PRINT January 1986


A TYPICAL FRANCIS BACON PAINTING shows a single figure, or a fragment of one (the face also is a fragment), sealed in a stage space, spare and schematic for all the boldness of its color. Sometimes there are two figures, locked in a struggle, or resting between “engagements.”

The space is generally self-contained, geometrically emphatic, an isolation ward of sorts. It is a sacred space, the figure’s self-protective aura, the membrane of its dignity, confirming the figure’s character as a monad. The world comes into the space in various contingent ways. Sometimes it appears as fragmentary, rudimentary language, bits of alphabet repeated ad nauseam. This handmade but machinelike image of lettering has been mistaken for a representation of discarded newspapers, and for a kind of pseudo-Dada collage, but it is more like collapsed balloons of speech from which the language, like sand in an hourglass, has run out, confirming the silence of the figure. It is a distillation of the idea of language, like an eye chart whose letters are never fully in focus and irrationally blur into meaninglessness. Other signs of the noisome, intrusive world are the sections of nonhuman flesh that often appear, suggesting that the world is a slaughterhouse. It is as though the space were insatiable and had to be regularly fed animal meat lest it swallow its human inhabitant. The space is an abyss, which, like a legendary monster, regularly needs a sacrifice to keep it quiescent. The meat is also the insignia of the figure; the trophy of a kill, it signals the figure’s secret carnivorous authority.

Bacon’s figure is spastic, a kind of aborted figura serpentina—hardly Michelangelesque, yet mutedly muscular. It is overdetermined and imploded. Of course it is psychically twisted as well as physically archaic, but that is only part of its story. What seems to me of crucial importance for an understanding of what is at stake in Bacon’s paintings is the fact that the isolated figure is blurred in its being. This is partly because of Bacon’s allusions to Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs of human and animal figures in normal and abnormal motion; each of his figures is like a transient duration in a hand-cranked movie. For all its photographic underpinning, however, Bacon’s figure is a paint-intensive creation, appropriating Pablo Picasso’s composites of multiple, shifting views of a figure in a concentrated space as much as it does Muybridge’s clinical studies. It is built of what Bacon calls cultivated chance moments—what I understand as forced painterly impulses, deliberately dredged-up libidinous charges. These charges can be regarded as “ingrown gestures”’ struggling to grow out—a pathological painterliness made manifest by the way the gestures seem to grow back into it and knot its fluidity The figure seems about to be torn apart, brutalized by its own sensational discharges, and indeed in certain works it has lost some of its parts, becoming grotesque and crippled. The figure is often recognizable, or named in the painting’s title, but its blurred bodiliness contradicts, and almost obliterates, that public identity.

Gilles Deleuze has generalized this attack on the memorable figure as an attack on the cliché image, aligning Bacon with Paul Cézanne as an artist who, unable “to accept the ready-made cliches that came from his mental consciousness, stocked with memories and which appeared mocking at him on his canvas, spent most of his time smashing his own forms to bits.”2 But in fact it is the authority of the figure that Bacon challenges, not appearances. At the same time, the figure is asserted through that challenge—through the bits of paint that subvert it. And it is not so much that Bacon is attacking the standardized version of a figure/person—one unburdened by a hidden self—as doubting its very right to exist. It is as though the figure is a reluctantly used subject matter for him; he seems disinclined to grant it its traditional fundamentality, but is stuck with it as a necessary evil. However much he alludes to specific persons, Bacon questions not their particularity but the authority of their being at all. It is this authority that he “manhandles,” that he breaks on the rack of his pathological painterliness.

Bacon forces us to remember and rethink what has been all too frequently forgotten about Modern art as it has been socially assimilated—that it is at heart dissatisfied, rebellious, angry, violent, and violative, an incisive reflection of the discontents of civilization. This defiant unhappiness is customarily understood as an anguished sign of autonomy, a subversion of conventional worldly appearances to construct the integrity of art in spite of the world, but Bacon forces us to read it not as a willful transcendence of the world but as a hysterical, and invariably histrionic, effort to recollect it in all its anxiety-arousing absurdity. Bacon’s paintings are ambivalently acts of recollection and of forgetfulness, an ambivalence that is at the center of the Modern sense of illusion.

T. W. Adorno has written that “the truth of works of art hinges on whether or not they succeed, in accordance with their inner necessity to absorb the non-conceptual and contingent. For their purposefulness requires the purposeless, which is illusion,3 Bacon’s paintings stretch the general problematic of portraiture to its limits, forcing the recognition that the uncategorizable, contingent personhood of the portrayed can never be truly and completely grasped in and through paint. This leads to an aggravated attack of paint on the figure; the paint acquires added conviction and power, becoming painterly to an aggressive extreme, almost as though the painterliness were an expression of angry frustration at the ungraspable personhood of the figure. The art rises up to overwhelm the illusion of the person—the other—and in doing so achieves its own integrity As if in spite, Bacon’s portraits seek to destroy the vestige of personhood available in the everyday appearance of the figure by assimilating it entirely into painterliness. The melancholy of his figures results from the residue of personhood that has survived the process of painterly absorption. The paint scourges the figure, stripping it of its skin, assimilating its raw flesh to painterly flesh. What is left is helpless raw being. Bacon takes such authoritative historical figures as Pope Innocent X and Vincent van Gogh and reduces them outrageously to clots of paint. They are overwhelmed by paint, into which they sink as if in quicksand. Is the scream of Innocent X recognition of his dissolution? Bacon repeatedly ”misinterprets" the strength of character he seems to find in the 1650 Diego Velázquez portrait of the Pope as sheer monstrousness, brutality More than Picasso in his historicist paintings, Bacon destroys what he creates in the very act of recreating. The destruction no doubt has world-historical import—the sadistic character of the Pope is brought home by the sadistic way paint is applied to him, as if it were acid—but the key point is that paint triumphs over human reality, becomes the dominant expression of being.

This issue of illusion is more complex, however. Bacon’s paint spontaneously presents us with an authentic, compelling image—an image to which we feel committed, inescapably bound, just at the moment when we are most in despair of finding any appearance to embody our own attachment to real being. His painterliness pushes the figure toward oblivion, but in the wake of painterliness comes a residue of the figure, its representation, which, however flimsy, holds us spellbound because of the energy and emotion that seem invested in it, and because of the way it has survived abuse by the painterliness. It is as though the painterliness had destroyed the conscious image so that the unconscious image could emerge. What remains becomes freshly, all the more powerfully an illusion of being. As we look at a painting we unconsciously desire an image—as though we could remember an image in and through the paint—and all we experience is paint, but we hallucinate an image in it. This is Bacon’s figure—a hallucinated image of absolute being, free of the underpinnings of conventional appearance. That appearance has been supplied, implicitly and explicitly, by photography, but Bacon has worked over the photograph, and the contemporaneity it implies, with his grandiose painterliness. The photographic appearance is imaginatively transformed into a representation of archaic selfhood. Where in many contemporary artists’ work reliance on the photographic image of reality disguises a failure of imagination, in Bacon’s the destruction of photographic appearance represents imagination’s aggressive reassertion of its rights.

Bacon gives us not simply an “expressive” illusion of a figure, but the illusion of being in the presence of a certain self. The figure has been transmuted in the alembic of painterliness into a kind of self. Bacon gives us the illusion of the self as it introspects itself, the painterliness filtering out the figure’s everyday appearance so that the urgency of its being itself can be felt. Purged of everydayness by painterliness, the figure is peculiarly self-possessed rather than owned by the world. Its existence in the limbo of the space confirms its self-realization and its authenticity.

Pure painting, then, is not necessarily an end in itself, for all of art’s desire to declare it so as a manifestation of art’s “autonomy.” Such painting also has a “hysterical” purpose—by dissolving the everyday appearance, it can help us remember the obscure self that is forgotten underneath. Bacon’s painterliness is hysterical painting in the deepest and most precise sense: it struggles to remember an archaic experience that has been forgotten, an experience that has profoundly affected and shaped the sense of self operative through the figure. At the same time, it is a symptom of our forgetfulness of traumatically primitive experience. Simultaneously memory and amnesia, Bacon’s painterliness embodies the struggle between remembering and forgetting—representation and nonrepresentation—that is at the heart of the psychodynamic process that painting constitutes. Bacon’s archetypal hysterical figure is a “hyper-aesthetic memory,”4 a form of “strangulated” speech. His figure is in a “hypnoid state,” “very intense but . . . cut off from associative communication.”5 This is its existence as a repressed yet nagging memory. At the same time, it is abreacted through painterliness; the “strangulated affect” it embodies finds a “way out” through painterly speech.6 Bacon’s painterliness has a double function: to articulate the intensity of the cut-off, dissociated figure, and to relieve it of its burden of feeling. His paintings have become less and less painterly more and more flat in their affect, more willful—less spontaneous—in their intensity as though at last, after forty years, he has discharged the final bit of painful memory of the authoritative figure standing behind all the other figures. It is a figure whose substance was always doubted because it stood behind so many shadows and was associated with so many simulations of itself. In a sense, the polished glass that Bacon has for some time insisted that his pictures be hermetically sealed under—finishing them off, packaging them, as it were—shows just how determined he is to show the conflict between hysteria and its repression. He civilizes his pictures, makes their wildness museum-ready, by placing them behind glass, but he builds the material’s critical function into this act. Before one gets to the violent, hysterical painting, the glass intervenes, stopping one—anesthetizing one—so that its maddening impact is muted or controlled and one isn’t driven crazy by it. Bedlam is kept in and the spectator is kept out. The packaging also implies that the hysterical figure can he standardized, civilized, or at least caged, but its straitjacketing effect suggests that hysteria can still get out of hand. Painting and spectator circle each other, wary, two ambulatory patients in an ambivalently esthetic and sexual encounter, finally mirroring each other in a bizarre Dorian Gray manner: as we cling to our sanity in the face of the hysteria the picture induces in us, we transfer to the picture the energy of our struggle for control, so that the painting seems even more hysterical and even more representative of reality. The figure’s hysteria is its realism.

Bacon’s hysterical painting remains inseparable from “archaeologism.” The importance of Bacon today, in this time of archaeologistic painting, is that he histrionically asserts the psychological root and purpose of such an approach. In his work this assertion is unsubtle and unavoidable, whereas in other current archaeologies of the figure it is often nonexistent, forced, pseudosophisticated, or emptily didactic. I prefer the term “archaeologism” to “historicism,” since it seems to go more to the root of the current culture of quotation. It suggests a conflicted attitude toward the past, at once celebrating it and denying its authority Morris R. Cohen has described historicism as the “faith that history is the main road to wisdom in human affairs,” but he notes that this belief has been much disputed throughout history: “In the Old as well as the New Testament there is much of the anti-historical philosophy so keenly expressed in the Book of Ecclesiastes to the effect that the earthly scene is all vanity and that there is nothing new under the sun. The canonical sayings of Jesus commanded men not only to take no thought of the morrow but to let the dead past bury its dead.”7 Archaeologism combines the optimism of historicism with the pessimism of antihistorical philosophy the recognition that while everything will change, nothing will be new. In Bacon, ambivalence toward the authority of the past is used to undermine it, or at least to bring it into doubt.

Among the more striking recent images by Bacon is Study of the Human Body, 1982, showing an abbreviated male figure, naked except for cricketer’s leggings. The same figure recurs, in different poses, in Study from the Human Body—Figure in Movement, 1982, and in the left panel—another “Study from the Human Body”—of Diptych, 1982–84. The cricketer’s leggings are a sign of social identity—of belonging to a certain class and world. The nakedness of the mutilated figure—a chunk of raw meat as much on display as the carcass in Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox, 1655, a recurrent image, in different forms, in many Bacon paintings—contradicts the social identity the leggings signify This tension between the social reality of a figure and its naked bodiliness is a constant in Bacon’s painting. His painterliness is used to strip the figure naked, not only to naked bodiliness but to naked emotion, as in the various pictures of Innocent X. Signs of social reality remain: the Pope still has his miter, Van Gogh still carries the instruments of his craft. (Bacon means to emulate Van Gogh in his stripping-down of the figure; Van Gogh was the inventor of the process and its first real master. As such he was the first truly Modern painter, in the sense in which to be Modern means to strip away superficial social appearances to reveal existential reality, that is, to reveal being as such—a revelation that is being’s only justification. Modernism, through its destructive process of stripping down, searches for a new starkness, the sign of genuine being.) The tension between the process of painterliness and the reality of society—between a generalized drive toward revelation of the irreducibly given, and socio-historical particularity—pervades Bacon’s work. He brings the power of painterliness—of art as a stripping down to the embryonically naked, as at birth and death—to bear on the power of social authority, hoping to cancel it out, but he recognizes that it is ultimately as ineradicable as the naked body and the naked emotion. It is as much like fate as the emblematic, existentially raw meat of the body.

What Bacon accomplishes is a linkage of the power of the painterly process to the power of social authority. This is the source of the real sexual hysteria and theatricality of his paintings. The linkage is revealed in the convergence of his anorexic color planes—the background of the real world—and his bulemic figures, depressed for all the abundance of painterly nerves that testify to their hypersensitivity Together, backgrounds and figures have the authority that comes from attracting tremendous attention—something that the hysterical and the histrionic (rep-resented in Bacon by the theatrical staging) also have in common.8 Bacon’s paintings are not simply stark, the way Van Gogh’s are, but exaggeratedly stark—to show off the figures’ blatant exhibitionism. (Exhibitionism is a major hysterical trait.) These figures are always on stage—but more like specimens on clinical display in a medical amphitheater than like actors in control of their roles. Their isolation is a form of privileging themselves—of making themselves stand out and seem more intriguing or charismatic than others. At the same time that Bacon dissects the charisma of exhibitionism, he celebrates it, and through his repetitive representation suggests that it is the only source of the figure’s authority.

It can be inferred from Bacon’s painting that he would agree with Anthony Storr in the idea that hysterical exhibitionism is a “defense against depression” in a person who regards him- or herself as defeated, and as a defense against recognition of the lack of ideal persons in the world.9 But, at the same time, Bacon seems to posit hysteria as in its own dramatic way an ideal mode of representing oneself as a person. But there is a paradox here, for this idealization has an archaeologistic basis. In hysteria a person attempts to immortalize him- or herself by becoming extravagantly demonstrative, exhibitionistic, in effect announcing his or her being as absolute and indisputable. It is given a surplus of presence, as it were. Absolutization and exhibitionism reveal the archaeologistic perspective: a stage holding an isolated figure is as much a coffin displaying an embalmed body as it is the hysterical psychodrama of a particular person. The painterliness that gives hysterical flair to the person also mutilates that being into oblivion, generalizing it toward nonbeing. That something can be so real and at the next moment an illusion belonging to the past expresses the ambivalence endemic to archaeologism. All Bacon’s figures exist in a time warp, at once radically contemporary yet belonging to a dead world.

Bacon’s hysterical painting is paradoxical, and never more so than when it gives authority to inherently unauthoritative, almost banal figures. This is an authority the figures have borrowed from art, for the authority of art ultimately resides in the fact that it is the ultimate exhibitionism, making a more memorable splash than anything else, even if that splash destroys or cancels out—represses and buries—the reality it represents, and thus makes us more anxious about.

Donald Kuspit is the editor of Art Criticism published at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He is a regular contributor to Artforum.



1. Philip Rieff, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co, Anchor Books, 1901), p. 12.

2. Quoted in Dawn Ades, “Web of Images,” in Francis Bacon (London: the Tate Gallery/Thames & Hudson, 1985), p. 22. This hook, the catalogue for a large retrospective of Bacons work that showed at the Tate last summer and is now traveling It is at the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, until January 6, and at the Nationalgalerie, Berlin, from February 6 to March 31.

3. T. W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), p. 149.

4. Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud, Studies on Hysteria (New York: Basic Books, 1957), p. 16.

5. Ibid., p. 12.

6. Ibid., p. 17.

7. Morris R. Cohen, The Meaning of History (La Salle, Ill: Open Court Press, 1961), pp. 15–16.

8. Anthony Storr, The Art of Psychotherapy (New York: Methuen, 1980), pp. 85–8.

9. Ibid., p. 92.