A cartoon illustrating a review of one of Francis Bacon’s early exhibitions showed people going in one door of a gallery and coming out another, being sick. Kenneth Clark, on the other hand, stood in front of Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, and observed, “What interesting times we live in”, before walking off. Bacon was a self-confessed atheist and cheerful nihilist. At the same time he was clearly fascinated by the theme of crucifixion and often used the triptych format familiar in medieval altarpieces. Is it possible to read him against the grain, through a theological lens? Rina Arya thinks so and, in this thoroughly researched, thoughtful and beautifully illustrated book, she argues that Bacon holds up the mirror to our age and, despite himself, raises all kinds of metaphysical questions. I agree, and in taking students to the Tate Triptych for more than 20 years, have consistently found that they want to read him in this way. If they are representative, then this book will help people read and understand Bacon in ways that his art seems naturally to prompt—though it will not lessen the shock.
The book begins by putting Bacon in context. Several fine biographies do that, of course, but it is essential to Arya’s argument. She highlights the themes of conflict and marginalisation, but what also emerges in her account is Bacon’s intelligence—the fact that, contrary to the image he liked to cultivate, he thought deeply about art, and was seeking an identity of image and form in a much more coherent way than the action painting of the same time. She continues this exploration by relating Bacon’s work to the “death of God” discussion of the 1960s, and to certain kinds of existentialism. The box or frame structure that Bacon often uses speaks of the individual isolated and enclosed, the victim of angst, as in the Man in Blue series of 1954. She quotes Donald Kuspit, who felt that Bacon’s figures were “sick with death… diseased with the leprosy of loneliness”. That description seems to me to apply to much pre-Raphaelite art, but not to Bacon, whose art is the most visceral in the Western canon, raw and bleeding, but not sick with death. As he himself put it, it gives voice to the “primal human cry”.
A series of chapters then consider Bacon’s use of the crucifixion motif, his popes, his triptychs and his accounts of the human body. In all these, pain is at the forefront. In the Crucifixions we have, as Arya rightly says, a post-Holocaust statement of humanity, in which we are complicit in the act itself (as we were, of course, for Bosch and Rembrandt). The violence of his depictions, Arya argues, takes us back to the original violence of the crucifixion and therefore renews the power of the symbol, which is sanitised by its use in jewellery, in church furniture and in much Christian art as well. Ironically, she says, Bacon sacralises the theological significance of the Cross.
Bacon’s commentary on Velazquez’s portrait of Innocent X is to make it an image of the 20th-century Scream, in Arya’s view rehumanising the papal figure, showing him as anxious, inarticulate, fearful and intemperate. All symbols are polyvalent, and I read both Velázquez’s and Bacon’s images as primarily about power, both equally, though in different ways, about the way power corrupts and dehumanises.
The brutality of fact, of which Bacon spoke to David Sylvester, is most evident in his account of the human body. Of course, Bacon’s bodies are anything but factual, neither are they, as Deleuze described them, “bodies without organs”. They seem to convey that horror of the viscous of which Sartre spoke in L’Ĕtre et Nėant. Often barely recognisable, often more about guts than about bodies, they seem to paint disgust, although we know from his interviews that Bacon did in fact admire at least the male human body. What is missing in all Bacon’s art is any sense of redemption, any notion of kindness or gentleness.
Arya concludes by arguing that Bacon crucifies religion only to redeem it, but I feel rather that what we have in his paintings is, as Karl Barth once said of Ecclesiastes, “the sharpest expression of what it means to live without God”. She even goes so far as to claim that Bacon could be considered a Catholic artist because of the emphasis he puts on the sensuous body. But for that to be the case, there would need to be a glimmer of redemption, and that seems to me to be completely absent.
This is a deeply worthwhile and interesting study of one of the 20th century’s most important painters. Neither atheists nor believers are likely to agree with all of Arya’s claims, but she nevertheless raises questions that arise from the art itself, and which take us right to the heart of the way in which art speaks for and to the present, says what words are incapable of saying, and interrogates and critiques our comfortable certainties and platitudes—even if John Berger is ultimately right that at heart Bacon was a conformist. If he was a conformist he was a conformist in terrible pain, and it is that which continues to speak to us in his art.
Francis Bacon: Painting in a Godless World, Rina Arya, Lund Humphries, 176pp, £40 (hb)
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Francis Bacon, metaphysician'