Writing of Francis Bacon’s break-through Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), the work widely described as his “fons et origo” (source and origin), the art critic John Russell places the work firmly in the context of the cataclysmic historical events not only leading up to its first exhibition but also those occurring in the same month:
“... the meeting of Russians and Americans on the Elbe, and the hanging of Mussolini head downwards, and the euphoric speeches at the United Nations conference in San Francisco, and the suicide of Hitler ...
“... happened in April 1945, together with the death of Roosevelt, the taking of Okinawa, and the abrogation by the USSR of its non-aggression pact with Japan.” - John Russell, Francis Bacon, op.cit., pp.8-9.
Bacon’s “half-human, half-animal” ghoul-like figures - prophetic precursors, if one is to follow a similar line, to the creatures in the later Alien films - caused “total consternation” among the visitors to the gallery, some of whom “came out pretty fast.” (“[Three Studies] ... an emblem of brute suffering, ravening greed and generalized evil.” - Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, Herman Graf, 2009, p.105.) After the horrors of the just ended war, Russell concludes, the “message” of Bacon’s work (he utilizes this term despite well knowing Bacon’s reaction to the term would be allergic) was equivalent to that to be drawn from the suicide in the same month of a German Burgomaster and his wife “after they had been shown what had gone on within the periphery of their little town.” What this couple intended by slashing their wrists and then hanging themselves, Russell would have it, was not to take on the guilt of their countrymen and to share in the fate of the victims but rather to say that “‘Nothing will ever be the same’” - a response with overtones of self-pity. (Russell, op.cit., p.11.) Apparently this was also “the message of the Three Studies at the Base of a Crucifixion” after the horrors of the war, a view that Kenneth Clark, who identified Bacon as the “interpreter of our contemporary nightmare,” would approve. (As quoted in Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, 2009, p.135.) In the effort to contextualize Bacon’s work, along with contravening the artist’s absolute, life-long dictum that his paintings bore no messages, Russell took it upon himself to turn what should remain a private and sacrosanct act of remorse into propaganda for the greater significance of Bacon’s art.
(“When I told him [Bacon] about a brief television documentary in which, interspersed with newsreel clips of Hitler, Belsen and Hiroshima, the critic stood in front of a Bacon painting and explained to the viewer that it represented the artist’s condemnation of man’s inhumanity to man, Francis expressed surprise: ‘Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? That’s the last thing I think of.’” - Daniel Farson, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, 1993, p.137.)
In the process, Russell cloaked the possibility of a substantial empathetic response on the part of the couple to what they have witnessed in the death camps with the world view of an artist who did not take part in the war and pursued a life of sadomasochistic excess before, during and after it. Russell missed entirely that the very spirit of their action stood as a complete antithesis to Bacon’s unwavering adherence to the belief that all of life is at its root brutal and, confronting his work, one should register no more than the response of one’s nervous system to what is presented:
“Bacon does not dissociate pleasure from pain and can imagine as a matter of plain fact people should literally ‘die of love’ - be beaten to death, that is to say, in the course of transports that get out of hand.” - Francis Bacon, p.129.
“Painting is the pattern of one’s nervous system being projected on the canvas.” - Francis Bacon, Time, 21 November 1949.
Nonetheless, Russell’s compulsion to unravel the intent of this particular work is understandable considering the number of times Bacon returned to the same theme with similar productions that contain a greater multitude of recognizable elements from and references to the traditional depictions of the historical Crucifixion. However disingenuous Bacon’s denials of meaning, his various unwaveringly similar treatments of the subject ironically enough make his own argument for him and establish the nihilistic basis for the rest of his paintings.
When he does depict an actual full-blown crucifixion and not merely a representation of its horrifically realized attendants (Painting, 1946 and its Second Version ... 1971), a butchered and splayed carcass of an animal represents the crucified figure in an ironically clear “illustration” (an inescapable descriptive however much it may be anathema to Bacon’s self-propounded aesthetic) of his view that life has no more meaning than has meat (or is no more than meat waiting to happen):
“‘All I want to do,’ he told me [Daniel Farson], ‘is distort the reality of the human figure into reality.’ Something he never ceased to say was: ‘We are meat,’ and then he would raise his champagne glass with that inimitable ‘Cheerio!’” - The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, p.141.
“His attitude to life, which deepened with time but did not alter, was based on an unyielding conviction of its futility. ‘We come from nothing and go to nothing’ was his most constant refrain and the bedrock of his belief.” - Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, p.159.
Second Version of “Painting 1946,” (1971)
Two impaled joints of a carcass, possibly victims of lesser stature as in the original religious iconography, flank the area before the monstrous deity figures posed to the front of the two crucifixions and protected from possible blood splatters beneath their umbrellas. (One should resist the usual, in this writer’s opinion flailing critical interpretation of a surreal or phallic intent here on the part of those who struggle with Bacon’s derisive protestations of his own innocent mindlessness as an artistic strategy. - Bacon’s actions went far to contradicting his protestations: “When [John] Deakin photographed him for Vogue, he flanked him with carcasses suspended on hooks. Francis commented: ‘Yes, that was rather amusing.’” - Ibid, p.134.) Future paintings also utilize these images whose too obvious explanation, once seen, Bacon would constitutionally resist and yet his umbrellas undeniably image a rejection of the possibility of a supernatural intervention or a compassionate presence - these secular arbiters who shelter beneath them expect blood, probably from close by, and do not require a weather forecast to warn them of the need for protective gear. Others have noted that Bacon’s crucifixion paintings cancel the real “message” of the Crucifixion as depicted in the historical treatments that he draws upon:
“It was this keen sense of the beast in man which also attracted Bacon to the Crucifixion as an elevated example of man’s brutishness and as a theme which allowed him to conflate images of the abbatoir with some of the greatest icons of Western art.” - Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, p.74.
“Bacon, the defiant, outspoken atheist, returned obsessively to the most highly charged event and most potent symbol of the Christian religion.” - Ibid, p.77.
“When Jean Clair said of the right-hand panel in ... Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962) that it was ‘almost a scene of slaughter, butchery, mutilated meat and flesh,’ Bacon replied that ‘Well, that’s all the Crucifixion was, isn’t it?’” - Francis Bacon, p.193.
“What is wrong with Francis Bacon? He has not noticed that, halfway through, the Crucifixion turns into its opposite. Tintoretto noticed; so did Rembrandt; even Dali noticed.” Bernard Levin in the Times, 28 June 1985.
His nihilistic or self-cancelling narrative sets the stage for the rest of his paintings with the disclaimers of meaning that he insisted upon throughout his career. None of the paintings that came before his “fons et origo” interested him. It was in this work’s nihilistic sense or spirit of denial that, as Russell wrote, “nothing” that came after would “ever be the same” other than the same as itself.
Bacon infects the subject matter that follows and surrounds these nihilistically arbitrating crucifixion paintings - the human figure (the only other subject that warranted his attention in a lifetime of painting with one or two negligible exceptions) - with the same sense of things as his own:
“Bacon concentrated on the subject that was to preoccupy him for the rest of his life: the human figure in extremis - crucified, X-rayed, in flight, abandoned.” - Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, p.71.
“Bacon insisted that his painting be viewed in a kind of biographical vacuum ... [although] ‘My whole life goes into my painting.’” Ibid, p.116.
More than one critic has noted how Bacon managed to turn his nihilism into a personal theology and certainly his psychological figurations show clearly as “contorted” spirits or beings:
“The initial donnée in these portrait-heads is not so much distorted as contorted.” - Francis Bacon, p.100. This would also be the preferred descriptive of the artist - see Francis Bacon in Conversation.
“‘[T]he truth is that Bacon’s works are great religious paintings. ...The very agony of his unbelief becomes so acute that, by the intensity of its involvement with final questions, the negative becomes as religious as the positive.’” Helen Lessore, Partial Testament, as quoted in The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, p.139.
Whether or not the life strategies and resources of those who “sat” for him were simple or sophisticated Bacon figured his subjects as in the sway of an inner void that mirrors his own sense of reality and presents as a type of possession. When questioned, he would dismissively refer to the broader range of human emotion as merely “the other side of the shadow.” (The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, p.14.)
When life has no meaning (“Nada, nada!,” as Bacon was wont to repeat), the most that could be expected of him was to communicate the fact or, at best, to communicate the meaning that he had manufactured for himself:
“‘We come from nothing and go into nothing, and in the brief interlude we might try to give existence a direction through our drives. But there’s nothing. Nada. Do you understand? Nada.’” - The painter as quoted in Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, p.271.
Perhaps, to take Bacon at face value in his disclaimers of narrative content, his paintings then should be approached in a manner more in tune with his persistent view of himself as producing what this writer would dignify as “visualizations of cognitive sensation.”
- Paul Butler