Saturday, June 6, 2009
Bacon at the Met
Slate recently featured a slideshow essay highlighting the pivotal works of seminal 20th century painter Francis Bacon's oeuvre to mark his retrospective at the Met. I hope his mutely shrieking popes and groping, degraded figures, make it across the Atlantic, leaving their telltale "human snail trail" of slime (as Bacon famously described it*) in their wake.
The touchstone “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” caused a huge furor upon its exhibition in the 1940's. The work’s confrontational yet detached emotionalism moved me immediately upon seeing the work. The painting’s amalgamation of several intriguing themes was also a factor. These include crucifixion, dysmorphic human figures, nihilism and the modern notion of the grotesque.
Bacon opted to present his work as a triptych, a model used in many religious paintings. The viewer is presented with three discrete versions of what appears to be the same vaguely phallic, anthropomorphic figure, rendered in murky grays, whites and browns against a vermilion background. The creature in the left hand panel appears slumped over, bloodied and resigned. In the center panel the head seems to have been reduced or eradicated altogether, the neck tied in shroud-like white gauze (a tourniquet?), the only remaining features being a couple of slits at the end of the long appendage. The panel on the far right features an inverted head with a gaping mouth frozen in a silent scream reminiscent of Munch. Each humanoid figure is presented on a base: a table, a pedestal, a rug, from which the “limbs” of the figure spring organically, further dehumanizing the humanoid.
The technique of dehumanization and the notion of “human furniture” or decoration is also a by-product of Bacon’s background as an interior designer. His obsession with gaping mouths, triggered by a textbook he purchased on diseases of the mouth which haunted him perennially, is first manifested here. The horrific appearance of the figures prefigures later Bacon riffs on the theme of the Eumenides in the Oresteia of Aeschylus. The distancing technique of the triptych format is a Bacon paradox: an avowed atheist with a martyrdom complex, he used the crucifixion as a template upon which to hang, as it were, images of a godless world infused with a post-World War II sense of alienation and despair. He also hated “narrative” painting, wanting all the emotions of a particular work to hit the viewer at once. The triptych format helped break up the narrative, such as it is, so you really can’t tell what’s going on in the painting. This heightens the ambiguity of the piece. What does come through is a raw beauty and a depiction of the modern condition as a silent shriek of isolation, self-disgust and horror which has been compared to the literary works of the Existentialists.
*see Love in a Dark Time by Colm Tobin for further reading on the life and art of Francis Bacon