New York

Francis Bacon

Marlborough | Midtown

Today, there are very few—if indeed any—great representational Expressionist painters. If, in fact, there are, then perhaps Francis Bacon is the single greatest exponent of the mode. This being so, then he is a very great painter indeed, and the following carping may be read from the outset as nothing more than the murmurings of preconception set up against a painting which, while breaking rules, somehow manages to succeed. But I begin to wonder whether in violating canons of good painting Bacon really succeeds in establishing new desiderata. I think not.

My caveat is concerned with the kind of painterly performance in which Bacon indulges. Above all else Bacon is a figure painter for whom little really matters except getting out some portion of the anatomy in terms of his famous scar tissue simultaneities. His most interesting painting occurs in those passages of swiftly turning head and body painted in the bristly chiaroscuro of mutilated eye sockets and thickened brushy patches of spatial skin grafts. To achieve these remarkable and unforgettable pinturas negras of tormented humanity, Bacon employs the short, terse, arching stroke (from the wrist) of a wide stiff brush. In realizing these forms part of their horror is vitiated by Bacon’s rhythmical, neutralizing balance of stroke and brushwork, light and dark and the flying closed forms he projects. He then sets to creating the environment in which these terrifying and elegant humanoid fragments live. For this act of placement, Bacon relies on a too pat set of self-imitating motifs and a method of spatial division which, if nothing else, is rather easy. Bacon employs the cliche of the ambiguous space diagram or cage, a cliche which he himself invented for the supreme paintings of the late forties and early fifties. This method of spatial projection was adopted enthusiastically by a wide front of Bacon’s English imitators from Reg Butler to Roland Piché—and it has finally come to Broadway in the guise of Donald Pleasance in The Man in the Glass Box. What is, in fact, this cliche? It generally takes the form of shall we say, a cubic soap bubble—if you see what I mean—inside of which, or against the margins of which, the protagonists move, depending on the necessities of the picture. Such ambiguous diagrams are particularly effective in Bacon’s work because they become symbolic of the cages—neurotic, political, sexual, what have you—which the individual sets up around himself or which society imposes like so many Skinner Boxes in behavioral rat studies. The emotions become associative and, therefore, easily fall into sentimentality.

Much more disturbing than this motif is Bacon’s substitution of a different brushwork for the environment from the one he uses to develop the anatomical forms. Here the arching stroke moves out from the wrist and is taken over by the arm. Try as he may to simplify the spatial set-up either into broad horizontals or ambiguous space boxes, this arched division creates environmental contours that veer dangerously toward the gratifyingly decorative. The many excellent portraits of Isabel Rawsthorne are only a stone’s throw from van Gogh’s L’Arlèsienne. The reason, perhaps, that Rawsthorne will never be Mme. Ginoux is that van Gogh’s arching environmental subdivisions are painted of a piece with the head, while Bacon’s are not.

The vast environments often spreading into triptychal solemnities, like later Beckmanns, are painted flat and almost without surface interruption. When, in fact, a surface interruption occurs it takes on the appearance less of a “thing” than a stunningly capricious brushstroke, such as his flinging of a thick raised white ribbon of paint across the ankle of a portrait of Lucian Freud. That Bacon is very aware of the evenness and wall-like flatness of his broad surfaces is more than amply shown by his requirement that these huge pictures be covered in glass. As preface to Lawrence Gowing’s precious and copyrighted essay, Bacon’s note on the necessity of covering the pictures with glass is reproduced: “To give a unified texture to the painting without having to alter the abruptness of the technique in the painting also to preserve the surface [sic].”

The glass is the clue to my present suspicions. “To give a unified texture” indicates that Bacon is himself too conscious of the fact that his figures and their environment are painted not of a kind, but represent distinct surface variations. The solution, of course, would be to observe that one kind of surface sets the other off, but Bacon is hardly a sophomoric casuist, nor are we to be the dupes of such casuistry. As to the broad and equal surfaces of the environments, “to preserve the surface” seems a phrase better suited to a picture, say, by Ad Reinhardt or the conversation of a museum curator. That posterity has in fact been called into collusion is amply attested to in the enormous gilt molding frames which solemnify the occasion even more than its already strained dignity can bear.

Despite such unresolved reservations, the grandness and majesty of Bacon’s pictures keep them from being merely bombastic. His color—well, his color, without I think it being in any sense that of a natural colorist, is also quite his own and accords properly with the elevated tone of Bacon’s representational aims. In short, I am not sure that Bacon enlarges our spectrum as to what the delimitations of art might be, but within his selected area, of which there can be none more noble, there is certainly no practitioner anywhere his equal.

Robert Pincus-Witten