areas of - I was going to say - imagination, even, in me". That says a lot about the process of creativity these fragments reveal. Bacon looked at photographs and reproductions to unlock his imagination - a thoughtful process but in no sense rational. Some artists use drugs or drink to disinhibit themselves. Bacon was a legendary drinker but claimed he rarely used drink creatively: looking at these pictures, I believe him. He got drunk instead on visual stimuli - gorged on images. This is the aftermath of a visual orgy.

Work document: A reproduction of Velázquez'sPortrait of Innocent X (1650)

A black and white photograph of a crowd being fired on in St Petersburg in 1917, colour close-ups of skin diseases from a medical textbook, serial photographs of animal and human motion by the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, art book reproductions of ancient Greek and Egyptian sculpture and Michelangelo drawings next to photos of wrestlers and boxers, street battles and Nazi rallies; physical instruction manuals on such matters as how to sit in an armchair and how to hold a golf club; this is the strange montage of noble and grotesque visual ephemera that filled Bacon's studio and his mind. It is up to academic art historians to fret over the exact correlations between particular photographs and paintings. What's surely beyond dispute is the overall match between the photographic museum nested in chaotic piles and boxes in Bacon's studio and the uniquely uncomfortable world of his paintings. In meditating continually on this strange mix of images he generated his own painted reality - at once grandiose, kitsch, horrible, magnificent and modern, a painterly mirror of the 20th century whose archetypal relic, the photograph, was his primary research tool.

In the end, the reason we look at these tattered and crumpled and marked images, the reason his studio is preserved as a holy - or unholy - sanctum in Dublin, the reason his Tate Britain retrospective will stun its beholders, is that Francis Bacon was a genius whose paintings are as shocking, sensational, disturbing and rewarding now as in his lifetime - and will remain so for as long as human beings look to art for "the greatest things that man can think and feel". Bacon is a titan, a giant of painting. Look at these images long enough and a strange frenzied reality - violent, sexual, godless - flickers in your mind's eye. It is Bacon's reality. Look at his paintings and that reality forces itself into the very pores of your skin. Oil paint is so subtle, he insisted - it creates effects impossible in any other art. Bacon's paintings include achievements that rival and revive for modern eyes those of the Old Masters he so admired. I'm not sure if any painter, ever, created blacker shadows - just look, if you visit the Tate show, at the shadows that seem to creep into his impossible rooms as if from hell itself. Look at his bodies, how they tie themselves in knots, get sucked into a fourth dimension, crouch and crawl and fuck: they are Michelangelo's Ignudi put through a meat grinder and they make you, painfully and scarily, aware of your own body, its needs, powers, and inevitable fate.

Bacon is an atheist with a sense of Hell whose paintings have the scale of imagination of the Sistine Chapel. To look through his photo-hoard is to travel, stumbling, behind a mind on fire. Bacon's sense of the body strikes people who look at his art, first of all, as cruel and vicious. He painted his best friends as if they were maimed first world war soldiers, their faces shattered and deformed into slabs of ill-sutured flesh with eyes scarily alive inside the horror mask. His bodies, grappling and broken, can seem merely ugly. I didn't fully grasp their beautiful dimension until I looked at some of his paintings after seeing the many images of the classical and Renaissance nude in his photograph collection - in reality, even his most disfigured bodies still have nobility. They are heroic. Velázquez and Rembrandt, those philosophers of the portrait he so worshipped, portray the very loneliness, pain, and brevity of human life as a heroic fact that makes the least of our actions, the most banal of existences, courageous. Bacon was brave.

Francis Bacon
Sphinx: Portrait of Muriel Belcher
Oil on canvas, 198.1 x 147.3 cm
The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo

Work document found in Bacon's studio
Muriel Belcher at the Soho Drinking Club, London
photograph detail
The Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin

Work document. "An Eloquent Tribute"
A review of dancer Marcia Haydée from 1978
The Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin

A lost group by Michelangelo

Work document found in Bacon's studio
A reproduction of Michelangelo's Samson slaying the Two Philistines (1540; Museo del Bargello, Florence).
The Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin

Bronze sculpture after Michelangelo's (lost group) Samson slaying the Two Philistines, c. 1540
Museo del Bargello, Florence

Black chalk sketch after Michelangelo's (lost sculptural group) Samson slaying the Two Philistines, c. 1540
The Victoria and Albert Museum, London
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