Study for Portrait II (after the Life Mask of William Blake)

Francis Bacon and the Death of Art
By Joan Altabe

British painter Francis Bacon has been dead for ten years, and, in a way, so has art—at least the kind that makes known the wounds we inflict on one another and on ourselves. Now we get that other British bad boy, Damian Hirst, chopping up animals and distilling them in formaldehyde.

Bacon painted people as though they were hit with force-ten storms and knifing rains. Their anxiety chokes them purple. Their edges appear in fitful blurs. Color is so loud that it comes across like hostility. Even the pigment looks racked. You feel assaulted by an unknown dread when you see it. You try to make sense of it. Bacon said not to try:

"Hardly anyone really feels about painting. They read things into it—even the most intelligent people—they think they understand it, but very, very few people are aesthetically touched by painting." Culture critic Susan Sontag said something similar. Too many intellectualize art at the expense of sensory experience. She called it the "erotics of art."

Reclining Man with Sculpture

The "erotics of Bacon's art" is raw flesh. Ripping past the skin, past surface reality, he pictured that level of existence within us that has no visible reality—the panic brought on by estrangement—not from others, necessarily, but from ourselves. His paintings are us, inside out.

And Bacon's point in regard to aesthetics is about the other part of us, our outsides. Aesthetic form is our physical form—the symmetry of our limbs and face parts, the contrast of skin to hair to teeth, which is probably why good composition in art attracts us. We seek out what we are, what we know.

There're plenty of our physical selves in Bacon's work. Without it, his expression of emotion would be just a tantrum made graphic—boneless and featureless. Like us, Bacon's paintings are aesthetically structured. While the derangement he illustrates is barefaced, his configuration of colors and shapes is a physical monument to order. Call it a mix of truth and beauty. Beyond the psychic scars that he exposes with color and shape, beyond his urge to express a state of mind, is the urge to sort it out and put it right. And that’s where art comes in: crystallizing/controlling the chaos that is life.

Georges Seurat showed the same urge in his painting, La Grande Jatte. The sublime arrangement of tiny dots, made with machinelike precision, is really Seurat describing the joylessness of middle-class life. Empty faces and starched, separate bodies are his icons of alienation in modern life. The dot matrix magnifies the anonymity of that life.

Study After Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X

Like Seurat, Bacon conveyed the modern experience of isolation. His Study After Velasquez: Pope Innocence X is a 17th century figure passed through the 20th century experience. As if weighed down by the pressures of orthodoxy, the figure sits on a throne of gold, looking caged, Bacon's vertical brushwork approximating prison bars. Yet the architecture of the picture—the weave of his paint swaths—comes across like a steady rain, the yellow of the throne looking like the rays of a sun breaking through.

Bacon's Crouched Nude shows the same architecture—the caged setting and the look of a downpour. In much the same way, in his One of Three Studies for a Crucifixion, the splattered blood-reds—resembling shafts of light dropped by a morning sun—seem to paint a new day, the smooth background reds signaling the unspoiled air.

All of which makes the crown of gloom over Bacon's work, by contrast, appear all the more wretched—like a bad traffic accident on a pretty day.

This is a long way from the Luis Buñuel film that is said to have influenced him. By the incoherent, unconnected slices of life in Un Chien Andalousuch as dead donkeys lying on two pianos—Buñuel can be said to have held more sway over Hirst than Bacon. Consider Hirst's mindless display of an actual pig carcass cut length-wise, its halves suspended with one inching back and forth on a mechanized tract so the carcass looks like it's being constantly sliced.


However disturbing Bacon's work is, however it pokes out our eyes with edginess, it’s not the shock art of a Hirst and other artmakers in the '90s who functioned like a work party of Larry Flynts, depicting bodily functions and sadomasochistic acts of gore. Granted, toward the end of his life, Bacon showed a splatter of blood on the floor of an otherwise bare room in Blood on the Floor. But by giving it a context of an empty room, Bacon heightened the sense of lost life. He made you feel the loss.

Bacon's shock art, then, never is the stuff of, say, that plastic facsimile of puke that showed in the '90s at the Whitney in New York. Or the bed frame there covered by muslin burned through with hot irons—the burn marks standing for answers to a sex survey: "More than once a week. Once a week. Two to three times a month." Bacon also gave us a bed scene with his Three Studies of Figures on Beds. But while he shows couples twisted in knots of need, burying themselves into one another, he gave them context. Bare walls, lumpy bare mattresses and a naked light bulb heighten the air of unleashed hunger and abandon, which is far and away from illustrated answers to a sex survey.

Some say that shock art has a point, that it's meant to jolt us into realizing and solving our problems. It doesn't say enough to do that. It just entertains or enrages us. Bacon's art says something. He saved his work from the merely shocking with that mix of truth and beauty in which color reveals our nervous system and smeary shapes record our cries.

Homage to van Gogh

In the autobiography Flaw in the Glass by Noble Prize winner Patrick White, Bacon's appreciation of beauty got a mention: "One afternoon at Battersea, crossing the river together by a temporary footbridge while the permanent structure was under repair, he (Bacon) became entranced by the abstract graffiti scribbled in pencil on its timbered side. Alone, I don't expect I would have noticed the effortless convolutions of line he pointed out for me to admire."

Of course, beauty without truth in art is just as empty as shock art. Impressionism makes the point, its fleeting brushwork being about surface things, about our eye, as if that's all we are about: style. Bacon had us covered. He said, "It's really a question in my case of being able to set a trap with which one would be able to catch the fact at its most living point.… I want to make a thing of sense, of reality, yet unlock the vowels of feeling."

In Pope Innocent X, Bacon seems to be saying that each of us is the Pope, staring from way inside like a scared animal looking out from a bad hiding place. A passage in Willa Catha's Death Comes for the Arch Bishop could pass for a description of the painting: "His mouth was the very assertion of uncurbed passion...the full lips thrust out and taut, like the flesh of animals distended by fear or desire."

How important is Bacon? Think over how much art today reflects on the voltaic and cybernetic—movies, magazines, television. And think over how shades of meaning get lost in the electronic glare. Conditioned by this exposure, too many artists work like photoelectric sorters, scrambling for new images as fast as video programs roll over, 20-plexes change their lineup and newsstands restack. Sealed off from the rich air of actual life, their images are sterile—like all things vacuum-packed. Bacon's pictures are a relief for mass-media-sore eyes. What you see is not what you get. What you get is beyond seeing: a state of mind—timeless and placeless.

Study for self-portrait

Wait, there's more: Bacon's originality. Remember that one-of-a-kind thing that art used to be, when artists told us how they felt about what they saw, when Mike Bidlo wasn't copying Picassos out of art books and Richard Pettibone wasn't copying Stella and Warhol and Elaine Sturtevant wasn't copying Liechtenstein, Oldenburg and Segal and Sherrie Levine wasn’t copying Malevich and Schiele and Julian Schnabel wasn’t copying Rodchenko? Bacon didn't copy anybody. He daydreamed, he said. "Pictures drop in like slides. The way I see them is not necessarily related to the way I paint them."

Did you get that? Bacon doesn't even copy his daydreams. And even while Bacon shared the need to express inwardness with 20th century's big gun, abstract expressionism, he never gave up on representing the seeable. Coming through in his characteristically frenzied brushwork is everyman crazily furious.

It’s hard to think of an artist who does that now. Bacon's 10-year absence is enough to move one to prayer:

Hello, God? Could you send Francis Bacon back, please? It's getting pretty bad down here.