I remember seeing a Bacon reproduction of a screaming pope in a book as a teenager. Bacon screamed at me at 14 in the same way ‘The Holy Bible’ by the Manic Street Preachers did. They were both visceral and atheist but very much of the 20th century – probing conflict, religion and sex in a way that seems hopelessly romantic and dated, only a couple of decades later. They were both still enamoured by religious iconography – the triptych, the crucifix, etc. In a sense, Bacon was anachronistic, even for his time, his paintings defiantly figurative and reminiscent of the Old Masters (Goya, Velazquez) in an art world intrigued more by abstraction, photography and video.
Take Bacon. He said: ‘We are meat, we are potential carcasses’. The Manics: ‘We all are of walking abortion….. The massacred innocent blood stains us all…. ‘And later the repeated refrain: ‘Who’s responsible – you fucking are’. This is exactly what a Bacon painting does to you in the flesh (pun intended) – it accuses you. It makes you complicit by looking at it in the violence of what it means to be human. Bacon was interested in the human as animal and our more violent and carnal urges.
Invisible Rooms is Tate’s Liverpool response to try and put Bacon into a framework, just as he did his works. Bacon’s preoccupation with photography is evident throughout – the casting of his paintings into cubic cages and extended optical fields. What becomes apparent when looking around at the different paintings is that the dislocated jaws in Bacon’s disembodied figures are influenced by long exposure photographs. The camera’s shutter when open for a few seconds, produces blurred movements and distortion. These ghostly movements and disfigurements seem to be replicated in Bacon’s paintings.
Take ‘Triptych’ (1967), which refers to T.S Eliot’s ‘Sweeney Agonistes’, a dramatic work of sex, murder and cannibalism.
In the far left painting – two blurred, vile, fleshy figures are splayed across a mattress. They lie in a brown puddle. Discarded by the side of the bed, are some cigarettes – which like the figures seem meat-like. The jaw of the figure that appears in the centre of the painting is dislocated, seemingly making reference to my earlier allusion of photographic long exposures. This is a depiction of post-coital horror, rather than bliss.
In the central painting, a door frame is hanging off and a body lies like a butchered carcass against the deep blue carpet. There is an abandoned bag and coat – is this the scene of a murder? The open door offers the viewer temporary freedom. Will the viewer now escape rather than subject themselves to the claustrophobia of the last painting?
In the painting on the right – the figures appear again on a bed, and there are now three rather than two. They appear to be mauling each other – sex as cannibalism. The central painting with its hope of escape is now a distant memory. They will be trapped forever, languish here, fucking.
Bacon seems to wrestle with this feeling of entrapment and also with what Camus said: ‘Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is’.
In an earlier painting, ‘Figure’ (1951), a chimp seems to be trapped in a cage, with lines crudely extending out, a representation of the reflection and refraction of light, again akin to photography. In a related painting, ‘Chimpanzee‘ (1955), the chimp is much more real, its cry brutal, but seemingly more human than the depictions of Bacon’s supposed human figures. Here, the creature is what he is, and he suffers for it. In man’s case he suffers when he gives in to his carnal urges and also suffers when he doesn’t.
‘Man in Blue IV’ (1954) stands out because the figure’s features are discernible. Handsome, its features echo Marlon Brando but in a sense this makes the painting all the more menacing than if it was disfigured. The painting is theatrical and the man waits in a blackened room, a visual representation of absurdism, in the manner of Beckett.
Tate Liverpool’s presentation of Bacon remains reverential. The paintings are spaced out, and there is room to contemplate them in subdued light, redolent of churches. Although I find his themes dated, perhaps there is scope to reinterpret the screaming popes in the light of the Catholic Church’s abuse scandals? Or look at the disfigured carnage and the violence in light of recent terrorism?
The quasi-religious, muted light gives way to the exit where a Bacon pop-up gift shop appears well lit. Bacon books. Bacon postcards. Bacon posters. Bacon pens. But the best thing by far in the shop is a Bacon tote bag. It has a detail of the headless screaming lump of flesh from ‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’ (1944). The visitor assistant is convinced it will sell well. Not dissimilar to Bob Dylan’s bemoaning of ‘flesh-coloured Christs that glow in the dark’. Like he said: ‘It’s easy to see without looking too far that not much is really sacred’.
Eli Regan lives in Warrington and is studying Journalism in Liverpool.
Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms
18 May – 18 September 2016
© The Estate of Francis Bacon. All Rights Reserved. DACS 2016. Gift of the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation, 1972. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Photo: Lee Stalsworth