The Bacon Exhibition - Reading Cues

By Boris Marotte.

“Bacon en toutes lettres”, Pompidou Centre, Paris places the later works of Francis Bacon (1909-1992) centre stage. This event aims to foster a relationship between the works of the artist and his reading material. This is a user guide to the exhibition of this British master, for those who may need extra information.

Throughout the exhibition, the visitor can listen to six audio recordings broadcast in dedicated alcoves. The works are initially connected to the tragic, with an extract from Aeschylus’s Oresteia, and Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. Then comes the poetry of T.S. Eliot, followed by more theoretical works by Michel Leiris and Georges Bataille, twinned with excerpts from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness Bacon en toutes lettres ) manages to establish a link between reading and painting in an original fashion, yet in doing so, it overlooks the neophyte. The number of paintings presented, as well as a predilection for larger formats, forms a stark contrast with the information given which is sometimes reduced to mere morsels. It therefore seems necessary to provide a few keys to better appreciating the work of this artist.

Distorting and transforming the body into an intermingling pile of flesh is one of Bacon’s trademarks. He disfigures the faces he paints, pummels them to prove the crudity of reality and to bring a glimpse of what lies under the skin. These are the scowls of boxers exposing what lies at the heart of their bellies. Bodies, like faces, become monstrous. They are stripped of their humanity; the painter opens them up to let their innards spill out, thereby pitting form against the formless.

We see this in the connection to tragic works, to the Greek tragedies which were played during the Dionysia, celebrations in the honour of Dionysus, god of wine, excess and madness. These plays also contained the idea of something spilling over, seeping out of its initial frame. The May-June 1973 triptych, painted as a tribute to George Dyer, the lover of Francis Bacon who killed himself on the eve of Bacon’s 1971 retrospective at the Grand Palais, could be read in this manner. In the central panel, the demons of George Dyer appear through the shadows, coming out of the lavatory, and they no longer obey rational logic. Madness is taking form.

Francis Bacon, Triptych May-June 1973, 1973, oil on canvas, 198 x 147,5 cm each panel, private collection

However, it would be wrong to see Bacon as a purely Dionysian artist, revelling in the spasms of dementia. Tragic poetry, as conceived by Nietzsche, also needs its Apollo. With Dionysus, they make up the two sides of the same coin. Apollo contains the excesses of madness, keeps them within limits. It is therefore no coincidence if the paintings of Bacon are ensconced in heavy golden frames, or if the figures he represents, are trapped in spatial boxes whose contours we can distinguish. The works of Bacon depict scenes which must remain within a prescribed environment. And when Dionysus represents unbridled imagination, Apollo symbolises the rigor that traces its contours. He sheds light. To fully grasp this fact, we can analyse Three Studies of the Male Back. This work forms a triptych where the model hangs out of its spatial box, whereas his portrait is reflected in a confined mirror, and boxed in.

Francis Bacon, Three Studies of the Male Back, 1970, oil on canvas, 198 x 147,5 cm each panel, Zurich, Kunsthaus.

Bacon’s work flits between Dionysus and Apollo, between folly and reason, rational space and excessive bodies. The ancient myth of Marsyas is revelatory of this approach. This satyr, who in a way, belongs to the realm of Dionysian poetry, was foolish enough to accept a musical challenge set by Apollo. He lost and was skinned alive as punishment. Behind this story, we can make out an allegory of poetry, which needs excess, but also needs rules and discipline. Three Studies of the Male Back illustrates this through the figure of a man shaving, a pattern close to that of Marsyas, injured, divested of his animality by Apollo.

This exhibition does not offer a revolutionary approach to Bacon, yet it grants the French public an opportunity to admire this artist’s achievements, as his work is virtually absent from French collections, with the exception of a few bequests: portraits from the Leiris family at the Pompidou Centre and the large formats of the Delubac collection at the Fine Arts Museum in Lyon.

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