BACON II : one continuous accident mounting on top of another
Bacon’s project, far more than the abstract expressionism of Pollock, more even than the Surrealists, was to paint the unconscious, the stuff beyond representation. Bacon repeatedly refers to painting as something which happens to him, not something that he does. He does not claim to have a particular gift for anything except receiving images and sensations. In Bacon’s paintings, paint literally takes on a life of its own, and his task is to manipulate it as far as he can (“it does many things,” he says, “which are very much better than I could make it do”), and exploit its potential for “making the invisible visible.”
But if we say that Bacon’s paintings are determined by chance, we must be clear what we mean. On the one hand, Bacon knows that his conscious mind, the procedures and processes through which he plans a painting, can only go so far in creating the image he seeks. Because he does not paint scenes or stories, his figures must gain their reality from something intrinsic to themselves – something which may not be visible. Bacon’s complaint about photographs is not that they look too realistic, but that they do not look enough like the people they are supposed to represent.
For instance, I think that, of those two paintings of Michel Leiris, the one I did which is less literally like him is in fact more poignantly like him ... One doesn’t know what makes one thing seem more real than another. I really wanted those portraits of Michel to look like him: there’s no point in doing a portrait of somebody if you’re not going to make it look like him ... Being rather long and thin, that head in fact has nothing to do with what Michel’s head is really like, and yet it looks more him.
The limits of visual reality (and the attempt to paint beyond it) partially explains why Bacon never painted his portraits from life. He would instead refer to an old photo of his subject, a memory from last night, a postcard of the Sahara desert, a close-up of a rhinoceros’s skin – anything that might touch his responsiveness to suggestion, anything that might break through the clichés of representation. When that failed, he would scrub away at the canvas with a brush, take a broom to it, throw turps at it, throw thick handfuls of paint at it and wipe them off with a rag, in an almost literal attempt to erase the dull figuration and bring the pure sensation of the figure to life.
Cezanne said that he tried to paint the confused sensations that we bring with us at birth. Bacon attempts the same thing in his painting. A highlight of Gilles Deleuze’s analysis of Bacon’s work is his description of how Bacon scrubs, sweeps, wipes and marks the canvas in order to empty out convention, erase the cliché, and leave the ground clear for reality.
It is like the emergence of another world. For these marks, these traits, are irrational, involuntary, accidental, free, random. They are non-representative, non-illustrative, non-narrative. They are no longer either significant or signifiers: they are asignifying traits ... It is as if the hand assumed an independence and began to be guided by other forces, making marks that no longer depend on either our will or our sight. These almost blind manual marks attest to the intrusion of another world into the visual world of figuration.
Occasionally the marks work; more often than not they fail, or go too far; the germ of something vivid is lost under layers of doomed mistakes. When it does work, is it premeditated? According to Bacon, success comes from something almost divine, but one can be receptive to it; or, as David Sylvester put it, one can try to avoid the potency of the unconscious image being corrected by conscious thought. This study of George Dyer’s head is the most brilliant example of Bacon’s unconscious technique. It is impossible to imagine how it was painted, or what route Bacon took, or what spark ignited him. A brick-red face, the familiar curve of Dyer’s boxer’s nose, some swirls of brilliant white, a little shadow and light: it seems to us that it could not have taken more than an hour or two to pain; or more likely, it painted itself.
I think an awful lot of creation is made out of the self-criticism of the artist, and very often I think probably what makes one artist seem better than another is that his critical sense is more acute. It may not be that he is more gifted in any way but just that he has a better critical sense.
There is another form of chance which is more determined, though not necessarily by the artist. Bacon also understood chance to mean a set of possibilities, possibilities which are partially determined by the painter’s initial ideas about what he wants to paint, but which are also determined by each other. They are not accidental, as such, and unlike the asignifying marks which Deleuze describes, they are not non-representational. This conversation between Bacon and Sylvester, about one of his most beautiful of triptychs illustrates this “manipulated chance” very well.
DS: In the beach triptych, were the horses and riders an afterthought?
FB: They were certainly an afterthought, yes. I felt that I just wanted that distance and movement and so on.
DS: And the screens with images of heads?
FB: Those are images I’d often thought about.
DS: Those you foresaw then?
FB: Yes. I didn’t foresee how the central figure would come out.
DS: You didn’t know there was going to be nude between the screens?
FB: Yes, but I didn’t know how it was going to come out.
DS: You didn’t know it was going to be a figure from the back?
DS: And the sort of semi-human figure down in front, was that foreseen?
FB: No, that wasn’t foreseen.
DS: And the umbrellas?
FB: I didn’t foresee those. This was a very unforeseen painting.
DS: Except that you did foresee this extraordinary element of the two heads on screens. Was it in order to do them that you started on this particular triptych?
FB: Firstly I wanted to have something on the beach by the sea, although as it happens the central panel isn’t very much by the sea, but in the background I used the same colour as the sky in the outer panels. I think that, when images drop in to me, although the paintings don’t end up in the way the images drop in, the images themselves are suggestive of the way I can hope that chance and accident will work for me. I always think of myself not so much as a painter but as a medium for accident and chance.