Friday, January 23, 2009

"Taking Reality by Surprise"

This small book, by Christophe Domino, gives a generous selection of Francis Bacon's paintings, including  six foldouts of his triptychs. It also gives an interesting series of photographs of the artist at various ages in his London studio, the walls covered like a palette with daubs of paint, the floors littered with what looks like the debris of a bombed-out room. Bacon was a handsome youth, and he retained his good looks into old age, and so it was a surprise to read in the book that he hated his looks; his self-portraits, like those he drew of friends, artists and lovers, mutilated the head ferociously. 

The text organizes itself into four chapters. The first, "Turning towards Painting," sketches the outline of Bacon's life. The second, "Creating an Oeuvre," traces the development of his career. As the title has it, the third chapter, "A Maker of Images" explains the different aspects of Bacon's image-making, including its obsessive iconography, the use of the photograph as a visual springboard, and the scale and formats of the paintings. In the fourth chapter "Unlocking the Valves of Feelings," the writer attempts to explain Bacon's mature artistic aims, often quoting Bacon's own articulate comments on his goals. 

I particularly like what Domino says in a section subtitled "From spasm to spasm":

Movement in Bacon's work means not only movement of the whole body or one of its parts, but also immobility and suspension, which are just another aspect of movement. It has its different modes: walking, cycling, . . . making love, . . . but also falling; and it has its instruments and indicators (the discs and arrows, borrowed from technical imagery, give explicit indications). And with the thick white splotches sometimes placed on the image itself there is also movement of the paint (rather than in it). When a body sits or stands or holds itself steady--these situations are the result of a host of tiny internal movements, which involve a degree of violence. These movements correspond to different movements in the paint, to sweeping or rubbed effects, and to the splitting and multiplication of the image, to a change of viewpoints, fragmentation and disjunction until the human 'envelope' finally tears apart. The effect is of a world that is wounded, mutilated, torn in two. But this is precisely how it is with the body itself, the fragile, suffering body that is in a state of permanent flux, and that senses its existence more fully through suffering.

An appendix to the books quotes from Daniel Farson's anecdotal biography of Bacon. Farson records Bacon saying:

I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail, leaving a trail of the human presence and memory of the past events as the snail leaves its slime. 

The repetition of "snail" evokes the "trail" of human presence. "Slime" is the right word for Bacon's use of paint. 

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