BACON III : with God, everything is permitted
Three studies for figures at the base of a crucifixion is, along with the series of Heads and Popes from the 1950s, an early culmination of Bacon’s primary concerns: meat, screams, the pure expression of horror. It is a furious scene: three grey bulgingly solid forms, each covered with an ashen crust, cower and rear and bawl over thick, waxy streaks of blood-red pastel and oil.
It is the most pressing of Bacon’s paintings (its 1988 re-make, a cool magenta oil painting with shallow Rembrandtish shadows, pales in comparison), and its insistence is derived from its colour, its use of the triptych form and its inexplicable forms. What are we to make of these images? Are they human? Are they gendered? Monsters, or Furies? There is a certain awful harmony in the way that the left-hand figure groans downwards, the right-hand yells upwards, and the middle figure scream straight ahead; in the way also that their lack of sight mirrors our own. This is Bacon’s most powerful and most dreadfully beautiful painting, and it tells us nothing.
His next crucifixion triptych, painted almost 20 years later, follows the structure of the triptych more strictly.
The three scenes do not complete each other – one cannot work from one to another and find a story. Nevertheless, unlike the isolated figures in the 1944 triptych, there is something resembling a conventional crucifixion scene here: dead and martyred figures are watched by onlookers (if not exactly worshippers or devotees).
In the left-hand panel, two claws of black and red and white meat and gristle grab at a gauche, smudged figure, his shadow better defined than his body. Another figure, or perhaps the same one a moment later, edges away, suspended in perpetual going where his double perpetually comes. In the right-hand panel, liquid flesh pours down the frame of an armchair, falls through the armature of a ribcage (“the bones,” writes Deleuze, “are like the trapeze apparatus upon which the flesh is the acrobat”), solidifies into a pillow onto which an arm, the head, the ruby-red screaming mouth lies bawling. The central panel is the unremittingly still arbitrator to these pulsating scenes. Unlike them, it holds, and returns, the gaze. Ostensibly a foetal bloodbath, the recumbent figure takes on a coquettish, seething, aggressive air when one links two small dots, two wide-open marble eyes just above and to either side of the ubiquitous scream. Suddenly, the white pillow, fleshy like the one in the right-hand panel, props up a face which freezes time.
In this painting, and even more in the 1965 Crucifixion, we see that Bacon’s antipathy towards religion and politics conceal something more significant. Bacon believed what every atheist should believe: that our lives are not directed towards any ultimate meaning, but that somehow we find a meaning in the irrelevance of our lives. He claims to seek inspiration in medieval crucifixion scenes, not for their religious significance, but because of the hopelessness of Christ’s situation, the dignified futility in his being (as we all are) a sack of meat.
But here is the paradox of atheism writ large. Why is the crucifixion, or the scene of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, such a compelling image for today’s atheist? The religious scene takes the painter beyond illustration because the religious scene or figure cannot literally be represented (it is blasphemous to portray God as man). Deleuze sees Giotto as the religious painter of pure sensation; and Bacon himself recognises the “religious possibilities” which compelled Velasquez to paint. Indeed, he seems to regret that those possibilities are not open to contemporary man: “all art has now become completely a game by which man distracts himself ... and what is fascinating now is that it’s going to become much more difficult for the artist, because he must really deepen the game to be any good at all.”
Bacon’s question is: why bother painting at all today? His response is (as far as I can think) unique among twentieth century painters. He rejects abstraction and abstract expressionism (and photography) and instead performs a kind of return-to-the-sacred. Man is infused with “secular possibilities,” and reclaims his divine aura. It is an artistic and a moral masterstroke, but one which demonstrates the interdependence of religious feeling and secular thought. Because these religious scenes have such an extraordinary structure, one can hang one’s psyche around them better than with a pure sensation. The mistake Bacon makes (and it shows up terribly in some of his more theoretical and less poetic paintings of the late 1970s and 1980s) is to assume that the application of pure unconscious sensation inevitably leads us to the pure human essence. The unconscious may be the engine-room of the psyche, but a person’s repressions and fantasies are far more interesting and sympathetic to witness than the involuntary drives at the core of his or her being. Bacon’s paintings are empty of fantasies, and without our fantasies, we cannot truly call ourselves human (or religious ... or atheist).
Nevertheless, there is something rather radical about Francis Bacon’s work, and its political content should be reclaimed regardless of his own views or pretensions. Look again at the 1965 Crucifixion. As in any conventional crucifixion scene, figures suffer and figures watch. Except that here, the watching figures do not notice the suffering, or are indifferent to it. The two men in the right-hand panel look through the crucified martyr, beyond the mutilated figures ahead of and behind them, and leer at the dancing girl. John Berger, who has been a critic of Bacon, notes that his paintings foresaw a world in which suffering was seen every day, was analysed, calculated, patronised ... and accepted. This raises an intriguing possibility, for it suggests that in a world where we must take sides, Bacon’s paintings force the faces of the evicted, the distraught and the too-far-gone upon us. These paintings – the crucifixions especially – possess a force which passes through and between people, causing one to gaze at or bully or get pulverised by another. This force is mysterious and intangible, but it makes its presence felt. It spreads indifference like a virus. And its shadow hangs from each of us, in some form or other.