Monday, June 22, 2009

The value of dread

The Francis Bacon retrospective at the Met is a stunning collection of major works spanning 50 years of the artist's entire career. Many say Bacon is representative of figurative art of the 20th century. I would argue that he's actually somewhere in between figurative and abstract. The rooms are full of deforming monsters, screaming mouths, carcasses and blood. But all these images are mediums for profound emotions - fear of the abusive father, insecurity from the lack of formal training, and sorrow after the death of lovers... Ultimately, it comes to the abstract feeling of dread. Dread, or angst, as the existentialist philosophers would use, describes a non-directional intense emotion without a material threat. It's almost anxiety out of nothing. Margaret Thatcher once referred to Bacon as "that man who paints those dreadful pictures". But the painter didn't seems to find anything disturbing about it. For him, dread is part of human nature; it is the other side of truth. Confronting horror, one would have the strength to think optimistically. It's only through mortality that one could understand the full meaning of life.


Bacon's paintings transcend figurative or abstract representations because his subject matter is not the object but sensation itself. Sensation, as Deleuze put it, is a plane of intensities that acts directly on the nervous system before meaning or reasoned cognition (which would be called perception). It is the opposite of representation or signification. Bacon usually gave his paintings very neutral titles. I think the intention was to avoid any definite interpretations and let sensation act directly upon the viewers. The anti-narration is also exemplified in his misuse of the triptych format - the panels must be separated to break the traditional sequential arrangement, and leave the ambiguity of relationship essential to the work.
Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Cruxifixion, 1944

One key method of Bacon's paintings is chance. "A mark you make suggests another mark," he described. Things just happen accidentally. In Painting (1946), for example, he started painting a gorilla in a corn field. Then he saw a preying bird. But suddenly a line suggested something totally different. He didn't prepare to paint a butcher shop, but when the valves of sensation was unlocked, a string of accidents just built up on top of one another.
Painting, 1946

Bacon did not use models for his portraits. He used photos, film stills, and magazine illustrations as visual references, but mainly painted directly with sensation. "They don't need to be there - I know them so well already. I prefer to be alone and let the paint dictate to me." No matter how distorted or altered, "it always returns to you as the person you are trying to catch." Why? This is a reinvented realism that transcends visuality and acts right on your nervous system.
Two Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer, 1968


The figures in Bacon's paintings are always in motion: drifting, spinning, vibrating, or falling. Motion suggests the shift of space and the passage of time. More importantly, it implies the progression of becoming - a dynamic dimension that opposes representation and identity.

To paint motion, Bacon played with the conflict between contraction and expansion of space and time. As in Study for Crouching Nude (1952), the box with white lines is called space-frame. This visual machine forms psychological confinement. The spare background (solid colors or even leaving the canvas blank) intensifies the zone of isolation. But the cage actually mobilizes the figure inside - it's struggling to escape. A series of radiant strokes and vertical lines (called shuttering) dissolve and merge foreground and background, figure and setting. At the same time, the lines suggest an expanding movement, as if the soul is trying to break the space-frame and escape from the body. The series of number on the rail was taken from Muybridge's time-lapse photographs. By putting them all in one frame, Bacon contracted time with expansion of space. And on the other hand, time unfolds with spatial displacement and motion of the figure.
Study for Crouching Nude, 1952

Bacon once said, "Nine-tenth of everything is inessential. What is called 'reality' can be summed up with so much less." Motion is a means to collapse space and time from multiplicity, and sum up reality into a singular plane of sensation. By dismantling the structured tempo-spatial organization, figurative illustration abbreviate into emotional intensity.

Afterword: The visit was an intense journey. On the way out to the street, I heard a girl talking on the phone, "Oh-my-god! I had my nails done! Soooo pretty!! Ah, I have to show you right now!"

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