It should not be surprising to Francis Bacon that his images would generate images in another visual artist as occurred with himself when he confronted the works of other painters:
“Certain works ... have not only unlocked images for me, but also ways of thinking, and even ways of behaving. ...They released something in me, and made way for something else. Let’s say that it wasn’t fruitless violence.” - In Michel Archimbauld, Francis Bacon In Conversation, Phaidon, 1993, p.152.
This being so, the visual response of one painter to another might be a valid commentary on Bacon’s work and reputation. The artist who was habitually scornful of traditional scholarly criticism might even have paid greater attention to and taken more personally than he usually did a critic who dared to meet him on the same field of contest as it were.
(“I’ve always hoped to find another painter I could really talk to - somebody whose qualities and sensibility I’d really believe in - who really tore my things to bits and whose judgment I could really believe in.” - In Francis Bacon as quoted by John Russell, Thames and Hudson, 1993, pp.178-179.)
It is in this capacity that David Taylor enters the list as a not at all tentative challenger to the reputation of the putative “greatest” painter in recent memory. (Should there still be any need after Bacon’s record-shattering prices, see Daniel Farson, op.cit., pp.226-228, for the painter’s hotly contested ranking.) The extent of the offense this artist took in the paintings of his contemporary brought him to produce three works for its fullest expression: his Francis Bacon Triptych.
In his published essays, Taylor argues for the existential reality of what he calls the artist’s innate “aesthetic personality” as a phenomenon that comes into play when he is at his work. For him, the artist draws from another source distinct from his everyday social being when engaged in his creative activities:
“If [aesthetic] selfhood ... means anything, it would appear to approximate some characteristic principle of expression, whose emotional and expressive constituents may be seen to reside in the artist’s medium, as he alone conceives it ... Such a characteristic principle of selectivity in the expressive resources of a medium would seem to find full expression only in the sensuously qualified statement of the artifact itself, since it is here that the artist’s ‘passionate colloquy’ with his medium must take place or nowhere.” - David Taylor, “Aesthetic Personality,” International Journal of Aesthetics and Philosophy of Culture, vol.5, issue 2, p.8. For further elucidation of his views, see also, David Taylor, “The Aesthetic Theories of Roger Fry Reconsidered,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, XXXVI/I, Fall 1977.
Although his contemporary - Francis Bacon - from the many descriptions of his behaviour in the studio in addition to his interviews gives every evidence of a similar, not at all surprising disengagement from the social practice, he appears not to have understood himself in the same terms and with Taylor’s self-sufficiency:
“[S]ometimes when I’ve been working I’ve been so sick of it that I just take the brush and put marks all over it, thinking it’s not going to work at all, and then suddenly out of this chaos comes the possibility of making an image I hadn’t thought of before.” - Francis Bacon as quoted in The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, p.86.
“[W]hen I work I only have a vague idea, sometimes even no idea at all of what I want to do. In a way it’s purely by chance that something happens on the canvas.” - Francis Bacon In Conversation with Michel Archimbaud, Phaidon, p.87.
Taylor attributed an entirely different cause than the hazards of chance to his art. Reflecting on his signature painting The Sounding of the Seventh Angel, he wrote,
“... as the thing progresses, the original idea is abandoned, something else being dictated ...in that standing of ten hours - through one night and into the dawn.” - David Taylor, The Winnowed Field, (handwritten memoir) p.146.
The Sounding of the Seventh Angel, 1960
This personally emblematic work proclaims the identity and authority of Taylor’s creative being and it is this understanding of himself that informed all of Taylor’s work that was to come. In a similar although opposite manner, the nihilistic nature of Bacon’s self-identification proved to be the driving force of his own particular engagement with his medium and, as is widely understood, his vision and persistent denial of meaning as an artist.
(Where the artist’s aesthetic identity or personality was innate for Taylor, Bacon would not be expected to countenance such a “blessing;” somehow, for him, in a manner difficult to imagine, the artist’s talent would have to issue from or be the “gloss” - to use his habitual expression - upon a meaningless brutality.)
Appearing ten years before his Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), the art critic Roger Fry’s comments would leave Bacon untouched:
“”[To] face reality and probe deeper into its possible spiritual significance ... I believe to be the function of all the greatest art.” - “Reflections on British Art,” 1934, as quoted in David Taylor’s “The Aesthetic Theories of Roger Fry Reconsidered,” op. cit., p.70. Fry was also the subject of Taylor’s doctoral thesis.
Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944)
Bacon’s self-appraisal, even in later life, where he claims not to know what he intended beyond the purpose of “exciting” himself, as he began each new work, cannot help but give pause in light of his choice of subject matter:
“...[W]hen he said that he ‘painted to excite himself,’ he surely meant ... that, at one level or another, much of what he painted is a projection of sadomasochistic practices ...” - Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, pp.71-72.
See also The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, p.151: “I paint to try and excite myself, which doesn’t often happen.”
Trained in both the visual and the literary arts, Taylor drew upon disciplines when he decided to counter what he viewed as the undermining and destructive effects of Bacon’s cavalier rejection of substantive meaning of a distinct and personalized nature in a work of art.
The Universe of Francis Bacon, 1990
In the first panel, The Universe of Francis Bacon (1990), of Taylor’s triptych, if Bacon’s skull were to think, its thoughts just might be represented by the group of individuals circumscribed within this particular artifact exposed to view as if by a hammer blow - what is only to be expected from the brutality that is, according to Bacon, responsible for life’s complete absence of meaning. All the figures are subject to the gaping, leviathan killer-shark maw that attends in the background. In his notes written on the back of the canvas, Taylor attributes this image to El Greco’s Dream of Philip II, with the pointed comment that “its hoard of broken souls,/Did not concern his Catholic Majesty.” In Philip’s stead, a complacent, possibly resigned Francis Bacon stands as the archetypal arbiter behind the enthroned papal figure that so obsessed and compelled him to produce some forty-five versions of it.
Here, Taylor’s pope fixes a masked gaze upon a modern Salomé, who offers an invitation to all comers while she is flanked by the shark’s fangs, the fish’s open mouth like a monstrous vagina. Rising to her challenge, the pope’s phallus complements his focused look. The eyeglasses of a peering victim at the whore’s feet could identify this beheaded John the Baptist on a platter as one of the laudatory art critics - “reduced to a mere John” as the back of the canvas textual note has it - who have anointed the British painter. The figure’s eyes are turned upwards to where three windows are cut into the skull but their shafts of red light bathe a fellow looking out from the top of his ladder with damning luminosity.
Down from the pope, also at his feet and turned away from him, two society ladies - Bacon’s patrons? - admire themselves in a full-length mirror unaware that it does not reflect their true bestial nature as it is understood by the recipient of their largesse. From his perspective, the transmogrified skull of one also serves for the pope’s exposed member. Behind the looking glass, another, in this instance skeletal Francis Bacon sits at his toilet that consists of an oversized rib cage. Taylor’s back-of-the-canvas textual note makes this identification clear:
“In loco cordis tui,*
I must ask you to excuse me,
While I ease myself a little,
Said the smiling Francis B.
*“In loco cordis tui ibi defaeco. ‘In the place where your heart was, there I defecate’ - inscribed beneath the defecating skeleton on the thirteenth stair in the painting, and here suggested as an appropriate motto for the spirit of denial and negation from which so many of Bacon’s paintings appear to emanate. The figure itself and its activity are derived from a theme common in Bacon’s painting.”
(Unlike some who mirrored Bacon’s own confusion as to the appropriate distinction between pleasure and pain, Taylor would not have been confused by Bacon’s obsessive representations of the shameful decease of his former lover George Dyer - never mind the hypocrisy of their obvious narrative elements. According to Farson, “[The Triptych -May-June 1973] can ... be seen as a form of tribute or, more callously, as an exploitation because he [Bacon] was fascinated by the starkness of the subject.” - The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, p.192.)
The skeletal Bacon’s feet are set upon the landing of a stepped corridor leading to a mausoleum-styled enclosure or entranceway whose depths show in the form of light and dark - a simple choice neatly stored away like two cardboard boxes within a cupboard. Once dealt with,
“Down the false corridor
Of space and time
(To harken back to Eliot)
No footfall sounds.
‘Only the wind
And nada, nada, nada*’”
*one of Bacon’s pet phrases
as the back of canvas textual note reads.
A more accurate rendition of Bacon’s treatment of Velasquez‘s pope occupies the jaw of the skull. A set of six fangs in portcullis design obtrude from the darkness at his side. The besmirched holy father clutches what would be a form of papal bull - apparently its wasted light causing a window to form in the jaw bone. He is about to drop it at his feet that are shrouded in brown smoke intended to signify yet one more form of Bacon:
“Another figure, dressed in brown,
Curled like smoke
Around Velasquez’s desecrated pope ...”
The red light that fills the skull has faded into a watery carpet-like desert underfoot - nothing to alarm. All is understood with the head or face of the arbitrating Bacon serving as a single enlarged “all-seeing” eye (“no partial occultation/Doubled herewith/In the face of Francis Bacon”) of the ready-to-devour shark.
On the front of the canvas, Taylor has inscribed,
“And What Is The View From The Skull
But A View From The Skull?”
This loaded question contains its own answer and reminds the viewer of the non-meaningful foundation of Bacon’s work as first established in his Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, long identified as his “fons et origo” (source and origin). Once the painter has subscribed to a life without meaning beyond his own construct, he can expect to find nothing else. Three tusked, red-bodied and thick-skinned, emblematic rhinoceroses swim supportively in the murky waters beneath the skull. Taylor, however, does not leave matters there. Although he has no one to climb the single ladder to them, he places other windows outside the cranium, whose promise of a green prospect contradicts the crimson “view from the skull:”
“But I had turned away from things unseen;
The weather showed a nascent smil, [sic]
Beyond a casement giving on the green
Spring rains were falling quietly
All the while.”
As an explanation for his preferred treatment of the human mouth screaming in horror and pain, as Taylor also notes on the back of his canvas, Bacon endlessly referenced the line that he apparently took to be the summation of Aeschylus’s literary thought - “The reek of human blood smiles out at me.” (This favourite quotation of his from the Oresteia also translates as “the reek of human blood is laughter to my heart.” - The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, p.133.)
(Bacon never failed to embrace this inversion of the human smile, whose convenient cancellation of its significance allowed him to concentrate upon its opposite: “The cry itself is fundamentally ambiguous, betokening rage, pain, fear or the pleasure of sexual release with little differentiation. It was this enigmatic combination that fascinated the sadomasochistic artist: in the spasm that made man indistinguishable from beast, human nature could at last be glimpsed as it really was. For Bacon, whose genius dictated the shortest way to the heart of existence, the cry was the indisputable moment of truth.” Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, p.172. - It is perhaps telling that he found the painting with the most famous smile of all “boring.” - In Conversation with Michel Archimbaud, p.37.)
He would selectively refer with similar approbation to Shakespeare’s tragedies, ever singling out his bloody Scottish play Macbeth, while neglecting all consideration of the playwright’s entire body of work that culminated in the transcendent final Romances whose characters finally shed the lineaments of tragedy for the finer dress of what is redemptive in themselves and in life.
(Well aware of the cathartic principle, Bacon states, “[P]eople came out of the great tragedies of Greece ... as though purged into happiness, into a fuller reality of existence.” - As quoted in Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, p.337. Although, if he is looking for justification, one has yet to hear of a similar experience on the part of spectators before his work, apparently the early enthusiasts found their own rewards: “A significant number ... were drawn to Bacon, quite simply, as a source of truth - an unvarnished truth of human existence that struck home with a force and immediacy which they had not encountered before, whether in art or religion. They haunted his shows in search of further revelation.” - Ibid, pp.373-374.)
The Universe of Francis Bacon II (The Outward Vision Leads Nowhere), 1991
The Universe of Francis Bacon II (The Outward Vision Leads Nowhere), (1991), the central panel of his Bacon triptych, lays out, ironically enough for its subject who detested all forms of metaphysics, a symbol-rich deconstruction of the meaning of Bacon’s nihilism. (Peppiatt comments on the cosmic perspective: “... his [Bacon’s] paintings could only reflect some inexplicable fragment of the vast, meaningless whole.” - Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, p.333.) The immediate and lasting impression in Taylor’s work is of a universe of no more than minimal activity that is entirely biological in nature (“we live, we die and that is all” in Bacon’s words). Its jaundiced anaemic colour palette awash with cold pervading blues illustrates the spirit of Bacon’s dismissal of life’s cosmic consequence and potential. On the front of the canvas, Taylor describes his subject as “buried to the neck in his world of blood and stone/Breeding despair.” He has the head of Bacon direct a gaze of invitation for the viewer to enter his world where staircases lead from nowhere to nowhere. Opposite, at the left foreground, two animalistic figures representing his unglossed self (as he might phrase his own meditations on his true nature) have “emerged from [their] Plato’s cave,” according to “KEY” at back of canvas, and look with horror and trepidation upon the claims of a metaphysical universe where all to be seen is an image of their own minds. From this “pointless” perspective,
“the only egress is back to the material world across a ... Bridge of Sighs - a vaginal passage through which metaphysical spermatoza [sic] (some confused) inseminate the tripartite world of nature: body, mind (darkened) and soul, from whose skies (and human hopes) the devourer of worlds, Leviathan, with looking-glass eye, sweeps away a third of the stars with his tail. He is the serpent of Genesis, the great fish of Jonah, the Great Red Dragon of Revelation, but here portrayed in white [emerging from his caul] - his most forbidding aspect, as Melville holds.” (“KEY”)
Two travellers - one who has accepted the invitation, the other warningly attempting to draw his companion away - “wander to no end through Bacon’s world.” (“KEY”) The weed-like rendition of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3:3-7) umbilically connected to this cosmic or universal Leviathan, barely survives in the barren, cleaved ground and appears to be fading into nothingness as it feeds “the philosophic premises [on which] he [Leviathan/Bacon] is dependent for his existence and nourishment.” (“KEY”)
On the front of his canvas, Taylor has written,
“An empiricist is one who was born in a cage
But is unable to recognize his mental confinement.”
He doubtless has in mind Bacon’s placement of his numerous figures within fixed, sharply delineated boundaries - tombs of the spirit.
(Where one finds, in his paintings, instances of a room-like space carved out within a room, Russell considers the implication: “The cage-like surround which locates each of them so precisely is not, of course, to be taken literally. It is simply a space-bending device; and in conjunction with the mirrors ... pulls our attention back to the seated figures.” (p.138) Equally, it can be said that the figures present as having internalized their containment. It is now a part of their identity. - Doubtless a process of evolution has occurred from the paintings where, Peppiatt comments, “Bacon returned obsessively to depicting the scream in anonymous figures seated alone in sealed rooms ...” - Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, p.171.)
The Apotheosis of Francis Bacon, 1994
The Apotheosis of Francis Bacon (1994), third panel in Taylor’s triptych, succinctly and cuttingly summarizes his feelings for the reputation of Bacon. Die-hard Bacon devotees cannot help but be scandalized by the extent of its disrespect although it draws from no more than the facts of their idol’s life. Perhaps, on the other hand, some who honestly recall Bacon’s social and artistic adventures would be amused by the irony of its depiction blasphemous though it be to the anointed deity of twentieth century painting - proclaimed from various ramparts to be its “greatest” practitioner. Once again we have a head, here receiving its secular honours in laurel-haloed form as it emerges from an open manhole flanked by the bleeding slabs of meat (as he once famously posed himself) whose beauty the painter took it upon himself to reveal ad nauseum, one must say, to a gaspingly appreciative world and whose essence he ever insisted represents the entire truth of existence (“We are meat ... meat!”). Baleful and unrepentant, this parallel to the John the Baptist image in the first panel of the triptych continues to stare directly and unashamedly, as in the second panel, at the viewer. In his own terms, he can expect no greater ascension considering that he identified life itself as crucified meat.
On the front of his canvas, under the heading “Dante At The Venice Bienniel/Crowds Applauding/The Apotheosis Of Francis Bacon,” Taylor warns away the peripatetic figure who authored the Divine Comedy:
“Go, Dante, go: your vision now is done,
Is out of tune; polarities - not good, not evil - point the way,
Insinuate themselves from room to room:* Bacon burgeoning.”
*Bacon places his figures in a seemingly endless series of claustrophobic rooms.
(Bacon dismissed the merits of vast swathes of artistic achievement. By his own admission, he was immune to the claims of any number of painters, composers and writers - past and present. If they did not reflect his world view, their work apparently could not or did not deserve to find a response in his highly specialized sensibility, or as he would more accurately have termed it, his “nervous system.” The same would have to hold true for his similarly sophisticated devotees.)
The Renaissance poet himself shows “very shabby in the light of day,” [italics mine], as Taylor goes on to write (“‘Droll, most droll!’ the passing cognoscienti say”), as he looks askance at the dubious emergence of the acclaimed painter from the excremental depths of the twentieth century. Dante is, however, well-versed in such matters that few among Bacon’s contemporaries dare to raise:
“... some may find it odd from time to time (in daring give-
And-take with nostril nicely cultivated),
To stumble on the stench* a poet once berated -
Still here, apparently, and universally pervasive.”
(Front of canvas)
*On the 8th Circle of Hell, the poet is “assailed by a terrible stench, for here the FLATTERERS are immersed in excrement.” - Divine Comedy, Canto XVIII, p.134
The visage of Bacon as presiding deity rendered in the subject’s familiar painting style of psychological contortion confesses as much: alongside him, the visionary fire of revelation has been inverted into a “noxious ... toppling plume.” Its fumes gather and rise about the confrontation between the legitimately and illegitimately laurel-crowned figures beneath this warped and triumphantly judgmental, uncompromising and richly turned out “apotheosis.” Taking Roger Fry’s comments on “the function of all the greatest art” further, Taylor adds condemnatory text on the back of the canvas to what he has wrought visually on the front:
“Art that neither emanates from nor addresses a human
sense of soul is, at root, fraudulent; its instinct is to
consign itself and the world around it - whether sooner
or later - to annihilation.” [italics mine in reference to Bacon’s oft-stated reliance solely upon instinct alone for the direction his painting took]
Finally, he draws upon Tolstoy as he considers what he regarded as the bankrupt values of Bacon’s admirers:
“‘It never enters anyone’s head that to admit
a greatness not commensurable with ... [a]
standard of right and wrong is merely to admit
one’s own nothingness and immeasurable littleness.’”
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, Bk IV, Part III, Ch.18
Over time the insights and accomplishments of the world’s great artists have engendered a cultural consensus whereby all that lies within the scope of the inquiring human mind not merely one view or another appropriately deserves consideration as representing or approaching truth in nature and in reality. This is not to say that the nihilistic conclusion in the face of various manifestations of the human condition ought not to have its place; however, if life does in fact have inherent meaning of a broadly encompassing embrace, it may very well in the end be impossible for the attentive artist to resist. Michael Peppiatt, one of Bacon’s many sympathetic critics, appears to be moving in this direction when he responds to the painter’s later work:
“There are flashes in a painting like the Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards (1984) of the supernatural atmosphere that makes Shakespeare’s last plays so magical. Here, the figures are so much less distorted as to become almost naturalistic; they appear to rise for the first timeabove their inherent confusion as self-consciously mortal creatures.” [italics mine] (Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, p.355.)
In a similar vein, John Russell recalls,
“[T]he painter Frank Auerbach ... said that Bacon’s portraits were ‘like risen spirits’. Where the subjects were still living, the portraits were, in effect, like effigies that he held high in the face of their certain and possibly imminent dissolution.
“When they were no longer living, he sometimes went on painting them in ways that remind us of the great challenge thrown down by John Donne ... ‘Death, thou shalt die’.” (Francis Bacon, p.152.)
Bacon, in his later reflective interviews with Michel Archimbauld, shows himself more willing to entertain notions of an enduring value to human achievement as he internalizes its rewards:
“As it is, it’s so rare to manage to give any meaning to your life, and it’s so good if you do succeed.” (Francis Bacon In Conversation, p. 106.)
- Paul Butler