Writhing with painful figures, Francis Bacon’s horror-fretted canvases are often grotesque and distorted in form. His subjects vary from religious figures to lovers and embody the anxiety of a post-war Britain. This essay will explore the concept of pain within Bacon’s paintings, both physical and emotional. The discomfort in Bacon’s paintings later goes on to inform the work of artists like David Lynch. The anguish and inner turmoil these artists represent can be seen looking back to the work of Edvard Munch. Such artists gave voice to the inner self and the anxiety of the modern condition with their ability to see and capture the drone of malevolent energies at work in the world.
Francis Bacon stamped his name into the realm of modernist art with a distinctive style of surrealist figurative painting with undertones of disorder. His imagery was emotionally charged and he held a fixation on particular motifs that return throughout his work and are usually set against nondescript, abstract backgrounds. These recurring motifs include of religious iconography. The first of his paintings to make it into the public eye was ‘Crucifixion’ (1933) which was painted before his successes of the post-war years of Britain. It seems to be a piece greatly inspired by Pablo Picasso’s Three Dancers (1925) and also the old masters of the past, with somber qualities and an eeriness that would become typical of Bacon’s later work. Crucifixion is an unsettling composition, further supplemented by translucent white paint over the carcass form(s) and a particularly restrained palette. This piece introduced pain as a theme in Bacon’s work along with his power to unsettle the viewer with such raw and distorted imagery. This piece among others was rejected by most, causing Bacon to retreat from the art world momentarily. Why was it rejected?
Bacon Re-emerged post war into the public eye with a superior body of work. The pain that is present in his paintings was reinforced by the shattering of World War 2; violence had worn out Britain by this time. His vision that emerged was one of horror and he unapologetically addressed the melancholy and weakening of the nation’s morale. This can be seen when looking at one of his most famous works, which was painted in the last year of the war in the form of a triptych ‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of Crucifixion. Painted precisely when “There was not much to be said, anywhere in the world, for the month of April 1945”.
First on view at the Lefevere Gallery, in an exhibition marking the beginning of a substantial public reputation for Bacon, were the twisting forms of ‘Three Studies’ for the public eye to see. They were comprised of images so “unrelievedly awful”, that the creatures could “bite, probe, and suck” with their eel-like necks. Russel suggests in his article the pain that Bacon’s work commits to the viewer, the painted triptych beings waiting to drag the observer down to its own painful level. Caged in a blooded orange and unusually proportioned space, the biomorphic monsters are almost human like and the central painting was originally in response to Hitler getting out of the car at a Nuremberg rally. The succeeding years were an apex in Bacons success. With unpleasant, disturbing paintings, Bacon embodies the post war disposition of Britain as a country. His style developed with the times, addressing the issues circulating the country. Following this, his portraits ranged between homage to Velàzquez with ‘Study after Velazques’ (1950) and paintings such as ‘Head’ (1951), one of the many suited, seated and depressing figures that Bacon painted. Other figures, such as the reoccurring image of the dictator, drew reference from images of the Third Reich period in Germany. Similar to the repeated image of the Pope.
Another reoccurring motif aside from dictator or religious iconography was that of the mouth. Trapped in an eternal scream, Bacons painting frequently involve the mouth as a significant aspect of the painting. The mouth is how animals and humans express moments of extreme emotions and feelings. For Bacon, the mouth became a muse. The mouth seems to have developed into a sort of obsession for Bacon, often becoming the focus of the entirety of his paintings. Some feature as gaping holes of despair, others suggestive of sexual imagery. The ‘mouth as muse’ (Bell, 2007) was a feature of Bacon’s portraiture and surrealist works. The bodily, fleshy nature of the mouth fascinated him as well as the ‘glitter and color that comes from the mouth’ (Sylvester, 1966). George Dyer, Bacons greatest muse, had a substantial speech impediment creating further focus on the mouth. (Peppiatt, 1996). Looking back to the mouths within ‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’ (1944), they are snarling and filled with teeth, the life like structure of the teeth and the pink lips are a contrast to the unfathomable, surrealist creatures that possess them. As a frank comment on the destruction amidst the rage of war, three studies, as well as ‘fury’ (1944), were created. Fury was similarly set against a background of bellowing, bleeding orange, with the mouth presenting itself once again in what seems to be anguish; studying this painting, I can almost hear a screeching wail ringing in my ears. Bacon uses the mouth to conjure extremes of emotion.
Another reoccurring image that runs through Bacons work is the cage. Most of his 1950s paintings depict figures trapped by faint white cages, seemingly in despair at their bounded limits. The cage, beyond being a cubist framing device, and a way of creating a focal point, is a representation of his acknowledgment of the many limits that bind him personally. Charlie Fox wrote of this recurring feature ‘cages provide areas for Bacon to stage his ferocious meditations on human anguish and savagery’ (Fox, 2016). The cage provides a frame for the object within, which, as portrait photography developed, is increasingly depicted as posing in a deliberate, lens-focused position.
The constricted spaces, which emphasize isolation, bring attention to the subject’s psychological condition. These imaginary chambers are a way to emphasize the isolation of their presented figures so bringing attention to their psychological condition; just placing the sitters in ‘invisible rooms’ guides to focus attention towards the complex human emotions that are felt but can’t be seen.
“I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail leaving its trail of the human presence…as a snail leaves its slime”
Bacon experimented with the sense of motion caused by the application of paint by brush. Strokes may cut through the face, suggestive of a cheekbone while partially undoing the characteristic of the face, a “gesture of cubist conceit” (Five Decades) His portraits were malleable, contorted and obscured. Teasing form and space, Bacons figures within his paintings are distorted, injured; either by an implied physical violence or violence in terms of expression of a mental state. He practices a controlled deconstruction of the form; when it comes to his portraits he certainly distorts the faces portrayed, although never to the point of breaking the representational link with their external subject’s altogether. (Violence of paint) Dissolving and festering in form yet materializing into detail of dislocated incisors, Head II is a specimen of this depiction of violence and pain.
The applied paint may act as an injury for the subject, in the interview ** Bacon admits of such injury why he chooses not to have a sitter, he would “rather practice the injury in private” suggesting that it may be painful for the person being painted to see themselves wounded. For “whilst the vast majority of those figures might be said to suffer violence, it is most commonly violence done to them in the act of representing them – the violence to which the painter subjects his likenesses of them” (violence of paint)
In ‘Three Studies of a Male Back’ the reflection of the heads in the left and right panels generates a ‘magnetic field’ (Russell, 1993); our gazes are drawn from one to another, desperately attempting to extract an understanding of the figure. Such pieces like this, with the same sitter at different angles, emphasize the fluidity of life, also depicting the uncertainty of it which makes the piece a painful experience, both inside the painting and from the onlooker’s point of view. Each segment is functioning as a fragment of an undefinable abyss. They remind me of a multi-exposure photograph, exposing different parts of different angles.
The pain in Bacons work surfaces in ‘Triptych May-June 1973’ which was painted in remembrance of George Dyer a few years after his suicide. It was created in the form of a triptych, where we can see three stages of his death positioned round a toilet. The figures are more stagnant and clearly human in shape than lots of Bacon’s work at the time, as he depicts the very human act of death. The first panel depicts a figure hunched over, sitting on the toilet, with an unhealthy blueish tinge to its skin. The coloration and shape of the figure’s back gives suggestion that he is in great pain and we-as-viewer are witnessing a private, painful moment. Instead of Bacon’s abstract surroundings like a cage of some kind, the doorway to the bathroom is painted realistically, as is the small detail of the light switch. This straying from usual form indicates the importance of the work to pay tribute to the reality of George Dyer’s death, and Francis Bacon’s love for him. In the second panel, Dyer’s face is shown, with purple bruising and an alarmingly red nose. The pain from his body, leaks out in shadow form onto the carpet, in a large black mess. In the first panel, the viewer is made to feel like a somewhat perverted voyeur, watching this man struggle, as Bacon may have felt leaving George and watching him destroy himself. In the second, we-as-viewer are forced into the frame, forced to examine the figure’s head, and its bruised, pained expression, with eyes lightly closed. The final panel throws the viewer back again, as the figure is flung, mercilessly, onto the toilet bowl to vomit out his anguish. The two white arrows, in the first and final panels seem to be reminding the audience where to look, or where to find most twisted voyeuristic pleasure out of looking. Or perhaps, these arrows are there for Bacon himself, to look into the eyes of the monster he created, and then subsequently pushed to death. As John Russell aptly wrote, ‘George Dyer will live forever in the iconography of the English face’ (Russell, 1993).
Modern artists such as David Lynch, pick up on the pain that is prevalent within Bacons work. Both artists have a unified understand of translating pain through visual art. Lynch has an extraordinary ability to sense the hum of malevolent, invisible energies at work in the world, / something he shared with Bacon. Deleuze spoke of Bacons ability to detect the “diabolic powers of the future knocking at the door” and one can draw similarities between this and Lynch’s character Diane Selwyn in the film Mulholland Drive (2001). Both Lynch and Bacon linger at the point where reality becomes surreal,
Some of bacons large paintings from 1968 contain human figures, fragments of a smeary nature. Bacon depicts humans undergoing a crushing emotional experience, something Lynch draws inspiration from. This can be seen in many of Lynch’s films; distorted, trembling and crying out, similar to that of the figures within Bacons pope paintings. The distorted and fragmented figure can be likened to Lynch’s film style which reaches extremes of narrative fragmentation and in both artists work, abstractions arise in figural form.
Painting is essential to Lynch in terms of his cinema. He implied in an interview how in the early days of cinema it must have been so exciting and “magical to see paintings begin to move, but they could start altering time”. And as for Bacon, we can turn again to the words of Lynch himself for confirmation. (Reference) Bacon’s influence has been exerted onto Lynch’s paintings, something that can be observed within Lynch’s exhibition catalog The Air Is on Fire, most readily in certain surface borrowings: the directional arrow in Wajunga Red Dog (2005). The deformation in his work is reminiscent of Bacon’s paintings (Powell, J)
- POWELL, J., 2014. David Lynch, Francis Bacon, Gilles Deleuze: The Cinematic Diagram and the Hall of Time. Discourse: Journal for Theoretical Studies in Media and Culture, 36(3), pp. 309-339,405.
- Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, translated by Daniel W. Smith (1981; reprint, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 17.
- Lynch, Lynch on Lynch, 16.
- Sylvester, David. Interviews with Francis Bacon. London: Thames & Hudson. 1993.