Sunday, July 19, 2009

Francis Bacon at the Met

I saw again last night the huge Bacon retrospective at the Met. I had been dreading a second look because I had read some less than worshipful reviews in the meantime, and I wondered how they would affect another encounter with the works. I am glad to report that my worship has cooled down, not to disappointment, but to a strong admiration for the painter. It has become reasonable.

It is not easy to be reasonable with Bacon, because his paintings elicit--strive to elicit, in fact--visceral reactions. That contorted, broken body on the divan: if you don't submerge your eyes in its pain, you will only see the ridiculous melodrama--the faulty epistemology--of paint imitating blood and semen. It's no longer a surprise to see modern works splattered with blood and semen--and shit--but Bacon is more painterly than that. The effect must be achieved through paint. That intransigency is a strength. No collages for him, no "real-world" objects. He relies on photographs but uses them as older painters used the camera obscura. The photos do not get onto the canvas, not even in the elegaic last triptych of the exhibition, in which two headless bodies leave us through black exits, their faces painted like mugshots above the bodies. Using photos this way is a kind of triumph. It proves that photography has not made painting obsolete. More, it proves that photography has not made figurative painting obsolete, and so throws into question the apparent inevitability of the escape into abstraction.

Figurative painting, epitomized by the painting of the human figure. Bacon's bodies wrestle with each other in such a way that it's hard to tell if they are fighting or fucking. His subjects are desire and violence. Desire is violence. It is violent to the desired person, it is also violent to the desiring one. You see the first in paintings of couples, in the tributes to his lover George Dyer, who committed suicide. You see the second in paintings of solitary men in rooms, where the lack of desire--boredom--is equally violent. The impression I received reminded me of my poem "Approaching Thirtyseven," which ends with this tercet:

In the interval between sex and poetry lies death.
The freshman intuits that. Which is why he begs
for the gloved fist to enter him again and again.

Why is the human figure so horrifying in Bacon? Part of the force comes from cutting up and showing the insides, so that we are in a butcher shop when we think we are in a sanitized and conservative environment as an art gallery. Part of the force comes from the severe distortion of body parts, so that the stillest figure seems to be writhing. It has no place to rest, and this despite the constant appearance of beds, floors, divans, chairs and crosses. The painting that impressed me most on my second visit is "Studies for a Figure in a Room." The same person appears in all three parts of the triptych. In the center panel, he is twisting in a blue divan that is too big for him. In the right panel, he is about to fall off a tilting one-legged stool that is too small for him. In the left panel, he is seated in a much more stable position, but on a toilet bowl. As if to protect his privacy, he has his back to the viewer. It is entirely appropriate that the background of the triptych is unified by a brown that reminded me of shit. You want a ground of being that does not shift? Only in death and shit.

What about the famous horrifying mouths? They have been related to Mussolini, and to the Nurse in Battleship Potemkin. There are pictures of both at the Met show. I don't buy sociopolitical interpretations of Bacon, and so I think Mussolini matters less to Bacon than the Nurse. I was surprised to see that the Nurse's scream is toothless, in other words, her teeth are invisible to the viewer. There and not there, the Nurse's mouthful of teeth reminds me of the vagina dentate. Transfer that to Bacon's drawing of the mouth, for example, his early "Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion," and what you get is a monstrous cross between vagina, penis and teat (the Nurse), which bites you as you suck on it.

There is no sentimentality in Bacon. What I mean is that he does not rely on conventional values and feelings to move the viewer, not even on our usual response to bodies in pain. For that, he makes the pain again. As a creator of values, not a consumer nor an imitator, he can be reckoned to be one of the "free spirits" prophesied by Nietzsche. His paintings certainly strike me as beyond good and evil.

But there is more than one way to be unsentimental, to be truly creative. After seeing Bacon, I was compelled to see Matisse again. I needed some water after the fire. Looking at his "Three O' Clock Sitting," purchased by the Met in the last year, I was again impressed by the forcefulness of the conception, the quiet mastery. It offers a window out into the world when the room becomes too oppressive.


Eshuneutics said...

Hi, Jee, reading this reminded me of an exhibition of art work by high school pupils (some years ago). They had painted "in the style" of Bacon. It was Bacon without the horror. Not one for children! I really enjoyed reading these responses and reflections. So hope you are well.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi Eshun,
I saw a parent dragging two young kids through the show. What on earth was he thinking? I am well, trying to gather myself for a brief visit to Singapore. Be well.

Gregory Lewis Bynum said...

Thank you for this interesting post, Jee Leong. Now I'm thinking of going to see that exhibit, though I hadn't been before.

Considering your interest in the way Bacon makes a case for painting in our age of photography and other media, I wonder if you'd also enjoy the paintings of Gerhard Richter. His works are somtimes photorealist and sometimes abstract, and sometimes interesting combinations of the two.

Jee Leong Koh said...

I need to know Richter's work better. Thanks, Greg.