As nightmare scenarios play out all around us—raging wildfires, escalating racially motivated violence, more than one million dead from the ongoing global pandemic—what better time to revisit the work of Irish painter Francis Bacon, who never flinched from depicting the savagery of this, our human existence? And a riveting new monograph vividly reminds of just why he considered his exigent artistic mission to be the rendering of the “brutality of fact.”
Francis Bacon or the Measure of Excess (out now via ACC Art Books), by poet and Professor Emeritus Yves Peyré—also a personal friend of Bacon’s—gathers more than 160 images which so incisively interpret the horrors of everyday life into visions of fear, revulsion and yet utter fascination. Though certainly influenced by Surrealism, his work could much more readily be wedded to German Expressionism. The Surrealists, after all, were concerned with the peculiar goings on in our dreams, all very Freudian; but Bacon wished to create nightmare scenes that explicated those most oppressive moments of our waking hours.
The book opens straight away with his infamous 1944 triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, based on the Erinyes, Greek mythological figures of vengeance. Said figures are violently distorted (recalling the dolls fashioned by his German contemporary Hans Bellmer) against an eerily blood red background, and critic John Russell argued at the time that it changed British painting forever. In the first section of the book titled Thoughts on a Destiny (curious, for someone who wasted away his 20s as a not very ambitious interior designer and full time gadabout), Peyré confirms this by writing that Bacon rose to pre-eminence in good part due to “the radicalism in his painterly choices.” He also refers to him as “an artist in rupture,” whose works were part catharsis, part exorcism.
The book then goes on to create an intriguing picture of the artist and the man, notably making a point of his penchant for consuming spectacular quantities of alcohol, but suggesting that his capacity for drink also instilled within him an unexpected clarity. Though one expects that that behavior was as much a cultural matter as anything else, as the creatives (at least the men) of his time were well known for their love of emptying a bottle with legendary expedience.
But Bacon was also apparently at unease with his own work (shades of Jackson Pollock), always aiming for greatness and, in his view, often failing. Yet the early works included here seem so far ahead of their time. One can sense the influence of Goya or perhaps Caravaggio in Painting (1946), but it also could readily be the study for some lost post-punk/industrial album cover from 35 years later. Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh II (1957), however, appears a surprisingly earnest, nostalgic homage to what were arguably Impressionism’s darker inclinations.
Ultimately it is the chronological journey through his work from 1948 until 1987 (he died in Madrid in 1992, aged 82) that truly reveals the emotional upheaval that he was so intensely putting to canvas. Two Figures (1953) and Two Figures in the Grass (1954) deal quite directly with homosexuality, but do so with a palpable, visceral turbulence. Another, Two Figures in a Room (1959), has switched up the tone to one of melancholy, or perhaps even anguish.
And again, in Self Portrait (1956) he depicts himself as a well-dressed but psychologically tormented man; yet by 1964’s Study For Self-Portrait, he is more casually attired, and exuding a clear sense of calm and confidence.
Peyré, however, manages to sum Bacon up quite strikingly and completely, with one single passage.
“The violence that is at work in [his] painting can’t be reduced to a simple reference or a sociological report. This violence is much more profound. It doesn’t attach itself to effects that it could (or can) produce in other spheres, it wants to express itself in its own right, it overturns the way of painting, it imposes itself, it is painting. It reveals to us a properly ontological dimension (being merely the favourite agent of eroticism and death), thanks to which both humanity and painting are fulfilled, and through which the human being defines themself and painting verifies itself.”