The Nervous System

I went to the Royal Academy to see the new exhibition Francis Bacon: Man And Beast.

Outside, Bacon and Reynolds together:

The work that caused shock and upset when presented in a small gallery in 1944, is now familiar enough to be used as the branding of a mass-reproduced product (of course this red version is the later Second Version from the 80s):

A fold-out copy of the “Triptych Inspired by The Oresteia of Aeschylus” (1981)
This is the book that was under the title “The Brutality Of Fact” for a while.

I had a look in that novel but it seemed to be putting him as a TV drama Posh Queer, which is not quite what comes over in footage nor the transcripts with David Sylvester, nor in Daniel Craig’s best film. Bacon would be a social outsider from his Irish background, and there are odd asides in John Russell’s book that indicate his lack of formal education may have caused either insecurity on his part, or disdain from university graduates, in the earlier years.

Of course he didn’t attend any art school either, and we can see what he missed downstairs at the RA. I went down to look at the free exhibitions first of all. I found myself a crucifixion he could have practiced sketching if he’d been a student here.

The soul? Actually the quote is “Painting is the pattern of one’s own nervous system being projected on canvas.” I first read that in the guide for the 1985 retrospective – I didn’t see the show, but the books for the bigger exhibitions would be bought and included in the Art sections of local libraries, in the old days. As I remember it, it appeared in an introductory essay by Dawn Ades, who observed that Bacon chose “nervous system” as a materialist alternative to using any “higher” or “spiritual” language.

The quote isn’t presented in this show, or at least I didn’t notice it, but of course we see this:

Which is just as well, since the show includes “Two Figures In The Grass” (1954), and the caption next to it explains that when it was exhibited at the ICA in 1955 “two women lodged a complaint with the police”. There may be more of a story to that exhibition.

So I can finally see these works which I read about and saw copies of for 30 years. Some notable works are not here at all, and it’s hard to see if the “Man And Beast” theme excluded them. It is known that “Painting 1946” has problems with durability due to paint and canvas used and so can’t be moved (but he did a Second Version in 1971, also not here); also “Figure In A Landscape” (1946), which may or may not show a machine gunner or a dummy set up in place of one.

“Crucifixion” (1933) is the only 1930s work included, and we know that Bacon destroyed most of his work from that time, the only one he regrets losing being “Wound For A Crucifixion”, which is described in the John Russell book as being something more like his later 60s paintings than the 40s/50s in its coloration.

“Head I”:

The early Figures from 1945-6:

I was surprised by the one on the right, “Fury”, and also “Study For A Figure”, which without context I would guessed as being a hoax “newly discovered early Bacon” created by simply merging together parts of other works from the same period.

The “columns of light” style of the 40s/50s interiors is one of their strongest features, conveying the photojournalism/cinematic origin of the images Bacon was working into oil paint.

As we all know, Thatcher allegedly referred to him as “that man who paints those dreadful pictures”, although she did hear about this and insisted she never said it; since she was on record as admiring Philip Larkin’s poetry she was not exactly committed to demanding all art had to be cheerful. But Bacon didn’t like being read as a “nihilist” with a bleak view on “the human condition”, insisting he had nothing to “say” about that. The brevity of the titles showed his disdain for pretentious announcements. John Russell described “Painting 1946” as having the themes of “war, meat, and the dictator”, but that Bacon’s reaction was aesthetic and not a political counter-manifesto. All those faceless men in suits standing near microphones derive from 1920s newsreels of Mussolini, apparently.

The aim was always and simply to produce powerful images that couldn’t be done any other way, and photography and film were helpful sources. Those contorted bodies and faces from the 60s and 70s are multiple layers of a mobile presence that cannot simply be broken into separate frames, like Muybridge, but need to be re-assembled. The lost opportunity was for Bacon to work with the new video and computer technology for manipulating images, as that would be the natural continuation of his interests going back to the 30s. He was not essentially about splatter or body-horror, and he was not interested in using the unconscious to “explain” anything. His paintings are not essays, but they have caused plenty of them.

One thought on “The Nervous System

  1. I’m not qualified to comment on his legacy in painting and to other painters – but he did have a big effect on film-makers. Both Ridley Scott and Christopher Nolan cite him, and then they themselves have followers and copycats.

    Thatcher was right about both Bacon – they are “horrible” paintings – and Larkin, she remember the line about “knives in a drawer”, apparently.

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