Bemused by Bacon

An Old Painter Still Manages to Remain a Mystery

Painting by Rembrandt
Painting by Rembrandt

Bemused by Bacon

There is a picture by Rembrandt of the carcass of an ox or bull. It is variously entitled Flayed Ox, Slaughtered Ox, Carcass of Beef or Side of Beef. Apparently, the subject was not uncommon in Rembrandt’s time. The animal has been decapitated, its hooves have been removed, the entrails also, and the skin and hair flayed away. Hung upside down by its hind legs in a cruciform manner, the carcass has a forlorn quality – particularly for a Christian viewer, recalling the martyrdom of Saint Peter – though it might also be taken as a symbol of plenty; cattle were slaughtered in this way at the end of autumn, because it was difficult to feed them in the winter months, and feasting would follow. So, the mood of the picture is best judged by the solemn palette that Rembrandt employs, made up of umbers and ochres, with a definite gloom about the scene, which seems to be a basement. So far, so banal. Then, just as we assume this is a straight forward still life or nature morte, we spot someone lurking in the darkness.

"Maid behind carcass in Rembrandt painting"
Maid behind carcass in Rembrandt painting

It’s a girl, in all probability a maid, popping her head round the doorway behind the massive, suspended animal. Is she just there to give us a sense of scale? Possibly. But her posture suggests that she has this instant happened upon the scene, and that her likeness was painted at speed, or else from memory, as no model could hold such a pose for long. It is a snapshot. Unlike the pictures of rich patrons who sit for hours as the artist’s meter registers the passing of time, this face is hastily adumbrated. She gazes at Rembrandt, not at the meat, because the meat would inspire no curiosity in a maid. What would pique her curiosity is the sight of a person sitting in front of the meat and painting its likeness. You can almost read her mind in that bemused expression: ‘Why would anyone think a butchered carcass was worth painting? It’s hardly a thing of beauty, is it? And yet this strange gentleman, this artist, is fixing his gaze on it, exactly as if there was something beautiful in front of him.’


If indeed Rembrandt had been in search of beauty, now, suddenly, there it was. Not a woman lolling on a chaise longue, admittedly, nor the classic siren of the Venetian school, decorously bedridden and scantily clad. Not even a whole woman, as the head and outline of her bust are all we can see of her. But, simply by popping her head round the door like that, the maid has managed to transform Rembrandt’s work from a still life into a genre painting. The carcass is no longer a forlorn denizen of eternity, a memento mori like so many still life pictures before it. Instead, it occupies a passing instant of everyday life. Beyond changing the category of the painting, the maid has replaced the pathos of death with a mere fact of life: the unsentimental human need for sustenance.


The bemusement we see in the maid’s face is pretty much what a lot of people feel when confronted by the subject matter and style of Francis Bacon’s work, now on view at the Royal Academy in London. Bacon didn’t just know the Rembrandt painting; he borrowed its carcass for one of his many popes, himself borrowed from Velázquez’s much-admired portrait of Pope Innocent X.

"Bacon borrowed the Rembrandt carcass for one of his many popes, himself borrowed from Velázquez’s "
Bacon borrowed the Rembrandt carcass for one of his many popes, himself borrowed from Velázquez’s.

In an interview with Melvyn Bragg, Bacon admits that on a visit to Rome he didn’t get round to seeing the original – didn’t get round to it as, among other things, he was feeling too depressed! This must count as one of the artist’s more playful attempts to shock us. What, you mean a bout of depression prevented you from looking at the single most important painting of your career? Of course, Bacon was kidding. I recommend any visitor to Rome to head straight for it, even before they dash off to the Sistine Chapel.


It’s hard to overstate the importance of this image in Bacon’s work. The screaming pope was the making of Bacon. He repeated the image over and over again, with the pope in various states of terror and entrapment. Not to have got around to making the original picture’s acquaintance would have been a bit like Andy Warhol standing up Liz Taylor because he was feeling a bit under the weather. But Bacon also offers Bragg another explanation for giving the Velázquez a miss – that he didn’t feel up to seeing it ‘because of the stupid things one had done with it.’ Is it possible he felt just a soupçon of guilt about the way he’d treated the pontiff, or was it more the guilty feeling of someone who had vandalised another artist’s work? Velázquez is no stranger to vandalism, as we shall see later. It’s quite possible that Francis Bacon saw himself more as vandal than fawning imitator.  


The fact that, for whatever reason, Bacon blew Innocent X off also tells us something else about his methods: he preferred to work with reproductions. In one passage of the Bragg film, standing in front of a table strewn with photographs, he announces with a mischievous grin that ‘these are my models’. He got John Deakin, the trendy Sixties photographer, to supply him with photographs of people he would then use as ‘reference’ for his portraits, rather than have the actual people sit for him in his studio. Deakin was very obliging. He took lots of pictures of Bacon’s drinking companions in the notorious Colony Club in Soho. He also took a shot of Francis himself, caught in flagrante after personally ripping a pig in two with his bare torso:

"Dead weight. Francis Bacon by Deakin"
Dead weight. Francis Bacon by Deakin

Such stunts came naturally to Francis, as they would one day come naturally to Damien Hirst. For a long time now, morte nature has had a greater appeal to certain English artists than still life could ever have, though thankfully the appeal remains somewhat niche.


If she’d been able to visit a Bacon exhibition, Rembrandt’s maid would have found precious little that might be called conventionally beautiful, but maybe she would have been mistaken. Bacon perceives beauty in places others see only ugliness and even the grotesque. Take his repeated praise of the mouth. He claimed to have seen the beauty of the human mouth as a result of reading a medical text on the diseases that could afflict it. In all probability, that was his little joke. In the same interview he launches into an encomium to the orifice seldom heard outside dentists’ conventions. “I love the mouth… it’s rather like a Turner… it’s got all these beautiful colours, it’s got these lovely vibrations of colour, between the tongue, the lips, the teeth” (Bragg interview, 1985). This is the mouth as The Fighting Temeraire. Not the old ship itself, but the deep reds of the sunset in Turner’s celebrated picture. Elsewhere, he praises the “beautiful colours of the mouth, as beautiful as Monet landscapes.” If anything, this is surely a sly way of deprecating the anodyne beauties of Monet. It’s pretty unlikely that any mouth could resemble one of his landscapes. In actuality, the typical Bacon mouth has very few colours. Often, it’s monochrome. But you know he’s getting a kick out of trivialising the landscape artists, in a similar manner to his debunking of Jackson Pollock (he habitually compared Pollock’s work to old lace, much to the indignation of American art lovers), or his dismissal of abstract art as dreary. Gazing, with lip curled, at a Rothko, he tells Bragg it’s spoilt by the artist’s choice of ‘that dirty maroon colour’ and claims he wouldn’t want to visit an exhibition of such paintings lest he got depressed by their dreariness. This is funny too. I dare say there is not a person on the planet who visits a Bacon exhibition to cheer themselves up. Nor do most people seek beauty there. With Bacon, beauty is a poke in the eye of the beholder, and his repeated avowals that he can only see beauty in what everyone else finds ugly come across as affectation, rather like a paradox operates when constructed by Oscar Wilde.


Francis Bacon’s concept of beauty is a pose, like his cut-glass accent in the interviews, his habitual use of ‘one’ for ‘I’ as if he was practising the Queen’s English on us – well, a queen’s English – or using his phone voice when he’s communicating with the public. In a documentary that manages to capture an encounter between Bacon and William Burroughs in the former’s London flat, he momentarily lapses into Ealing cockney when making tea for his American guest. The beat novelist looks gaunt and inhibited. His cheeky host, on the other hand, is having a hoot, perfectly happy in his chubby skin. You feel he wants to say “Shall I be mother?” – only he calculates that this element of English tea-making etiquette will be lost on the self-conscious American.


The interviews are never so revealing. They are repetitions of a carefully scripted press release, a little reminiscent of politicians, but more charming. Like the average politician, the position has always been rehearsed beforehand. I actually began to wonder if fame had come as an unwelcome shock for him. The fabrication of his public persona is quite as exhaustive as his triptychs. No gaffes. Give nothing away. By sticking to the repeated themes, he manages to simulate candour.


Repetition is the key to Bacon’s art too. He repeats winning formulae without embarrassment, returning to the crucifixion, the triptych, the anguished popes, the ghostlike shapes and the beaten-up faces, over and over again. It’s a fairly extensive repertoire, but ultimately it feels constricted. You only have to compare the painter who first turned Bacon on to the idea of becoming an artist, Pablo Picasso. Bacon attended an exhibition of the great Spanish artist’s drawings. It’s possible he saw a drawing such as this, of Igor Stravinsky.

"Picasso picture of Stravinsky"
Picasso picture of Stravinsky

What we see in the handful of sketches from this time is Picasso’s absolute command of likeness. He has a knack for grasping the character of a person. Look at the hands, for instance, the oversized hands of the pianist. Or the composer’s short-sighted air, that of the driven intellectual. Throughout Picasso’s work there are moments when he captures these quirks in his sitters, often with a style that borders on caricature. Even when he is hellbent on distorting faces, he usually manages to preserve some kind of authentic likeness. If he doesn’t, you know he’s in a really ugly mood. He had trouble getting Gertrude Stein right and went off, brooding over the problem, until coming back and getting her to a tee. Picasso had an unmistakable flare for these things. If he failed to get the likeness, it was because he didn’t care to.


Contrast all of this with Bacon. A recurring claim of his ‘press release’ interviews is that he doesn’t want to ‘illustrate’, by which he means capture a likeness. Shunning the convention of having a model sit for a portrait, he prefers to avoid the sitter altogether. In the conversation with Burroughs, from around 1982, he asks “How are you going to trap reality… how are you going to trap appearance without making an illustration of it – and that is one of the great fights, and one of the great excitements, of being a figurative artist today.” One wonders how many times Burroughs had heard that one while the two of them dilly-dallied in Tangiers.


However, this avoidance of illustration cannot account for every effect we see in Bacon’s work. Picasso’s distortions are quite different, they can even have a tenderness about them, whereas Bacon invariably bruises and beats up the faces of his absent subjects. This led to a confessed reluctance to portray people he liked. “I don’t want ‘to practise the injury’” is what he told David Sylvester in 1966. It’s hardly surprising that friends were equally reluctant to undergo a process akin to assault, which left their faces, like those of murder victims, so badly mashed up that their closest relatives would have been hard pressed to identify them. To solve the paradox of a portrait that was not an illustration, Bacon bludgeoned his subjects with paint to the point where their heads and bodies would hover on the verge of unrecognisable, even as human beings, let alone as themselves. Then he placed them in a setting that was exaggeratedly ordered and formal. It’s the same trick, over and over again. Except I think the actual evolution of individual images was the other way around. He started with the setting.


There are birds of paradise which prepare stages for their elaborate courtship displays. They set out an arena for attracting a mate, tidying everything obsessively before they are ready to dance and pose before a visiting female. Bacon had spent a few years (before taking up art) as an interior designer, and this is the expertise he uses in his backdrops. There’s a certain mechanical simplicity to the first phase of the painting, tidying, getting things geometrically correct and in the right relationship with each other. This is when he arranges the furniture of his torture chamber and works out where the walls and cages should go. All these things he can do easily while hung over after an all-night session at the Colony Club. The same is not true when it comes to the second phase, which is desecration. This is the phase that demands all Bacon’s alertness. He has to be mentally prepared for it, because this is when he abandons himself to inspiration, or to chance.


We know he was a gambler as he is very keen to tell us, and to relate this pastime to his artistic method. “I must be the perfect compost for casinos,” he tells Bragg, “because they must love someone who comes in and always loses.” That word ‘compost’ is a gorgeous example of his idiosyncratic diction. “I’m profoundly optimistic about nothing,” he insists. “I’m born with that kind of optimistic nature.” Isn’t this the optimism of the gambler who knows the house always wins, yet gambles anyway? That is to say, what any normal person might call pessimism. Surely it amounts to a negation of the term ‘optimism,’ if the ‘optimist’ cannot conceive of a better future. The effect of this paradox is similar to the aesthetic impulse which negates the pursuit of beauty. I think what Francis Bacon cultivated with all that compost might be called amoral paradox. It’s even there in the famous quip about the crowd in the Colony Club, which he referred to as a ‘concentration of camp’ – he has to defile the joke with a chilling allusion to the places where camp individuals were routinely murdered. The same dark tinge is detectable in the pun he repeated at every opportunity as a toast: “Champagne for my real friends; real pain for my sham friends!” The convention is to drink to your companions’ good health, but here it's exactly as if we can only enjoy our good fortune if our enemies are unfortunate. This is also the nature of luck in gambling. For anyone to get lucky, someone has to lose out.    


He may have been a loser in the casino, but Bacon was definitely a winner when he took artistic chances. His boldness and recklessness came to the fore when the formal, ordered backdrop was ready and he could execute the inspired splurge, the jet of jism or ectoplasm no Dutch maid would care to witness. It was now that a strange fit took over and left, deposited on the ordered scene, the bruised, beaten up and collapsed body of a man, less often that of a woman, with flesh seemingly devoid of structure, as if the bones had been removed. For however long it took, he would desecrate the ordered scene with these broken figures, spatchcocked like chickens, or with random spurts of paint. Then the fit would pass, the paint would cease to drip, and Bacon would slope off, spent, back to the Colony Club.


Of course, I have indulged in a fantasy of Bacon’s work practices here. He gives little away and, unlike Picasso for example, never consented to being filmed in the act. But for birds of paradise who renounce beauty, how many other ways were there to go? You could be as anal as you liked about the context, but your centrepiece was never going to be a pretty sight.


This is the repeated gesture of his work. The paucity of themes derives from an over-conscious narrowing of options. No illustration. No abstraction. No stories. No expressiveness. The fetters Bacon put on himself were a kind of aesthetic masochism. He can see the voluptuous beauty of Michelangelo’s drawings of men, but unlike the devout Catholic fresco painter and sculptor, Bacon the atheist cannot permit himself a vision of beauty. He can recognise the beauty of Velázquez’s Venus, he can even gaze admiringly at a harem by Ingres, but unlike those painters he cannot permit himself to indulge in pulchritude, even if it be the beauty of men as befits his ‘attitudes’ (the odd way he describes, in the Bragg interview, his sexual preferences: “my attitudes are different. I like men”). Instead, he persuades himself, or he tries to persuade us, that he is looking at reality, the Truth, with an unflinching eye. Could it be he is fascinated by a projection?


It was Keats who said that beauty was truth. For Bacon, the suffering and pain of the world were the only valid criteria. They were the truth that society chose to hide. And yet we know, because it’s well-documented, that he had a sado-masochistic streak. One of the paintings in the Academy is of a grown man reduced to a cowering foetal heap on a sofa, presumably because he has been humiliated, perhaps even beaten, by a lover.

"Man on sofa"
Man on sofa

If desire and joy are inextricably connected to humiliation and pain, another paradox takes over. Bacon might like us to think he is mirroring the violence of the modern world, or of human existence itself. What compromises this empathy, this apparent cry of shared pain, is the sadistic or masochistic pleasure that might be mixed up in it. There’s a hint of bad faith.

The Grand Guignol theatre – Bacon’s work has often been characterised as ‘Grand Guignol’ – used to be situated in the Pigalle district of Paris. There, people would pay good money to see horrors. It was a former church, and cubicles that had once been used to protect the modesty of visiting nuns were rented by members of the public, some of whom got aroused by the spectacle. For others, the horrors were too much. There were accounts of women fainting or even miscarrying. In the theatre's heyday between the wars, it was frequented by royalty and celebrities in evening dress. However, its fortunes declined after the Second World War and by the early Sixties it was forced to close. The management attributed the closure in part to the fact that the theatre's faux horrors had been eclipsed by the actual events of the Holocaust two decades earlier. “We could never equal Buchenwald," said its final director, Charles Nonon. “Before the war, everyone felt that what was happening onstage was impossible. Now we know that these things, and worse, are possible in reality.” 

The horrors Bacon strives to present suffer from the same comparison. They seem unreal. Adrian Searle, one of the Guardian’s art critics, highlighted this unreality when he complained that Bacon was an almost entirely mannered and theatrical painter. He was detecting the inauthenticity that lurks behind the paintings. Bacon would never miss an opportunity to insist that ‘all reality is pain’ and quote from Aeschylus to back this assertion up – the reek of human blood smiles out at me. The problem is that, coming from a sadomasochist, this assertion is somewhat ambiguous. The followers of Messrs Masoch and Sade go in search of pain, after all, for themselves or for others. If it didn’t already exist in the world, they would have to invent it.

"Bacon bullfight"
Bacon bullfight

We can see the problems this penchant for pain creates if we look at Bacon’s pictures of the bullfight. Wouldn’t he have been better advised to leave the depiction of the bull and the matador to Goya, say, or of the bull/minotaur to Picasso? It seems only prudent to leave such an un-English ritual to the Spanish painters. But no, Bacon wanted to commit it to canvas himself. The results are peculiarly ineffective. Being the one trick pony he is, Francis sets the scene while nursing a hangover, a very limited scene, as if the stadium has shrunk to the size of a bedroom. There is a crowd, but that too is reduced in number. Then he places within the frame of the scene a mess of paint showing animal and human in deadly conflict. And yet nothing here evokes the passion, the danger or the cruelty of the actual event. That’s because it is remembered, for one thing. I don’t think Bacon, as he sat through the experience, was sketching furiously. His models (as usual) were photographic. More tellingly, he says somewhere that the bullfight was an ‘excellent aperitif’ to sex. One is bound to wonder whether it was the the life-and-death struggle that got his juices flowing, so much as the shapeliness of the matador’s buttocks. The fact is, he has allowed his ‘attitudes’ to interpose themselves between the spectacle and his aesthetic sensibilities. There is far more of Sade & Masoch in all this, than there is the unflinching depiction of suffering. Even the oft-repeated quote from the Oresteia gives the game away: the reek of blood can bring a smile to one’s lips, I expect, if one is either a murderer or a guilt-laden fantasist.


One would hope the great Painter of Pain was the latter. A little bit of guilt never went amiss. The bemusing thing, though, is that we will never know what possessed him to sit in the same gloomy basement, again and again, painting one imaginary carcass after another. He just might have been enjoying the experience.   


Footnote: I mentioned above that Velázquez was no stranger to vandalism. At the National Gallery, Ali Cherri, the Lebanese artist in residence there, has had a look at the paintings in the Gallery’s collection that have suffered from vandalism over the years, the most famous being the Rokeby Venus by Velázquez. The story behind this particular assault is fascinating. It was slashed with a meat cleaver by Mary ‘Slasher’ Richardson, a militant Suffragette, before the Great War. Cherri’s response to the vandalism is to place a recumbent wooden ‘Venus’ – it resembles a neolithic figure – in a vitrine, along with a one-eyed female head gazing at itself, or us, in a mirror. Richardson seems to have had a violent disposition; she went on to join Oswald Moseley’s party, the British Union of Fascists. I would like to have known more about the identities and motivations of the other vandals, who attacked a Barocci, a Rembrandt, a Poussin, and a Leonardo. Cherri’s responses to the desecrations are beautiful, if bleakly so.      



‘Francis Bacon: Man and Beast’ is at the Royal Academy in London until 17 April 2022.

‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’ by Ali Cherri is at the National Gallery in London until June 2022.

You can follow the author on Instagram at cavemanwithabrush.

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