PRINT Summer 1975

Francis Bacon: The Authority of Flesh


And the way I try to bring appearance about makes one question all the time what appearance is at all. The longer you work, the more the mystery deepens of what appearance is, or how can what is called appearance be made in another medium. And it needs a sort of moment of magic to coagulate color and form so that it gets the equivalent of appearance, the appearance that you see at any moment, because so-called appearance is only riveted for one moment as that appearance. In a second you may blink your eyes or turn your head slightly, and you look again and the appearance has changed. I mean, appearance is like a continuously floating thing. (Francis Bacon, Interview with David Sylvester, September 1974.)

Bacon’s show at the Metropolitan consists of 36 paintings, largely portraits and self-portraits, all of which have been executed since 1968. The Newsweek critic Douglas Davis mentions, in the same breath and deliberately, this show and Brice Marden’s concurrent Guggenheim exhibition, expressing discomfort with the former and ease with the latter. Bacon is judged unfavorably when compared with modernist abstraction, triumphing anew in Marden. Bacon, himself, would have none of this because he repudiates the “willed, ’modern’ ’image,” i.e., the pure abstraction which claims transcendental pretensions but communicates histrionic decoration. Bacon remarks:

One of the reasons why I don’t like abstract painting . . . . is that I think painting is a duality, and that abstract painting is an entirely aesthetic thing. It always remains on one level. It is only really interested in the beauty of its patterns or its shapes. We know that most people, especially artists, have large areas of undisciplined emotion, and I think that abstract artists believe that in these marks that they’re making they are catching all these sorts of emotions.


I believe that art is recording; I think it’s reporting. And I think that in abstract art, as there’s no report, there’s nothing other than the aesthetic of the painter and his few sensations. There’s never any tension in it. . . . I think it can convey very watered-down lyrical feelings, because I think any shapes can. But I don’t think it can really convey feeling in the grand sense.

Bacon’s abhorrence of abstraction, together with his determination to convey “feeling in the grand sense” yet as part of the process of recording-reporting—“what gives the feeling is that it is more factual”—recalls the efforts of another realist, Caravaggio, to charge fact with feeling. As with Bacon,

most art critics and academicians condemned the“vulgarity-of Caravaggio’s paintings, at times even with moral indignation. . . . Being themselves committed to a standard of ideal beauty, they found his work no more than a base” imitation of nature“ and charged him with having destroyed ”good taste." (Walter Friedlander, Caravaggio Studies.)

Bacon’s “imitation of nature” is in a sense even more “base”—more vulgar, i.e., more popular in origin—that Caravaggio’s, for it begins with the base, unsatisfactory illusion of nature which the photograph is. What Plato thought about art in general is also true of Bacon’s images, which are imitations of an illusion and so have nothing of the truth about them. They seem to be imbued with idiosyncratic commitment to the reporting of fact. Moreover, they show overeager ambition to express inchoate, inarticulate feelings. Bacon’s pictures have about them an arbitrariness which defies any lasting intelligibility, however much they offer half-recognizable realities. It seems they use the photograph to move further away from rather than closer to “nature.” They use it as a form of intensified sensation trail ing in its wake inexplicable feelings that relate to the object photographed. The image created by Bacon’s fluid, painterly stroke stands to the clarity of the photographic image the way, to use his own comparison, the image in a distorting mirror stands to the image in a normal mirror, recalling yet ruining it, focusing it yet making it incalculable. Bacon’s transformation of photograph into painted image increases the distance from nature, however much it boomerangs back to the reality of feeling.

Thus, he can in no way be accused of creating ideal beauty, but rather, he destroys the shallow realism of the photograph with his fleshly, seemingly manic strokes. Instead, he abuses appearances by destroying them. They testify to a disturbance, in itself sufficient to communicate feeling, to convey a sense of what Bacon calls “undisciplined emotion” and elsewhere “instinct.” This instinct comes up against the photograph, the image of reality which is its discipline, as an obstacle to be overcome. The obscuring of the photograph underneath the seemingly vicious fluidity of Bacon’s stroke both symbolically destroys the “discipline” of reality and releases emotion.

This release is never complete because it is masturbatory. homage to reality. Bacon’s art is about the vulgarity, the bad taste, of releasing feeling, and simultaneously the sense of restraint on that release. It treats the conflict between the undisciplined release of instinct and reality’s restraints on and repression of instinct. Bacon’s pictures deal with paranoia, which takes a form of self-enforced solitude accompanying release of passion. Bacon’s solitary is no dreamer because he is too alert to the tension of the conflict with him. He takes to solitude to control the ambiguity generated in him by the conflict between passion and inhibition, between the authority of his instincts and that of reality.

For Bacon, realism is, ultimately, not simply a matter of charging fact with feeling, but of confronting fact with the fundamental feelings—the instinctive response. The very process of reporting reality becomes in effect the act of releasing emotion, and the more spontaneous—or as Bacon calls it, accidental—the report, whatever its precisions, the more instinctive and undisciplined the emotion released, i.e., the more horrific the expression of fact. Thus, the core of his problem of realism is expressionistic. It is the difficulty of eliciting feeling from a world whose surfaces are opaque.

Bacon’s painterliness is a way of getting under the skin of things, of destroying their matter-of-fact surface appearance and revealing the flesh of feeling they are made of. Similarly, it can be argued that he puts his figures in solitary to take them out of the wodd’s action, to make them passive so that the process of stripping their skin can begin. In a sense, solitude chloroforms them into stillness so that Bacon can begin operating on them.

The unlocking of the feeling in form, as Bacon calls it, does violence to the image. For Bacon, this violence is a way of forcefully referencing reality, as well as an emphatic statement of his assumption that reality in general is violent. John Russell connects Bacon’s violence with the European experience of World War II, but the fact that it is sustained far beyond that experience indicates that it has deeper sources. As noted, it has to do with the character of instinct when it feels blocked by reality and the way, as a result, it experiences reality.

In a sense, Bacon is the perfect modern realist, for as the world has become more anonymous, feeling has had to become more acute to encompass it and find release within and through it. Bacon alludes to this anonymity through the everpresent photograph and newspaper, but overcomes it by the intensity of his feeling. (Both become increasingly abstract; solitude is a state of abstraction from the world, as are feelings which do not have the world as their object.) In sum, Bacon discovers the expressive potential in anonymous subject matter.

II. The Solitary Insomniac

Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness. (Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making.)

Avaunt from sacred shrines,
Nor bring pollution by your touch on all
That nears you. Hence! and roam unshepherded—
No god there is to tend such herd as you.

(Aeschylus, The Eumenides, Lines 197–200.)

Bacon’s figures are both insular and intimate, i.e., have the solitary alertness of self-aware subjects who choose silence. Yet they are subject to our witnessing glances, and at times, as in one of the Three Studies from the Human Body, 1970, and in one wing of Triptych, March 1974, to the more durably public witnessing of the camera eye. Thus, Bacon’s images of himself and his friends are exposed to the anonymous glance of strangers and machines—are exposed indifferently on the rack of public appearance, although enclosed in the privacy of their own consciousness, symbolized by the privacy of the rooms they are in. One could regard these works as extensions of Degas’s keyhole visions—images of anonymous figures performing intimate bodily acts under the assumption that they are unobserved—but for the fact that Bacon’s figures are not anonymous but rather portraits.

Half-undressed, they are self-conscious in their privacy because they are haunted by the potential presence of the other as their witness, always sooner or later to appear on their private scene. So that the scene, self-contradictorily, is never truly private, but always potentially under view by some anonymous other. In fact, what Bacon calls the “armature” in which his figures are encased can be understood as a frame isolating the targeted figure.

Moreover, one conies to realize that the solitariness of Bacon’s figures is entirely independent of their setting, as indicated by the Portrait of a Man Walking Down Steps, 1972, where the figure is outdoors, as is also the case in the beach scenes of Triptych, May–June 1974. Bacon’s figure carries his solitariness with him wherever he goes. It is a habit of mind, an attitude of fixated self-awareness, a form of self-hypnotic narcissism. What Russell remarks as the sense of the presence of an eavesdropper in Bacon’s pictures is as much the result of the figure’s attempt to tune into his inner feelings as it is of his awareness of the unseen other. In general, Bacon’s figure seems truculently self-absorbed, with his face usually turned aside so that his eyes do not meet those of the spectator, or, if face forward, with his eyes evading any encounter with the spectator’s glance.

The eyes of Bacon’s figure are often closed, as in Three Studies for Self-Portrait, 1974. And when not closed, then glazed, as in the self-portraits of 1971, 1972, and 1974. And when not glazed, then blurred—bleary-eyed—as in Three Studies for Self-Portrait, 1972, 1973. And finally, when not blurred, then glassily caught between defiance and indifference, as in Three Portraits—Triptych, 1973. It is as if he is acknowledging his vulnerability or helplessness before an alien gaze.

Bacon’s figure sits, then, as if in detention, or as if, because he is often undressed, in a doctor’s consulting room. Both these scenes will be dominated by a menacing figure. Yet he acts as if it will always exist, and can never be violated. This ambiguity symbolizes the simultaneity of the subject’s solipsistic narcissism, its self-containment and closure to others; and its being haunted by the other, its involuntary openness to the other through the other’s glance. The body’s openness to the strange glance in part explains why Bacon acts so intensely on the body’s flesh with his painterly stroke. This stroke is the equivalent to a harsh glance, violently caressing or raping. The body is manhandled, with no power to resist, by the other’s objectifying consciousness, which twists it into sensate bits. All of Bacon’s figures, with the exception of the 1973 self-portrait and Lucian Freud in Three Portraits—Triptych, 1973, sit crosslegged, sometimes jauntily so, as in the 1970 self-portrait. This conveys an ambiguous attitude: seemingly seated offguard, the figure is full of potential movement. He can spring to his feet in a moment, ready to act in relation to the other.

The solitude of these figures suggests paranoia. It involves fear of being taken by surprise. (One recalls Freud’s theory of paranoia as fear of being buggered—taken from behind, a situation in which one always experiences incomplete awareness.) I should like to talk now about this paranoid consciousness. For it conditions the obscene handling of the flesh, creating its oh-scenic appearance.1 (The flesh’s obscenity in effect shows it being taken from behind, whichputs it in a position to be turned inside out. This is done not simply to show, as has usually been said, its being subject to death and so putrescence, but also to indicate the completeness of its exposure to and possession by the absent but imagined other.)

The paranoid consciousness of Bacon’s figure can be understood in three ways: (1) iconographically, as an expression of loneliness, with loneliness being a symptom of a “screened” attitude to the world; (2) psychologically, as an expression of insanity, i.e., unreason—for Bacon the release of undisciplined emotion or instinct in the face of the world; and (3) sociologically, as an expression of decadence, where solitariness is the acknowledgment of nihilism. Loneliness implies the loss of interpersonal values; insanity means the collapse of wholeness of being, and decadence implies the discovery of inertia as the major force and mode of being.

(1) Jedlicka observes that “The portraits and self-portraits of the twentieth century are in general manifestations of the solitary” (“Max Beckmann in seinen selbstbildnissen,” Blick auf Beckmann). There is, then, at first glance, nothing unusual about Bacon’s portraits and self-portraits. Typical of their times, they show the isolated, monadic creatures we are all to become—the unchosen independence we are all to achieve—in our anomic society. However, in examining the solitariness of Bacon’s figure more closely, one discovers the atypical motivation behind it. Jedlicka argues that in Munch’s portraits and self-portraits, solitariness exists with respect to nature, while in those of Beckmann it exists vis-à-vis society. For Jedlicka, Munch and Beckmann are linked as opposites, a polarization which continues in their handling of space: open, indefinite, and seemingly limitless in Munch, symbolizing the cosmic expansiveness of nature; and closed and cramped in Beckmann, symbolizing social constraint. Bacon’s space is of an altogether different kind, and symbolizes an altogether different psychic state. It is a linear cage of self-control emanating from the solitary himself—as can be seen in the Study for Self-Portrait, November 1964, one of its most powerful manifestations—rather than an independent, surrounding space (whether infinite or finite) which conditions his solitude. It is a space self-created by the solitary, in line with the fact that his solitude has become so absolute that it no longer exists in relation to any world, whether that of nature or society. Rather, it is the sign of the absolute givenness of the subject to himself, and so of radical subjectivity. The formal space with which he surrounds himself is simply the public announcement of his supposedly sui generic subjectivity.

The space cage is a kind of halo around the figure’s solitariness, showing it to be sanctified by his self-awareness, as well as indicating that it is chosen. In a sense, it is the solitary’s self-consciousness objectified, made “practical,” i.e., become a world, however small, for him to inhabit. In other words, the space cage Bacon’s figure inhabits is not a microcosm of the macrocosm of nature or society, but a private little cosmos with its own sanctity and laws—of feeling—if lack of “higher” purpose. Bacon remarks that “we nearly always live through screens—a screened existence.” It is this screened state—a psychic state—that is physically manifested in the space cage. It is simultaneously transparent, to permit a view out, yet limiting, establishing the space of an inner world. It is also the stage on which the solitary’s obscene flesh of feeling can be shown, the magic circle in which the solitary feels secure and “normal” while displaying himself. But the space cage is much more: its simplicity and order are meant to hide—in the sense of throwing off the scent—the asocial release of undisciplined emotion, the masturbatory relaxation of instinct. The space cage is social, as all space is, and a defense masking an asocial if not antisocial act. Bacon gives us the whole scene: the private place where feeling is expressed; the outer world (symbolized by the doorway present in many of the works), in which the observing other exists (sometimes he appears in the doorway on the threshold of the inner world); and the screen between the two, a pathetic—by reason of its transparency—creation of the solitary, mediating the relationship between the two worlds. It seems at times to exist more for his mental comfort than to perform satisfactorily the purpose for which it was made. It is as irrational and self-deceiving as the feeling it is meant to serve.

(2) The solitariness or asociality of Bacon’s figure is a sign of insanity. The face is the particular bodily place where this insanity is most clearly revealed, and again the method of revelation is Bacon’s “malerisch” technique. Bacon’s fluid handling of the face’s flesh desocializes it, i.e., makes it no longer manageable as social mask. The technique in effect unmasks and undermines the face by making it too vibrant, expressive, and resonant—too much a quivering piece of flesh to serve as a public mask. Becoming flesh—the part of the body one least expects this to happen to—the face loses almost all form. It is the case in point of the loss of self-control of Bacon’s figure, which becomes too “sensational” to conform to conventions of social decorum (another reason it must be screened, or hidden away in a room like the portrait of Dorian Gray). It is too indecorous to belong to any reasonable order of things, too subjective and disorderly with its own instinctive energy to be brought under rational control. Foucault writes that

In the psychology of madness, the old idea of truth as’ the conformity of thought to things" is transposed in the metaphor of a resonance, a kind of musical fidelity of the fibres to the sensations which make them vibrate. (Madness and Civilization.)

The flesh of Bacon’s figure shows the mad music of uncontrolled or undisciplined sensation rebelling against any conformity to the outer order of things—symbolized by the mask of the face—and becoming a kind of idea in itself.

It is especially in the triptychs and couplings—wherever an attempt is made to bring figures together or wherever more than one figure exists in the same space—that the insanity of Bacon’s isolated figure becomes evident. For no reciprocity—whether by sexual means or through conversation—is ever established between the figures. In the triptychs they exist side by side, unspeaking, in private cells. In the couplings there is an eternal return to the same ambiguously sexual act, to a union which never quite completes itself—the same mix of bitter struggle and sweet embrace. There is not the slightest sense of sociability, let alone friendliness—of any reasonable relationship—in the participants of the triptychs or couplings. On the contrary, there are signs, as in Two Figures with a Monkey, 1973, that they unite only for purposes of vice (the monkey is its traditional symbol), and so only momentarily. There is no sense of any abiding, continuous relationship between them, only a half-lustful, half-aggressive attempt to possess each other, and that only in the least, however superficially fundamental way—through and in the form of flesh. In the couplings they wrestle each other, attempting to overpower one another, rather than harmoniously meet. There is no harmonious togetherness in Bacon’s world, only conflict and self-conflict, self-torture and torture of the other. Perhaps this is why the couplings never do depict anal intercourse, but only the inconclusiveness of their struggle. The one figure cannot really take the other from behind, nor do they confront one another. Their union is, literally, a stalemate and deadlock.

In the triptychs this lack of reciprocity—sexuality only proposes its possibility—is even more obvious, for the untouching contiguity of the figures suggests the parallel rather than interpenetrating lives the friends lead. They are more intimate with each other’s photograph than each other’s person. The triptych form originally brought together a central image with subordinate—often in form as well as content—side images. But for Bacon each image has the same individuality and validity, even when the artist himself is the central image, as in Three Portraits—Triptych, 1970. There is neither structural nor psychological necessity for the figures to be taken together. They neither constitute a rational unity nor even imply a system of irrational relations. They are essentially a sum rather than a whole. Togetherness, which requires reason to come into being, does not exist in Bacon’s pictures; it is abortive in the couplings, or made a mockery of in the triptychs. How can, as Bacon calls them, futile, accidental beings come together for a purpose, or even take togetherness as purposive. Each has to play out, “by himself,” the “game without reason” life is. For Bacon, togetherness is barely a hypothesis of experience. Even the couplings are images of private release of passion, each member an occasion for that release. Relationships in Bacon’s art are so completely irrational they might as well not exist. In general, Bacon uses the triptych format, as in the May–June 1974 triptych, to create a series of staggered images, which interrelate as oblique duplicates. Each figure is in effect a Doppelgänger for the other—the death which the other is for the self. Or else, as in the May–June 1973 triptych, Bacon uses the format to trace the “progress” of a single figure—in this case George Dyer’s movement toward death. (The image of Dyer on the toilet seat also occurs, incidentally, in the same left-hand panel of Three Figures in a Room, 1964.)

(3) In The Will to Power Nietzsche equates decadence with nihilism, and sees its appearance in physiological decline and the rise of pessimism and skepticism. It is interesting that, in commenting on his respect for Baudelaire, Bacon claims that he particularly admires Baudelaire’s poem “Les Petites Vieilles.” This poem describes Baudelaire’s “spying on odd, decrepit, charming creatures,” “broken-down monsters, hunch-backed or bent double,” whom he asks us to love “for they are still human souls.” This sense of the decrepit and derelict, the misshapen and fallen—psychically—pervades Bacon’s pictures, and can be regarded as the source of what has been called their charnel house atmosphere. Bacon’s handling of the flesh is in effect a symptom of this psychic decadence—the decay of the mind into skepticism and pessimism and the correlate inertia, quasi-deadness or decline of the body, which seems as though it has begun to putrify. Nietzsche does not regard decadence as limited to any particular period in the growth of a civilization but rather as a general accompaniment of “any increase and advance in life.” In Bacon, the painterly handling of the living flesh can be interpreted as indicating a perverse—pessimistic and skeptical—attitude to life, an ironical accompaniment to the development of radical individuality.

Bacon’s perverse painterly handling is essentially arbitrary, i.e., nihilistic in intention, because there is no clear reason for it in the depicted scene. Bacon’s painterly interpretation of the flesh confirms the self-destructiveness of his solitary figures, premised on the meaninglessness of their existence, i.e., its lack of raison d’être, and its consequent solitariness. Perversely animated in their private voids, they have only their instincts to fall back on. They are in effect lepers—the deathlike blackness invading their bodies seems to testify to this—who keep to themselves because they see no strong reason for doing anything in particular. They are sick with death—not necessarily literal death, but rather the feeling of being nothing—and so diseased with the leprosy of loneliness, which fuses their individuality and instincts. Indirectly alluding to this blackness, Bacon says that he is haunted by

a feeling of mortality all the time. Because, if life excites you, its opposite, like a shadow, death, must excite you. Perhaps not excite you, but you are aware of it in the same way as you are aware of life. . . .

The sense of death-in-life is pervasive in many of the exhibition’s so-called black paintings. But the point is that sustained, compulsive attention to the inevitability of death is a symptom of decadence, for eventually it leads to skepticism about—the deprecation and detriment of—life. Bacon, who has been called an existentialist—in our sense the most decadent contemporary philosophy—is simultaneously a decadent, in the sense of cultivating a nihilistic perception of and attitude to life. While he carries this cultivation to eloquent heights, making it the stance of a dandy, its nihilistic core remains articulate as more than a posture. There are moments in the current show when it seems theatrical, but they are lost in the general sense of oblivion Bacon communicates.

III. Self-Fulfilling Flesh

All my life I have seen narrow-shouldered man, without exception, perform innumerable stupid actions, brutalize his fellows and poison minds by every conceivable means. The motivation of such behavior he calls,“Glory.” Seeing these things I have desired to laugh with the others, but this strange imitation was impossible for me. I have taken a pocket-knife and severed the flesh at the spot where the lips come together. For a moment I thought to have accomplished my end. I looked into the mirror and inspected the mouth I had deliberately butchered. It was a mistake! The blood falling copiously from the two wounds made it impossible to distinguish whether this was really the laughter of other men. But after several minutes I could see clearly that my smile in no way resembled human laughter: in other words, I was not laughing. (Lautréamont, Maldoror, Canto 1, Stanza 5.)

I’ve always wanted and never succeeded in painting the smile. (Francis Bacon, Interview with David Sylvester, May 1966.)

I did hope one day to make the best painting of the human cry. (Francis Bacon, Interview with David Sylvester, May 1966.)

Bacon has long been famous for his image of human flesh, which Russell sees as simultaneously marmoreal and pulpy, and which has been connected with Bacon’s sense of the voluptuousness of male flesh—of “meat” on Michelangelesque backs. Bacon’s treatment of flesh has been understood as alluding to the carcasses Bacon thinks we all are, a hint of our inevitable canceling by death. Bacon’s flesh has also been understood as suggesting the fugitive, accidental nature of human existence, which, because it is essentially a gamble—a blind search for significance—has no fixed form, and is charged with violent, i.e., uncontrollable, energy and emotion. Bacon himself has said that he wants images which “would rise from a river of flesh,” “pools of flesh” out of which beings arose, pictures of “figures arising out of their own flesh.” He experiences such figures as particularly poignant—the only quality he wants his works to convey—because they convey “the shadow of life passing all the time,” and bring the factual-figurative element in the painting “onto the nervous system more violently and poignantly.” In a sense, Bacon’s “poignant” treatment of flesh epitomizes his ideal of an image as “a kind of tightrope walk between what is called figurative painting and abstraction,” an image which “goes right out from abstraction but will really have nothing to do with it.” Bacon’s flesh is such a poignant image, simultaneously factual and abstract, visceral and formal, illustrative and full of “glitter and color” like that which “comes from the mouth.” He “always hoped . . . to be able to paint the mouth like Monet painted a sunset,” and one might add that he has the same ambiguous ambition with respect to the flesh in general, whether of the face or torso.

In general, Bacon’s handling of flesh can be understood as the climactic act of his attempt to fuse fact and feeling, the conscious and unconscious, the critically controlled and accidentally instinctive, the illustrative and imaginative, the photo-slick technically reproducible and the singular texture of particular sensation. All the dichotomies come together in the flesh, which is simultaneously commonplace, and charged with rare personal feeling. The union of these dichotomies occurs particularly in Bacon’s treatment of the mouth. As flesh, the mouth, for Bacon, is an exemplary part of the body, because it summarizes flesh’s openness and closedness. I want also to show the significance of the overall burgeoning of flesh in Bacon’s figures. In a sense, Bacon distorts flesh in the name of greater particularity or specificity of being, i.e., as a way of making anonymous being individual. But in another sense, touched flesh is simply the most obvious source of feeling. Feeling, particularly feeling which is instinctive in origin—for Bacon all feeling ultimately calls the instinctive into play—is inseparable from flesh, as such expressions as the “bowels of compassion” convey. In antiquity, feeling was located in a particular inner body organ, usually the liver or heart. In a sense, all Bacon’s treatment of the flesh does is expose such inner organs, the sites of feeling.

The mouth, perhaps unexpectedly—for it is not altogether inner—is one such site, for it is the hole of flesh through which the feelings of the entirely inner organs escape, after writhing their way through the body. The mouth is thus emblematic of the body as a whole and of feeling in general, and in the smile and the cry or scream we have the antipodes of its modes of expression, the range of possibility of visceral feeling. Bacon is forever shut out of the smile; it is impossible for the solitary subject to smile, even to himself, for such a smile is a meditation on what is not the self, and thus breaks the fast of solitude. In general, the smile is an invitation to the other, a form of sociality, the potential establishment of reciprocity. Through the screaming mouth the body vomits its painful feelings like a volcano pours its lava; smiling, the mouth is only partially open—the face is at peace with, or at least accepts, the other, and the body has no need to exercise its feelings in a cry. A smile is an exchange; a cry is an autistic event, the announcement of the subject in distress, opening wide to the outside, but with the traffic through it only one way, from within outward. The cry is open but one-directional; the smile is half-closed but two-way. In the cry Bacon shows the solitary vomiting his solitude into the world, making of it an object for others. The portraits and self-portraits establish painful autonomy; the cry hurls it into the world. The cry is an attempt to conceive the world as completely subjective, i.e., as charged with private feeling, which forces its way into the open. The cry is eschatological, a last thing of subjectivity, an ultimate assertion of the inner life of the self in the face of all otherness.

The mouth is the most mobile or least fixed facial feature, and is thus able to convey its expressiveness—its openness or closedness—all at once. Bacon notes that “you could draw . . . right across the face as though it was almost like the opening of the whole head, and yet it could be like the mouth.” The mouth is “almost like the opening of the whole head” because it is capable of articulating any aspect of the face’s entire range of expression. The cry—the Lamentation—is a traditional subject matter of religious art, but Bacon presents it not as a mourning response to a horrific outer event—the Crucifixion—but rather as the expression of the self-crucifixion by solitariness of the isolated figure. In a sense, Bacon’s Popes scream because they know that, underneath their authority and power, they are solitary men—made even more solitary by this authority and power,which makes them other than themselves—with visceral feelings that must express themselves. Their wordly position has so repressed them that their feelings have lost all shape, and can issue only in the form of an instinctive agonized outcry.

The cry in Bacon’s pictures is the interior monologue of his solitary figure turned inside out and become an exterior dialogue with his self-image. In a sense, the cry is the ultimate self-contemplation, in which the solipsist’s power of creation brings his own being into painful birth in the world. The power of authority or “superego” lies in its ability to repress, in and of itself generating a feeling of perversity or abnormality, which finally articulates itself in a cry. In sum, the cry is the narcissistic, solipsistic, solitary subject’s spontaneous way of escaping the claustrophobia of being himself by getting into the world, if in a highly indeterminate way. At the same time, the cry is the violent release of instinct which has been repressed by internalized social, rational authority. Instinct has come to feel strange to itself, and so must objectify itself to see itself for what it really is, viz., bodily feeling.

Bacon’s great achievement with the screaming mouth is to turn it from being an abstract, formal device—an emblem of suffering—accompanying tragic scenes, as in Poussin’s Massacre of the Innocents (which Bacon professes to admire), to a highly charged concrete space involuntarily ejaculating feeling into the world. Poussin’s relatively standard scream stands no chance of carrying the emotion conveyed by Bacon’s scream. Bacon’s compulsive emotion would break Poussin’s precious, porcelain mouth to pieces. Bacon is more truly interested in the wounded nurse’s scream in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, a scream in which feeling dominates fact, in which almost all formal control is released, and in which the sense of appropriate relationship between the cause of the scream and its effect is stretched to the breaking point. In the history of Western art there is only one screaming mouth that comes close to Bacon’s in expressive power, viz., that of Caravaggio’s Medusa, said to be a self-portrait. In a sense, the mouth is the major field on which the battle—between fact and feeling—of realism is fought out. For of all the bodily parts, the mouth alone has the potential for spontaneously converting from a matter-of-fact local feature to a general area where the feeling of the whole body can be expressed.

In a sense, Bacon’s interest in the mouth, as the most expressive body site, links up with his treatment of sexuality. Because the mouth easily opens into a scream, it becomes the only place where the body attains full erotic release. In other words, the cry is sexual in connotation, confirmed by the fact that in Bacon the white teeth not the fleshy tongue are articulate in it. What Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams calls the “dental stimulus” is a typical dream symbol of masturbation.3 (Bacon’s solitary figures are dream images, their distortion easily understood as typical dream distortion.) Masturbation, the solitary release of instinctive energy, is for Freud simultaneously a symbolic form of self-castration—in a sense, finalizing solitariness—and a confirmation of social isolation. The homosexual couplings Bacon depicts are not as satisfactory, from the point of view of achieving release of instinctive energy, as solitary masturbation is.

This sense that masturbatory release or onanistic self-creation is the key to whatever sexuality there is in Bacon’s works, is confirmed by the presence, in a number of pictures, of what Bacon himself calls a “whip of white paint.” This whip of white paint, falling to the picture ground like Onan’s seed fell on earth, can be interpreted in a number of ways, which, taken together, summarize Bacon’s Weltanschauung. It is the body’s outcry, sign of its desperate release of instinct in the paranoid situation of its privacy. It is also symbol of the life-force of the man condemned to death, in a sense equivalent to the flaring loincloth on the dead body of the crucified Christ. It is the hanged man’s last ejaculation of his instinctive energy, indistinguishable from his death throes—the involuntary fleeing of instinctive life from his body. The whip of white paint often exists in antithesis to the often black picture ground, as well as in contrast to the paler manufactured light, with its noninstinctive even flow, of the lightbulb. It is the ghost that Bacon says fact leaves, the Holy Ghost of feeling that emerges from dead facts. It is also a kind of token of painterly technique, and, in its isolation in the picture, epitomizes the figure’s solitariness. It is, as it were, the figure making a sign of itself to itself, so that it will know it is alive. Masturbation is the solitary’s way of pinching himself to prove to himself that he is still alive—to wake up his feelings. It is a way of snapping out of the feelingless state that unstructured, undirected solitude induces, and is the psychic equivalent of death. Masturbation is also the supreme narcissistic satisfaction, the solipsist’s way of proving that others do not exist. A neo-Cartesian, Bacon’s solitary asserts “I masturbate, therefore I am.” Masturbation is the perfect creation ex nihilo, for the masturbator’s fantasy is that he gives birth to himself parthenogenetically out of his own seed.

But in the final analysis Bacon’s tumultuous, painterly flesh, epitomized by its own ejaculation of a whip of white paint, is not sexual in significance, nor a symbol of will power, but indicative of a deliberate choice of solitariness. In Being and Nothingness Sartre writes that

human reality, far from being capable of being described as libido or will to power, is a choice of being, either directly or through appropriation of the world. And we have seen . . . that each thing is chosen, in the last analysis, not for its sexual potential but for the mode in which it renders being, depending on the manner in which being burgeons from its surface.

Bacon’s handling of flesh is the burgeoning of solitariness from the surface of his figure, a sign of the figure’s refusal to choose any other being than itself, and so chooses its body. To be itself is to be nothing but its flesh—to possess its surfaces exclusively for itself. Masturbation is simply confirmation of this privilege. Solitariness is the condition for the burgeoning of the body’s surfaces, and at the same time this burgeoning is proof of—a kind of response to—solitariness. The burgeoning of the surface of the solitary’s being is his self-reflexivity in action: his own flesh becomes a burning bush, showing himself to himself as divine, and completing the solipsistic enterprise of self-creation.

Bacon’s flesh, understood as the burgeoning surface of the subject’s being, as the subject’s call to and answer to itself, exists in sharp contrast to the nonburgeoning, neuter planar surface of the rooms in which he puts his figures. This contrast can be explicated through Bachelard’s contrast between “exaggeration” and “reduction.” Bacon’s painterly handling of flesh is his way of “prolonging exaggeration,” of trying “to avoid the habits of reduction.” Why do so? In The Poetics of Space Bachelard writes that “The philosophies of anguish want principles that are less simplified,” and insofar as Bacon offers us a philosophy of anguish he refuses the simple surface created by reduction and exaggerates the surface of his subject, in search of a more complicated and less conventional principle of subjective existence. Walls, however much they face us, have a side turned to the world. They are blank, feelingless surfaces, and Bacon profiles his exaggerated internalized figures against them. Bacon’s flesh goes full circle, from the subject’s exclusive possession to the other’s possible possession. Flesh becomes self-flagellating at the approach, if only in the subject’s fantasy, of the other. The anguish of Bacon’s flesh—its exaggeration into uncommunicative tongues—is simultaneously a speaking to the self and for the other. Anguish is the emotion that compels the self and the other to intercept in an orgiastic moment of imagined unity. However prolonged, it cannot last, for the self collapses back upon itself, becoming dense and opaque; and the other becomes an anonymous stranger again.

IV. The Aphoristic Image

The symbolic reference leads to a transference of emotion, purpose, and belief, which cannot be justified by an intellectual comparison of the direct information derived from the two schemes and their elements of intersection. (Alfred North Whitehead, Symbolism, Its Meaning and Effect.)

I would like to characterize Bacon’s pictures as aphoristic images, approximated by what Russell calls Bacon’s pursuit of the single picture. By this I mean images concentrated into the sententiousness of the symbol, but which, because they can never be finally specified in meaning, effect a transformation of undisciplined emotion between themselves and the spectator. Moreover, I would like to claim that the homosexual aspect of Bacon’s art and his attitude toward traditional old master art and modern photography contribute to the aphoristic character of his images. Three homosexual traits in particular, as articulated by Sartre, seem to be responsible for his attitude to the traditional masterpiece and the modern photograph, and to suggest the rationale behind his transformation of them into aphoristic images.

(1) The homosexual fake submission seems epitomized by Bacon’s treatment of Velasquez’s Innocent X. Bacon’s destroys the image, and shows the Pope in an excruciating if not entire specifiable subjective experience. Hence the modernization of the image, under the guise of rendering it more powerful and pointed. Fake submission also appears, in the passivity of Bacon’s solitary figure, a passivity which is that of a caged animal, ready to become violent if given a chance. The figure’s sense of pent-up motion and emotion also creates a symbolic charge.

(2) Actively extending this fake submission, of which I have given a few details, is the homosexual’s estheticism. In Saint Genet, Actor and Martyr, Sartre asserts:

In the movement of heterosexual ecstasy, desire is projected outward, the male forgets himself, he is only the delicate light which envelops the silk of a foreign flesh and makes it glow. Genet, on the other hand, returns to himself, he loses himself in order to find himself. The recognized gesture sends him back to the world and the world back to himself; he remains “frightened at possessing the world and at knowing I possessed it.” That is, he shelves the world: if he does “possess” the universe, it is not in the manner of emperors and captains of industry who boast of leaving their mark on it, but in that of a contemplative who discovers that “the world is its representation.” And in this great body of things perceived, a gesture stands out, object of an aesthetic intuition, which reflects to Genet only what Genet has put into it: it is the appearance to which the Thief has assigned the function of delivering to him the totality of appearances.

Old masterworks are, from the perspective of the present, so many shelved worlds. They offer particular appearances—“gestures”—which suggest a world they cannot deliver, but which nonetheless conditions their appearance. Thus, the old masterpiece no longer represents anything real. Its only value is as a symbol: it is charged with the feeling, a residue of the purposes and beliefs, of a lost world. Its existence is purely esthetic, and its value depends on the absence of any reference to reality. It is in effect a pure appearance charged with an abstract emotion.

Now Bacon finds purely esthetic-symbolic value in photographs as well as old masterpieces. They too hold emotion in suspension, so that it seems unconditioned and unconditional, and are no longer used for their reference to a particular world. Photographs and masterpieces become sources of symbolic reference for Bacon, and he uses them operatically, to create a highly charged atmosphere, in which the emotional effect is out of all proportion to the event that triggers it. In general, Bacon is not so much influenced by masterpieces and photographs—“influence” is a mnemonic device, and assumes continuity of context and meaning—as exploitive of their emotional possibilities. He finds in them not things he wants to remember, but gestures in what Sartre calls “the choreographic figuration of human transcendency,” which for Bacon is nothing but the superiority of feeling to fact. Taking masterpieces and photographs as only incidentally referencing reality, he finds in them unique emotional opportunities. They become the armature on which he can hang pure feeling. The sense of oblivion of being in Bacon’s pictures is due to the fact that they are meant to be nothing but appearances abstractly charged with emotion, rather than images of any reality—images with any kind of objectivity, which occurs in them only accidentally. What is normally accidental or momentary, the release of pure—undisciplined—emotion, is made absolute in Bacon, and what is normally all important to realism, the reference to reality, becomes casual and incidental.

One might note that influence takes place only within a tradition and within a world of uniform purpose and constant belief. Bacon, who believes that every artist today is “outside a tradition,” asserts that all that is left for the artist is “to record one’s own feelings about certain situations as closely to one’s own nervous system as one possibly can.” Because today there is no “valid myth where there was the distance between grandeur and its fall of the tragedies of Aeschylus and Shakespeare,” all that remains is the emotional charge caused by such a fall without the framing myth to give it general significance or validity for others. This renders it seemingly unreal and exaggeratedly subjective, with purely esthetic and personal significance. Because of this, Bacon’s emotional intensity makes us uncomfortable, since our emotions are aroused by real events. When his works do seem, whether retrospectively or immediately, to refer to real events, as his Study for Portrait, 1949, seems to allude to Eichmann on trial in his glass booth, and as the figure with the swastika armband in Crucifixion, 1965, alludes to the Nazis, our response is thrown off. We do not know whether to take the images for their world-historical implications or for their purely emotional implications. We are not helped by Bacon’s perverse assertion that for him the swastika is simply an interesting shape in a red field. He regularly and maliciously insists on purely esthetic significance, e.g., in the case of the mouth, as if to throw the viewer off the scent of the worldly meaning of the work, to free him to respond to it purely emotionally. He wants the work to impress itself directly on the viewer’s nervous system, rather than become something he associates with everyday reality and/or makes a moral judgment on. What is interesting is that we never think that the two—worldly meaning and emotional impact—can be present at the same time in Bacon’s works, and the same is true for any other kind of public meaning, such as the religious. Thus, Bacon regards the crucifixion as today having purely esthetic and emotional significance. It is simply “a magnificent armature on which you can hang all types of feeling and sensation,” and he doubts that even “the great Crucifixions . . . were painted by men who had religious beliefs.” A religious belief is a proposed view of reality. On Bacon’s terms, for an artist to have a religious belief would be for him to forfeit the emotional power he can generate by being purely esthetic. For him to have any belief about reality—about the facts—would be for him to become concerned to get the meaning straight, which would interfere with an instinctive response to appearances. The appearance of meaning is sufficient for Bacon, not its exact statement: the artist’s meaning emerges from how convincingly he can charge his appearances. Bacon believes that, unlike himself, Velasquez and Rembrandt

were still, whatever their attitude to life, slightly conditioned by certain types of religious possibilities (salvation), which man now, you could say, has had completely cancelled out of him. . . .You see, all art has now become completely a game by which man distracts himself; and you may say it has always been like that, but now it’s entirely a game.

For Bacon, art is a game of emotionally charging appearances rather than a question of presenting clear meanings, of whatever kind, and certainly not the political and religious, which are usually taken literally. In general, art exists for Bacon not to convince us of the truth about anything, to nail down reality by imitating it, but rather to use some of its appearances in a purely esthetic way and thereby to generate a radically subjective feeling. In a sense, art is proof that appearances transcend reality and that feelings transcend facts. By proper choreography, real facts can be made into strongly felt fictions. Masterpieces and photographs are storehouses of choreographed gestures which can be appropriated for purposes of conveying new kinds of feeling. Past art has the advantage of not being clearly connected with any firsthand experienced reality, and photographs, especially, for Bacon, when they are old and tattered from use, give us a secondhand reality, which with time seems a fantasy, and so can be emotionally exploited. The point, for Bacon, is to get distance from reality, so as to keep feeling pure and alert, charged with abstract power. This holds true for the reality of his own works, from which he tries to make the spectator keep his distance by framing them in gold and glass.

(3) Such framing is the major example of the homosexual’s artificialism, which finalizes his estheticism. The way Bacon takes an appearance as “real” while knowing it is false is similar to Sartre’s example of Genet’s artificialism: the treatment of cut glass as a precious gem while knowing it is cut glass. Talking oneself into belief is crucial, to sustain the esthetic sensibility which is the foundation of emotional responsiveness in art. Bacon wants his framing methods—as though a precious setting would make us think the art precious, i.e., believe in it—to create “distance between what has been done and the onlooker” and serve to “shut (the work) away from the spectator.” It is better that it remain a mysterious symbol than indicate a familiar reality, or itself become one. The full import of the glass framing is that it creates a quasi-old-master look, doubly removing the work, in space as well as concept. This removal—the added distance —filters the feeling through with greater purity and power, as well as emphasizes that it is impossible for art to refer to anything beyond itself, i.e., that is not an appearance. Unwittingly, Bacon links up with modernism’s self-reflexivity, but in terms of feeling rather than form. On the level of feeling as well as form art is sui generic.

In general, Bacon’s art, to use Sartre’s words, is “a compound of ceremonious politeness and aggressiveness.” These qualities are the vital ones of the aphorism, with its symbolic overtones and peculiar way of turning what is seen or known into an emblem of what is felt, i.e., into an esthetic intuition. Walter Kaufmann writes that “aphorisms reflect the experimentalist’s determination to remain unprejudiced by any system,” i.e., by any final, fixed view of reality. The artist’s insistence on appearance for appearance’s sake, in Bacon’s case correlated with an insistence on feeling for feeling’s sake—a kind of final fling of romanticism—works through an aphoristic image which is a kind of experimentation for experimentation’s sake.

Ironically, the sense of the aphoristic image as a mode of experimentation with intuitions serves the purposes of realism admirably. For in trying, at all costs—even those that lead to the distortions of expressionism — to avoid becoming bound by any fact or ideology realism must become an open-ended experimentation with appearances. It can never be satisfied that it has the final, certain, truthful appearance of reality. An experiment exists on the borderline between truth and falsehood. It is undertaken either to demonstrate some known truth or to test some suggested truth; in general, to confirm or disprove something doubtful. When sustained for itself, thereby becoming a mode of presentation in itself, the experiment—or aphoristic image—creates ambiguity about what is or is not the case and valid. Aphoristic experimentation thus becomes a way of penetrating reality without committing oneself to it. It is a way of charging appearances—apparent reality—without specifying the full import of the charge.

The aphoristic image thus has a highly irrational tone to it, regardless of the kind of emotion it does or does not express. Bacon’s images are irrational not because they represent irrational emotions, but because in and of themselves, as experiments with appearance, they can say nothing substantial about reality yet they are intensely saying something. They are thus unfinished psychologically as well as perceptually. We cannot believe in them, although they communicate a sense of purpose to us. We can feel them, but we cannot say that what we feel is real. And that, ironically, is the state in which we exist in reality, testing and retesting our intuitions, but never finally certifying them as unconditionally objective, as definitively the case. Reality is never definitively what it seems to be, and for a realist to makethis clear, as Bacon does, is a supreme achievement. Too much realistic imagery has tried to be definitive of reality, which has only caused it to dwindle into a document, i.e., another datum, rather than become an indication of the possible subject-object truth about reality.

Bacon’s aphoristic approach shows us that reality is always in the process of being made into a symbol by the subject who perceives it. The subject persists in this process in order to release himself from reality’s hold, and thereby uncover, in the abstract form of intuitions, the feelings it generates in him. This process of symbolization links up decisively with the homosexual aspect of Bacon’s art: neither homosexual nor aphoristic penetration achieves ultimate possession of the object. Its reality is always discovered to be turned away from one, and wherever one has entered it, one finds that one is facing a behind. One always has an obscene, exaggerated, yet radically incomplete and inconclusive relationship with it, and one finds it degenerating into an appearance which cannot reference anything but itself. One finds one’s relationship with it degenerating into an artificial game. One remains intact relating to it, but frustrated, because one has established no reciprocity with it, and so gotten nothing from it. One has only released oneself toward it, in its direction; a release which, because it has not found its mark, seems undisciplined.

Bacon’s portraits, in the end, communicate no sense of character — of the basic reality of the other, the represented person. And they can never do so, because they are simply fantasy appearances of the other. I disagree with Russell’s reading of the portraits of Isabel Rawsthorne as “an acknowledgment of all that is staunchest and most generous in human nature,” which are much too determinate character traits to get out of a Bacon portrait. Russell is probably speaking from his own acquaintance with her. Basically, I disagree just for the reason Russell himself believes contemporary portraiture is difficult, and finally incapable of communicating any self-same self, any “owned” self:

We disbelieve in the monolithic view of human nature; we are not awed—quite the contrary—by the trappings of power; we see human beings as flawed, variable, self-contradictory, subject to the fugitive and the contingent.

When Bacon does try to convey inner character—to satisfy the ideals of traditional portraiture—as in Study for Portrait III (After the Life-mask of William Blake), 1955, he becomes pompous and dull, affected and melodramatic. Generally, he offers us no sense of firm being in these portraits. He shows them as stereotypically frenzied, almost manic and raw beings.

Bacon, if anything, achieves his realism in the portraits by destroying the identity of his subjects. He blurs it until it seems insecure, leaving vestiges of its familiar daily appearance in the details of a few features, which seem typical only because they are repeated as we move from image to image of the same subject. But these features are no more than exterior appearances, and say nothing decisive whatsoever about the characters of the selves depicted. Instead, what Bacon does is create, through his painterly technique, a sense of involvement with and within them—a generalized kind of momentum in them which we share perceptually. Within this context of fluid, generalized surface, possible identities emerge but are not confirmed, are asserted but do not last—are purely momentary illusions or possibilities of appearance. All have more or less the same mood. In sum, Bacon’s painterly technique is the core of the aphoristic intuition of subjectivity he offers, for it makes the figural image abstract. Out of this abstraction, identities emerge as experimental possibilities, but none is finally true or factually clear, although all are symbolically valid, i.e., valid as emotionally charged appearances, undisciplined releases of instinct, and dissipations of the raw possibility of being alive.



1. Erling Eng, “Psyche in Longing, Mourning and Anger,” Facets of Eros, Phenomenological Essays, The Hague, 1972, p. 76, notes that “the truth of eros has an intimate tie with the problem of the truth of theatre,” as evidenced by the fact “that the root of ‘obscene’ is the Greek word scene, or ‘stage,’ the prefix ‘ob-’ having the value of ‘against: ” Eng, p. 78, writes: “The obscene is to be understood from the scene as norm, as, in effect, a withering of the scene in its fullness, from virtual unity to breakdown into concreteness, from openness and depth to constriction and raised figures, from shared experience to one increasingly autistic.” More particularly, the following “negations of the characters of a scene justify its being termed ‘obscene’: Instead of a scene that is shared, it becomes one that is private; rather than opening up it becomes constrained; rather than a vision of unity it tends towards the fragmentation, literally, of cannibalism.” All of this can be applied directly to Bacon’s pictures. What can also be applied, and what makes them Jose their impact with familiarity—it is a risk Bacon himself provokes by dwelling on the same image—is that “what can be agreed on as being obscene becomes, to the extent that it is defined by consensus, already counter-obscene. Pornography is an instance of this.” To the extent that Bacon’s ob-scenes become pornographic in import, they degenerate into opera. Pornography orchestrates the parts of the body purely for effect—each becomes the cause for a disproportionate effect—and such orchestration can be undertaken for aggressive as well as sexual purposes.