BACON I : to paint the mouth like Monet painted a sunset
A visitor to the Tate’s sumptuous Francis Bacon exhibition – the first major posthumous retrospective of his work in the UK – may find that his paintings do not speak to the eye, that they do not articulate themselves except via a constant scream. S/he may become frustrated at their repetition, aggravated that they have nothing to say, no story to tell. Head after head, Pope after Pope, chimpanzee after chimpanzee, with no story to tell.
But this was Bacon’s mission, his obsession: to avoid illustration or narrative. Bacon assaults the senses, not the intellect, and by removing the story or the spectacle from his paintings, by painting what is not visible, they go beyond comprehension.
His attempts to paint the perfect image were astonishingly consistent in scale and approach. After 1960, his large paintings were almost always 198cm by 147.5cm. He seldom painted landscapes or still-lifes, and his figures are generally solitary even when there is more than one of them in a painting. The objects or backgrounds which fix the figures in place – rings, cages, clear or opaque structures – isolate them yet further.
Why is this image troubling? It has no situation for us to be troubled or upset by. The subject, a man dressed in a suit and tie, is barely legible, hidden behind a vertical diaphanous curtain. He sits on a raised couch with his hands beneath his legs and he looks at us, confronts us with a smile that is so impenetrable, that we cannot tell if it is really a smile or a scream. Gilles Deleuze describes the smile-scream as “scoffing ... untenable ... abominable ... hysterical.” The figure, whom Bacon also describes as “very neurotic and almost hysterical,” is trapped. There is noise and movement in the scene, but we cannot hear or feel it. We cannot share what he sees; we sense that its horror cannot match the horror of his response. If only this horror had a direct cause, then it might be overcome. But the smile-scream is pure sensation, immanent, uncaused.
The subject of Bacon’s Study for a Portrait defies analysis or explanation. His lack of subjectivity cannot be explained by his establishment dress – like Herr K, he becomes a subject only by surrendering his individual psychology. His smile is repeated in the left-hand panel of one of Bacon’s early triptychs:
An abominable smile, an abjection of a smile. And if one dreams of introducing an order into a triptych, I believe that the 1953 triptych imposes the following order, which is not to be confused with the succession of panels: the screaming mouth in the centre, the hysterical smile on the left, and finally, the inclined and dissipated head on the right.
More than the depressive Munch, the possessed Bacon (“I’ve never been able to sit in a comfortable chair ... It’s one of the reasons I’ve suffered all my life from high blood-pressure”) paints the scream as the irreducible sign of revulsion. Bacon admired the way in which Eisenstein had captured the scream so excessively in the Odessa Steps scene of Battleship Potemkin. Since the scream is a result of invisible forces, one cannot paint its cause ... or its sound. It is the way in which humans try to articulate something insensible, the method of heaving the body out through the mouth, the outraged realisation that we are, in fact, animal.
In what ways are Bacon’s figures animal? The crouched nudes and paralytic children from his early period are barely discernible from his dogs. None can perceive the future or reflect upon the past; all are stuck in an interminable present. Some paintings may depict more than one present at the same time (e.g. the multiple timescales in Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne) but, rather like the rare occasions when bodies confront each other but fail to merge, these simultaneous present-tense timescales jar with each other. Isabel Rawsthorne is trapped separately in each one, her three forms isolated from each other. Likewise, in the great triptych of George Dyer, the subject moves spasmodically through time from a seated position to a crouched position to a spectral floating position (the bat-like shadow of death hanging beneath him). All this is simply to say that Bacon’s figures cannot perceive each other or their surroundings. They are devoid of memory and insight. In the words of Deleuze, they “trundle about fitfully without ever leaving their circle”.
And Bacon’s figures are animal in another way. Like David Cronenburg, who wishes to host a beauty pageant of all that is beneath the skin, Bacon strove to release the head from out of or behind the human face. Humanity was a facade for Bacon: there must be, he felt, something beyond it. “I’ve always hoped in a sense to be able to paint the mouth like Monet painted a sunset.” Whereas Soutine and Rembrandt made the animal carcase appear human, Bacon does the opposite by painting the head beyond the face, the meat behind the skin.