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Francis Bacon: The Horrors of Humanity

Francis Bacon is an enigma. Looking at his art it becomes clear that his persona is only so well explained in a brush stroked with violence.

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"Hell is empty, and all the devils are here."

Francis Bacon is essentially an enigma. A man with a misty childhood, and an even foggier adult life clouded by the spectrum of myths and romanticism that surrounded him. Looking at his art, however – an ethereal body of work that is maybe the only way to truly understand him as a man – it becomes clear that his persona is only so well explained in a brush stroked with violence.

Perhaps his most impressive work (at least, his most notable) is his triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), a ghostly depiction of the failure of humanity: their phallic anatomy and feral, violent complexions express their rage, anguish and distrust of life, triggering dark, exciting thoughts and feelings. Bacon’s subject – the human body – is often pitched just on the threshold of reality, translating to something inhuman, something more animalistic. Here, they are exhibited as if in a zoo, ripped from their natural habitats and displayed in Bacon's blood-orange funhouse-mirror-vision of the world. Writhing, naked molluscs, only now captured sitting stagnant, sessile, in the way Bacon has wrestled and sculpted them; caught in an orgiastic moment of torment – torn somewhere between starvation and ravishment. This contradiction seems to be at the heart of all of Bacon’s works.

The triptych evokes the blackness of the time it was painted; of the Blitz, of Hiroshima, and of the Holocaust — figures of war, and of death and of all the horrors of humankind. But, I also see the shattered soul and tortured ego of the artist, hiding within, encased in the container within the blind, screaming figures ripped straight from nightmares. The figure is Van Gogh's severed ear, it is Cobain's brains on the wall, it is Hemingway's alcoholism, and Burroughs' addiction. It is all of us, and all of our flaws, and our sins. It's our pride, our greed, our lust. It's a sense of purgation; the same release of screaming into your pillow or crying in the shower. No one can hear it or see you doing it. It's this exhilarated despair; an artist’s agony.

Francis Bacon Studies Figures Crucifixion Painting
Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944)

Visually, it represents an area of the unexplored, "of organic form that relates to the human image but is a complete distortion of it." These are not demons or monsters, but the human soul envisioned, emerging in all its twisted death-vomit and rotting, faceless flesh-massed glory. Inspired by Aeschylus' Greek tragedies (to a great degree the quote "the reek of human blood smiles out at me"), the image's coagulated colour and gnarled, contorted subjects convey "the smell of death" Bacon so desired. Bacon saw humans as no different than an animal being led to the slaughter; so aware of our own imminent fate, of what is going to happen to us, of what Bacon called "the shortness of the moment of existence between birth and death."

Bacon's Crucifixion is not a semantic of religion, but of an act of man's behaviour: a feeling of mortality, an awareness of the elemental truth regarding the fragility of existence, and of our animal nature; a moment of recognition. Because, although evoking all the horrors of the past, it is simply looking through a crystal ball at what we’ll become: when you strip back all of the flesh and meat and organs and bones, this is what we are, just tortured souls screaming into the endless silence. When asked when he first became aware that death would happen to him, Bacon replied:

"I was seventeen... I remember looking at a dog-shit on the pavement and I suddenly realised, there it is – this is what life is like... existing for a second, brushed off like flies on a wall... Man now realizes that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without purpose, other than of his own choosing... We are born, and we die and there’s nothing else. We’re just part of animal life."

Born into a religious family with an incredibly conservative father, Bacon described his childhood as "very heavy, very cold, like a block of ice." Isolated on his family’s farm suffering from severe asthma, Bacon’s father often ordered the stable workers to mercilessly beat and whip him. Bacon’s masochism was awoken and he was only fuelled by this treatment, even stating several times that while he hated his father, he was also deliriously sexually attracted to him (a dynamic that would carry through every romantic relationship Bacon would ever be in – his love life was always dominated by a predator-prey dichotomy). By the time his father had kicked him out, Bacon’s thirst for the sordid and seedy had already ripened, and his life became riddled with decadence: parties, drink, drugs, and gambling; his debts mounted, and his waking life entirely seeped in debauchery.

By the time he started painting, it was as if he was committing transgressions with a purpose, where even his art carried the motif of seeking revenge. As an outlet, the "violent" act of painting allowed Bacon to remove his fragility and exercise his desires. He described it as "a particular state when everything happens very quickly, a mixture of consciousness and unconsciousness, of fear and pleasure; it’s a little like making love, the physical act of love," which was as much of an obsession for him as painting was. He went on to say, "the artist may be able to open up... unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently."

His eventual abandonment of transgression and supposed search for "God" through art as he got older was a failure. His own physical decay (quoting Cocteau he said, "each day in the mirror I watch death at work"), and the frustration of his failed transcendence seemed to weigh on him. A fat, ageing, unattractive artist – his work began to shift, providing a much bleaker point of view of the world. Figures that are alive and dead, confined in ominous glass boxes, surrounded by an endless void, silently screaming. Trapped, in limbo, like Jesus in the cave awaiting resurrection. But that would never come. In his Studies, Bacon's figures become distorted, as the precise sculptural forms and vibrant colours of the early work give way to smudged figures shrouded in murky darkness; their faces mutilated, dislocated into unnatural poses, and their bodies evaporating, disintegrating as subject becomes indistinguishable from background.

The dusty darkness envelops the subject as they pointlessly, uselessly cry out for help; they try to suck in the air, while at the same time it appears as if someone just beyond the frame is sucking the air out of the invisible room they find themselves in. Bacon once stated, "If I hadn’t been an asthmatic, I might never have gone on painting at all" (although, ironically, it would be his asthma that would induce the heart attack that killed him). In that context, the paintings are pure catharsis. For an asthmatic, the simple process of breathing is a struggle, each attack is an ordeal to be overcome. These figures are not screaming, but gasping, desperate for each breath of air.

They show Bacon's constant struggle, and you leave the room feeling the same sense of relief that Bacon must have felt the first full, clear breath after an attack. The images are disturbing and frightening, but leave you with a crystalline sense of wanting to make the most of the rest of your day. Bacon's images are concerned with the worst moments of humanity, the darkest recesses of the race; so, when you leave, you feel as if you've come out the other side. These studies, like the Crucifixion, show us our fragility; a reminder of our mortality; rendered in a moment of realisation, of crisis. They are a visual manifestation of his inner anxieties and echo his haunting statement and belief that "we are meat, we are potential carcasses".

Bacon always knew that, even when painting a portrait of someone else, the work would be as much a representation of himself as his subject. His life was relived through his brush. His father's view of his sexuality as a sin manifested itself as a brutal, painful presentation of a crucifixion (Bacon always described his paintings as "the brutality of fact"). Possessed by the desire to suffer and burdened with childhood traumas, Bacon's aesthetic was often not decorative: but it is almost impossible not to be struck by its beauty. He may not have believed in an afterlife or any determined meaning for life, but in the face of extinction, Bacon persevered and gifted us a monumental body of work. Fragments of his illnesses, his heartbreaks, and his existentialism became portraits of himself, and his life: art.


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