Bacon and the Masters

I wanted to write this while it was still fresh, although raw might be a better word. The insanity is fading, but still makes its presence felt from time to time with a malevolent twitch of the psyche, a sudden thought causing a brief spasm of pain, a wasp caught in a web. I thought I was past this. April is the cruellest month [1]. Hieronymo’s mad againe [2].

Down the spiral staircase to meet the Master in the red room. An ominous subterranean rumble in the air which we’re conditioned not to notice. A modern building in glass and grey plastic as soulless as an airport, with art instead of shopping, and ways of escape marked Emergency Exit. I do not take them, though I’d rather be outside. Some people love it here, have happy memories of it. My memories are kicking me up and down the room. That sanity be kept I sit at open windows in my shirt, and let the traffic pass [3].

Paintings with faces smashed apart by shrapnel. On a crimson wall hangs a greyly leering, twisted figure, with a faint smirk, a wonky nose like the smear of a thumb, and arch but unseeing eyes. We stand, my friend and I, temporarily adopting the quasi-reverential manner with which many approach “art”. I shoot a sidelong glance at him. He squints at the painting, head on one side, frowning slightly. He wants to understand. I wait. Thou shalt love thy crooked neighbour with all thy crooked heart [4].

“He was Irish?” he asks.
“Anglo-Irish, you could say.” (Like me, I don’t add. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry. Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still [5].)

We peer at the figure some more. It’s a self-portrait of Francis Bacon, the caption helpfully points out, labelled merely, “A Man”. If This is a Man. My hands are shaking. They were shaking before I came in. Mind running down dark corridors. If we go outside now we will see the minarets, just visible through the pines of Herat, and feel the heat of the sun in that crystalline light, and that dusty, spicy smell. We have been through so much. This place feels claustrophobic, oppressive. Wherever now I look, black ruins of my life rise into view [6].

A painting of two male figures and one female. The male figure at left has that cold cobalt underwash again, marbled like meat on a slab. It extends one leg outwards which is inserted into the male figure at centre, subsumed between two flesh-coloured curves. It’s so obvious I want to laugh. I have of late, wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth [7]. My friend is scrutinising the caption.

“He was gay?”
“And the woman’s head is separate, inside a red box.”

(We are both amateur psychologists – self-taught and self-practicing.)   

William Blake’s life mask. Thin lips like a disapproving grandma. What did he write? I can’t remember. Angels and things. The art of letting go. Then there’s another Bacon painting, loosely based on the mask, so banal I can’t even remember it. But I remember the oddly shaped sculpture nearby, again inspired by the mask – I can trace every rough-hewn edge with my mind’s fingers. Self-effacement. It said, ‘Lie down in the word-hoard, burrow the coil and gleam of your furrowed brain’ [8].

Photos of Bacon in leather jacket and sneakers, sitting surrounded by easels and tubes of paint which spew their colours out – he is pop-eyed, pouchy and lank-haired. A drinker, I can tell. I’m not going there. A table of letters, pleading for funds. Is this what he’d have wanted? It’s banal memorabilia, wallet litter. He has to get out of England. I know the feeling. This one is postmarked Tangiers. Soft-footed catamites in djellabahs with liquescent eyes. Eyes I dare not meet in dreams [9]. A line of Egyptian sculptures, their regularity and rigidity of form in stark contrast to the fluid shape-shifting of the paintings. I know nothing about any of this. Those are the pearls that were his eyes [10]. Not warm brown eyes next to a cold green sea, smiling in the sunshine.

Screaming heads. This one has a bag over it, by the look of it – a thin, transparent bag. Auto-asphyxia. The translucent membrane that separates us from the world; a self-imposed caul. A line of scarlet stripes cascade down the canvas like welts. Life is pain as well as joy, Bacon knew. Lines, ropes, harnesses, pulleys. Or perhaps it is a chair. Have you ever noticed how, when you can’t hear them, people laughing can look like they are screaming? Bacon did.

Study for the Head of a Screaming Pope (1952) is juxtaposed, rather heavy-handedly, with a still from Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin (1925) – the wounded nurse, whose broken spectacles render her eyes opaque, blood streaming from one of them. The reference is clear – the same angle, shape of head, mouth agape in silent scream. Bacon acknowledged the image as a catalyst for his work, and indeed, many of the paintings here are so clearly inspired by other imagery that it seems almost labouring the point to explain it by placing them next to each other. But it does prompt the question of how closely one image can resemble another and yet retain its originality, in the grey area somewhere between homage and parody. Does the Screaming Pope possess the same power to shock as Eisenstein’s frame, once the image is fixed in the mind of the public consciousness? For me, lacking the framework of belief that catholicism demands, it does not – it is merely derivative, robbed of the original image’s shocking power.

Michelangelo’s statues, with slab-like muscles and shrunken genitalia – the perfect, depilated, modern man. These inspired Bacon, the caption informs us, especially Michelangelo’s Crouching Boy (1530), referenced in Bacon’s Two Figures in a Room (1959). I am a fly if these are not stones [11]. I spend more time looking at the darkness in the corner of the room, processing the imagery that flies into my mind dressed in words – my craft or sullen art [12]. Lumpy Flemish burghers with features like root vegetables. Velazquez’s portrait of Philip IV (1623) has a Hapsburg jaw and a slightly startled expression, as if caught unaware by the photographer’s flash. Study for a Portrait of PL no. 2 (1957) shows a watchful, bluish figure, crouched on the ropes like a boxer between rounds in the ring. A quote from Bacon accompanies the caption: “It’s not so much the painting that excites me, as that the painting unlocks all kinds of sensation within me, which returns me to life more violently.” Personally I’m feeling as if I’ve been returned to life a little too violently – if there was something to reduce the intensity of feeling freshly peeled, I’d take it. This painting is not it – it’s just an irrelevance. On earth indifference is the least we have to fear from man or beast [13].

Standing before Titian’s Crucifixion (1560) I feel numb somehow – admiring the beauty of it while simultaneously rebelling against the religious symbolism. The caption describes Titian capturing a man who remains sublime even in his greatest suffering. There’s a word for that in certain circles: subspace. Not the pious martyr’s eyes turned heavenward, but the dreamy state of mind induced by the transcendence of suffering, taking external pain and internalising it until you pass beyond it. But what of Bacon’s Crucifixion (1933) on the wall opposite? A hollow figure in ghostly chalk white that resembles nothing so much as a spatchcocked bat. It makes a change to actually have an emotional reaction inspired by one of these paintings, though in this case it’s just mild annoyance on my part, as if a fraud had somehow been committed in plain sight. What does this mean? Why does it matter? It looks adolescent again, caught up in the melodrama of its own emotion, feeding off the naivety of the onlooker. The Titian’s presence towers over the room. The Bacon feels snide, sidling into view to take its place on the wall by virtue of art’s inclusivity, trying its hardest to be controversial in a way that seems merely contrived.

Untitled (Marching Figures) (1952) – matchstick men march into a goalpost surmounted by a giant sloth. Or a polar bear. Or is it a molar tooth? It could be any anatomical detail you want. The stick men may be Nazis, according to the caption. Or perhaps office workers – or a football crowd, given the goalpost. On the wall nearby, though, hangs an image that is immediately arresting – its garish colours standing out amongst the other, more muted paintings. Matisse’s Nymph and Satyr (1909) is ripe with menace, and its darkness carries through the sunlit scene. The Satyr’s face is an expressionless mask, features smoothed as if with a stocking over the head, the faintest upturn of the lips suggesting a half-leer, half-grimace. Bright pink bodies on the bright green grass. His huge hands darken to red, as if stained with blood, at the end of arms outstretched and grasping for the nymph lying before him as he approaches. His body too is outlined in red, harsh strokes that scream of agitation, frenzy. The brushstrokes of the background are coarse and angry, a swirling mass of green and blue. The nymph lies bowed before him on the sick, limnal lawn, her posture one of extreme submission. The caption describes “overt, almost menacing, sensuality”. This is not sensual – it’s luridly grotesque sexuality on display, priapism run riot, the menace shrieking from the canvas.

The wind crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed [14]. This is not really a review of an art exhibition – it is about a tour around a dark place of the mind and the slow emergence again into the sunlight, feeling for handholds, blinking in the brightness; the taking of pain and the subsequent rising beyond it. Bacon was inspired by many things, which made up his mental landscape of the world – in his case the painting and art of others; in mine, words and poetry. Its strands run through the warp and the weft of me so tightly bound that it would be impossible to separate them; words are what I reach for as support when the world about me is falling apart, transcribed here as they occured. The juxtaposition of original inspiration and resultant artwork is of academic curiosity only, a dismantling of motive, since between the two falls the indecipherable mass we call personality, or style. Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act, falls the shadow. Between the conception and the creation, between the emotion and the response, falls the shadow [15].

Between my finger and my thumb, the squat pen rests. I’ll dig with it [16]

  1. T.S. Eliot – The Wasteland

  2. Thomas Kyd – The Spanish Tragedy

  3. Dylan Thomas – That Sanity Be Kept

  4. W.H. Auden – As I Walked Out One Evening

  5. W.H. Auden – In Memory of W.B. Yeats

  6. C.P. Cavafy – The City

  7. William Shakespeare – What a piece of work is a man; Hamlet

  8. Seamus Heaney – North

  9. T.S. Eliot – The Hollow Men

  10. T. S. Eliot – The Wasteland

  11. Ted Hughes – Mountains

  12. Dylan Thomas – In My Craft or Sullen Art

  13. W.H. Auden – The More Loving One

  14. T.S. Eliot – The Wasteland

  15. T.S Eliot – The Hollow Men

  16. Seamus Heaney – Digging


Francis Bacon and the Masters runs from 18th April – 26th July 2015 at the Sainsbury Centre, Norwich, UK.