Michelangelos on Rothkos

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon and the Masters (Fontanka Publications)

This catalogue from a recent show at the University of East Anglia focusses on Francis Bacon’s process of creating paintings, particularly in regards to the inspiration he gleaned from old masters (it might be a bit of a stretch to describe Picasso as an ‘old master’. Nevertheless…). Bacon may have a reputation as a formidable twentieth century artist, but in many ways, like Lucian Freud, his art partook of the conventions of the history of Western art, if one thinks of the overriding theme of portraiture in his work, the creation of triptychs, as well as the obvious references to older paintings (of Velazquez, Van Gogh).

Going beyond this, Paul Joannides, one of the writers of the essays in the book, describes Bacon’s portraiture as similar to, and inspired by, ancient sculpture, including the way in which Bacon ‘mounted’ portraits on tables and the like within the canvasses. I think also that the serenity of the backdrops, in contrast to the smudgy, grainy brushwork of the figures, act as a form of framing within the frame. Some of his pictures look like blurred and distorted Michelangelos on Rothkos. There is also something here of the religious icon painting tradition, where the background itself is more than a background and becomes part of the frame. At times Bacon’s figures are framed by the blank canvas, and in a similar fashion the Fauves would leave bits of blank canvas showing through, as a contrast to their intense and deliberately overemphasised colours.

The figures in Bacon’s paintings are not conventionally beautiful and are more often than not rather disquieting, but, like Freud, he is not out to shock for shock’s sake. His paintings say something about the human body, and the fact that the figures in his crucifixion paintings are like slaughterhouse carcasses rather than Greek statuary (as they are in many Western depictions of the crucifixion) makes this point well, as well as making a certain amount of sense considering that crucifixion was a gruesome rather than noble way to die – the intention was to completely strip the victim of humanity. Bacon had a fascination for deterioration in the human body, and the tragedy in this, and this catalogue makes a link between the messiness of the human body and the (famous) messiness of Bacon’s studio. The detailed documenting of Bacon’s studio detritus may seem part of the modern conceit regarding the importance of modern artists, part of the hagiography of modern artists, that assumes any piece of ephemera is of interest to the general public, but this catalogue suggests that, in this particular case, understanding Bacon’s studio helps us understand Bacon’s influences, not just through the pictures of artworks and photos of friends piled there, but because the state of their preservation (or lack thereof) was a key to Bacon’s interpretation of them in the paintings.

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