The Brutality of Denial
Francis Bacon & Postmodernism


“Never before have there been so many gaping chasms between what the world seems to be and what science tells us it is…We ‘know’ a near-infinity of truths that contradict our immediate commonsense experience of the world. And yet we have to live and function in the world. So we abstract, compartmentalize: there’s stuff we know and stuff we ‘know.’ Viewed objectively, the whole thing is deeply schizoid; yet the fact of the matter is that as subjective lament we don’t often feel the conflict. Because of course our lives are 99.9% concretely operational, and we operate concretely on what we know, not on what we ‘know’.” 1
—David Foster Wallace

Francis Bacon

We live in an age wrought with desire, longing and deeply embedded fears. A time when, as David Foster Wallace says, we could become overwhelmed with the ‘known’ realities presented in 20th century scientific insight. Instead, we choose the concrete realities of classical physics and maintain our desires against this Real, by continuously feeding a collective denial, a denial of the Real. By Real I am using the Lacanian/Žižek definition—that state which is bound in pure relation to nature outside of language. In this postmodern, or as some suggest, post-postmodern time, the Real has been subjugated by the ironic. Expectations are set deliberately against the expected until they are lost in a haze of one ironic action on top of another. Wether it’s Maurizio Cattelan’s La Nona Ora or Sherrie Levine’s After Walker Evans, modern art reflects the societal attitude of a consumerist culture that believes more fully in corporate advertising than in the senses, more potently in ironic gesticulation than mindful apprehension of the Real. In the wake of modernism’s failed utopian ideologies and the presence of multiple end time scenarios, postmodernism becomes the art banner for a grand ironic joke. In this post WW II world, artistic expression has become a cultural ouroboros. Of this self-referential looping irony David Foster Wallace warned,

“…[M]ake no mistake: irony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit ‘I don’t really mean what I’m saying.’ So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it’s impossible to mean what you say? That maybe it’s too bad it’s impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: ‘How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean.’” 2

In the 21st century we are faced with multiple annihilation scenarios. Radiation from nuclear power plant leaks; mutually assured nuclear destruction; biological warfare; overpopulation; climate change and the end of oil all conspire to create a collective denial of the Real. These realities and choices conspire to oblate our perspective and render any choice nullified by the anxiety of not having made the right, world-saving one. Instead of making any choice, instead we find ourselves locked in the death grip of denial. This brutality of denial (and by brutality I mean that which leaves destructive outcomes and the anxiety of awareness intact) is sustained and nurtured through ironic gesture. The same ironic gesture that has taken the art world from explorations of existential dread (Jackson Pollock) to the superficiality of Pop kitsch (Warhol, et. al.) However, this current incarnation of postmodernist expression didn’t have to be. There was another form of postmodernism that emerged in the forties and was fostered in large part by the genius of the painter Francis Bacon. Bacon’s postmodernism, formed before the genesis of Pop and its disciples, was an anecdote to the grand joke. In Bacon’s work and in his life, he discovered an alternative to our current postmodern form by fully embracing the Lacanian/Žižek Real and controverting what would later become the one-liner paradigm of contemporary art. This essay will examine the art and life of Francis Bacon as a maverick postmodernist who has been misidentified and sometimes dismissed as a figurative expressionist painter. Instead Bacon was a revolutionary postmodernist, who shunned modernism’s utopian ideals and existential solipsism while tapping into the dark corners of the human psyche. A psyche living in a world of persistent overwhelming dread.

Postmodernism has become to modern philosophy what the Mise en abyme was to the Surrealists: an indefinable infinite loop. For this reason, postmodernism is the catchphrase for anything decidedly un-modern and a scapegoat for cynical expressions in pop culture. The term postmodernism is well defined by Gary Aylesworth in his essay of the same name;

“That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.” 3

First used as a term by Jean-François Lyotard in his 1979 publication, The Postmodern Condition the term has since been bandied about by philosophers art critics and pop culture alike. What is clear is what postmodernism is not. It is not abjectly surrealistic (suggesting alternative or shifted realities), absurdist (in the fashion of Dada), nor is it simplistic irony. In fact postmodernism as it is currently used and understood as a historical periodization takes on a self-destructive, almost nihilistic bent. This world of reality TV and celebrity simulacra is what defines American postmodernism and it has its roots in the Pop underpinnings of Andy Warhol. Warhol was one of the first to reject the notion that art provided advancement and knowledge to a culture. His art was a full embrace of cynicism with a proclivity toward nihilistic boredom. This American postmodernism is firmly seated in the dynamics of an emergent consumerist capitalism of the late 1950’s. When desire is bound in consumption you build a culture that finds everything interesting and boring simultaneously and therefore art is prevented from holding an objective position. If nothing is more interesting than anything else, then it is impossible for any one artist or work of art to teach us anything. As Warhol famously said; “An artist is somebody who produces things that people don’t need to have but that he, for some reason, thinks it would be a good idea to give them.”4

The artist, as defined by Bacon is not just agent provocateur, but an interpreter of sensation, the sensation that is otherwise lost in our distracted, electronically mediated lives. Bacon once said of Warhol; “Generally speaking, Warhol had good subjects, he knew how to choose them very well; but his problem, basically, was that what he was doing was realism, simple realism, and in the end it didn’t lead to anything very interesting.”5 When Francis Bacon told David Sylvester in 1962 that painting had the potential to escape narrative, he was expressing a deliberative, yet non-ironic postmodern idea. He was acknowledging that painting, at its best, can function within the ‘real’ as Lacan defines the Real, “the domain of whatever subsists outside symbolisation”.6 This idea that art, (oil painting), can escape language (the symbolic) while focusing on abstracted portraiture, was revolutionary. Cézanne and Duchamp initiated this shift. Cézanne as the precursor to Cubism and his elimination of single point perspective, (as seen in his obsessive studies of Mount St. Victoire) and Duchamp in The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even. Francis Bacon also believed that paint, due to its simulation of flesh, was best able to relay direct sensation to an audience because it was grounded in the body. “Flesh and meat are life!”7 Bacon’s optimism in the face of 20th century trauma was a result of his emancipation from the psychosis of irony. Unlike postmodern artists in America (Johns, Rauscenberg, et. al.), irony was seen by Bacon as an unnecessary layer serving only to conceal sensation. As the critic Robert Hughes puts it; “The paint acquires a wonderful plenitude in becoming flesh. This kind of paint surface is part of the work of delivering sensations not propositions, and it is neither idly sumptuous nor ‘ironically’ sexy.”8 By fully embracing Amor fati, he was able to capture in brush strokes the jouissance of living. This is Lacan’s jouissance of extremes, the path that, “starts with a tickle and ends up bursting into flames,”9 the painting that Francis Bacon pursued throughout his life absent of pathos or irony. It is this postmodernism that sits in stark contrast to the American postmodernism of Warhol that would come to dominate the art landscape, and which still haunts us today, that is my focus here. How did Bacon arrive at this unique postmodern form? How did a self-taught painter and life-long atheist with a devotion to rough sex, heavy drinking, and gambling end up using portrait painting as an un-ironic postmodern form? The answer, I will later reveal, lies in the potent combination of his sybaritic lifestyle, his unbreakable work-ethic, his commitment to Lacan’s jouissance and ultimately his return to the renaissance transmogrification of paint into flesh.  

This was an embrace of a true postmodern idea, the removal of narrative as a form of communication and a move toward direct sensation. This dissolution of the narrative is key to understanding Bacon in the light of later postmodernism. Different in terms of what is now considered the postmodern nom de guerre, Pop Art, specifically that of Andy Warhol’s. Warhol’s postmodernism, as the art historian Beth Wilson explains, was a cynical expression,

“Andy Warhol was the consummate postmodern artist. He began his career in the 1950s as an extremely successful commercial advertising artist. When he shifted his attention in 1960 to the production of fine art, he brought with him the structural logic of his commercial work, radically departing from the classic modernist convictions with which almost all high art had been operating up to that point. By systematically reversing the traditional values associated with painting, replacing uniqueness with seriality, and originality with reproducibility, Warhol strategically transposed art from its historical attachment to what Walter Benjamin termed “cult value” to its postmodern apotheosis as a manifestation of “exhibition value.” In fact, Warhol’s work is incomprehensible without taking into account its media context. His concern with media permeated not only his art, but his life as well, as he crafted perhaps the most banal yet fascinating public persona in history. He was once quoted in an interview as saying, “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface: of my paintings, and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.””10

Looking to Fredric Jameson’s seminal dialogue on postmodernism, Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, we can unravel this difference between the postmodern ideology of Warhol, et. al. and Francis Bacon. Jameson described the postmodern condition largely in terms of its political implications but he framed the enigmatic qualities of postmodern thought as well. Although it is often spoken of that Bacon represented trauma, fear and horror, the implications of sensation as a meaningful 20th century cultural relationship to such is often glossed over as a response to WW II, or violence, which Bacon perpetually denied. Instead, Bacon’s ideas on trauma are based in the fabric of paint’s physicality and thereby stand in contrast to what Jameson here describes as the fixation on trauma within the dominant form of postmodernism;

“…[T]here cannot but be much that is deplorable and reprehensible in a cultural form of image addition which, by transforming the past into visual mirages, stereotypes, or texts, effectively abolishes any practical sense of the future and of the collective project, thereby abandoning the thinking of future change to fantasies of sheer catastrophe and inexplicable cataclysm, from visions of “terrorism” on the social level to those of cancer on the personal.”11

As Jameson described it, postmodernism under American consumer capitalism, builds an addiction to simulation and images to the point of psychosis. This is, in part, why Bacon was reticent to witness Velásquez ‘s Portrait of Pope Innocent X in Rome, even though he spent a month wondering the Vatican in 1961. Bacon’s relationship to these photographic records is fraught with contradiction, but it is clear he understood a power within them which gave him access to previous painting in a new way. Bacon said; “Photographs are only of interest to me as records.”12 He was suspicious of the simulacra that was being constructed and our addiction to imagery as an ironic gesture. Bacon believed deeply in the power of pigment by virtue of its materiality. Even his relationship to photographs was physical, tearing, ripping, bending and reforming them and discarding them like jetsam on the beachhead of his Reece Mews studio. Using substances that are literally a physical part of our being was a subconscious strategy, connecting us to a deeper level of sensation. We react the way we do to Bacon paintings, not because of their depicted distress, or violent apparitions but because we grasp them on some genetic level, the implications present in the psychology and materiality of pigment itself. This is the true Real that Lacan speaks of and Slavoj Žižek so clearly describes here:

“The Real is thus the disavowed X on account of which our vision of reality is anamorphically distorted; it is simultaneously the Thing to which direct access is not possible and the obstacle which prevents this direct access, the thing which eludes our rasp and the distorting screen which makes us miss the Thing. More precisely, the Real is ultimately the very shift of perspective from the first standpoint to the second…This means that, ultimately, the status of the Real is purely parallactic and, as such, non-substantial: [it] has no substantial density in itself, it is just a gap between two points of perspective perceptible only in the shift from the one to the other. “13

Bacon was distinctly different from Pop Art’s form of postmodern aesthetic in that he denied the idea of repetition. Although Bacon often created series, such as his Heads or Pope series, the persistence was an effort at reaching the perfect form, not as repetition as an idea unto itself. Repetition as a supposed rupture between perception and consciousness as Warhol would have it, is false in Bacon’s worldview. Instead, Bacon is saying that perception is consciousness when we see paint as a neurological response outside of narrative, metaphor or linguistics. He said, “What is painted is sensation.”14 The plasticity of paint can escape the bounds of irony. In Bacon’s mind, irony is a denial of the senses and therefore of no real human value. Although he recognized the difficulty that art faced in the 20th century to continue to enrich the conversation, he did not find it impossible.

Paint as Flesh

“With Bacon the play of paint is for real. One imagines his special watchfulness as it throws up unthinkable kinds of resemblance. Time and again he is drawn into a fearful game of chicken — to stay with the paint at the perilous onset of likeness. It is played with the only stakes that are big enough to make it most exciting, the indisputable equivalence of paint as flesh.”15

—Lawrence Gowing

Flesh belongs to the “99.9%”16 that Foster Wallace spoke of in our everyday concrete existence. Flesh is a living organ that forms a loose barrier between the external world and our internal make up. It is both superficial and connected, translucent and reflective. In a world of ever diminishing direct physicality, we can ground ourselves in flesh in our response to touch. Thirty-thousand years ago paleolithic artists scratched pigment into rock-face and smeared clay on their bodies to connect earth into body. Paleolithic artists discovered the magical seating of imagery within the frame. Without a framing, anthropomorphic mimicry stood in the way of the necessary conditions to load art making with magical import. Adorned bodies or small objects remained part of the natural contour of experience because they remained unframed. Once the smooth calcite walls of remote caves were discovered, pigments shifted from the ground of the body to the wall, the frame. This forever and acutely shifted painting into the realm of the spiritual, the magical and the sublime. These are the origins of symbolism reinforced for eons and now commonplace from childhood. This symbolic representation is forever inextricably connected to pigment (paint) grounded within the frame of a wall. Joseph Lyons in his essay on Paleolithic aesthetics clearly elucidates this concept:

“Adults who see a painting on a wall are not likely to perceive its scene as part of the visual field to which the wall it-self belongs. Yet, they accomplish this trick of separating the larger from the smaller space without giving thought to the process as it occurs nor to the long development necessarily involved. Animals below the level of the higher apes apparently never learn to make the separation, as witness the inability of even intelligent dogs to respond appropriately to a two-dimensional representation such as a drawing or a TV picture. Within the human culture, the trick is learned by every growing child: finally, he comes to recognize each un-real representation of a known object, even if it is a never-seen view of a horse, colored green, and one-twenty-fifth the size of the real thing. In this way he grows into the typically human world, a world of symbols; and in the end, though he shares emotion with animals, he is alone in his possession of a “symbolic imagination.””17

Jan van Eyck’s’s discovery of linseed oil as a binder and siccative agent to dried pigments, freed artists from the previous flattening limitations of tempera and gesso. Leonardo da Vinci improved this method in the mid-15th century and it was passed on in secret amongst the great Quattrocento Renaissance masters. Titian perfected the layering of oil paint to create translucent qualities that emulated human flesh. The painter considered the sun amidst small stars connected the anthropological frame of paint as flesh with the religious sublime. Oil paint captured light in such a way that a paintings surface disappeared and the subject matter took on the simultaneous qualities of physical reality and the supernatural. Titian’s Portrait of Pope Paul III began a lineage of portrait painting that captured not just the uncanny physiognomy of the person, but the personality and its requisite psychological ramifications. This lineage from Raphael to El Greco and Diego Veláquez, provided a historical grounding for Bacon. This was his way of acknowledging the importance of paint’s conceptual capacity. Whereas Bacon’s predecessors found this content rooted in the spiritual and the religious, Bacon denied the metaphysical and grounded painting in the body.

What was truly postmodern about Bacon though, was his ability to dismantle the very techniques that gave him a foundation for the exploration of the psyche. He was not a fine painter of precisely layered oils but chose to paint on the backside of primed linen. This technique, supposedly discovered by accident, would have been heretical to a painter like Velásquez. Further, Bacon was loose with his paint-working to the point of smearing, rubbing out and often throwing paint against his canvases. So here we have Bacon’s use of a common subject matter (the pope) and a grounding in the methodology of oil paint to represent being, but the transcendental and spiritual is inverted in service to the psychological. This is not the same psychology of the mind that Pollock elevated modernism to its apex with, but the psychology of inner emotion that the old masters invented. Bacon recognized art making as a game, and he wished to deepen the mystery of that game, not subjugate it any symbolism. The postmodernism of Bacon is how he combined modernity (photographic reference, expressionistic painting technique, atheism and motion) with the distinctly classical (subject matter, oil painting as flesh and gilded frames). Bacon found a way to break the fourth wall of painting.

Francis Bacon’s fixation with Diego Velásquez was necessary if he was to reach true master status. If you wish to be a master, you must first copy one. Velásquez was arguably the greatest portrait painter in history and an unquestioned master of the transcendent capacity of oil painting. The verisimilitude of Velázquez’s portraits imbue them with a inimitable quality that pushes the body into an idealized space. This was no doubt the reason Velásquez was the chosen pet of King Philip IV. But the captivating component of Velázquez’s paintings for Bacon, was not merely their formal mastery but their conveyance of what Lacan would refer to as the objet petit a, or the mystical space of desire, that idea that confounds us to pure wanting. Žižek clearly defines Lacan’s definition; “objet petit a is precisely a kind of non-pathological a priori object-cause of desire, precisely a kind of quasi-transcendental object”.18 Bacon said of Velásquez; “You feel the shadow of life passing all the time.”19 To Bacon, that was not an reference to transcendence but recognition of what humans uniquely confront everyday and what separates us from the animal kingdom — our connection to and recognition of, our own mortality. Uniquely, Bacon managed to be seated within a violent existence from an early age, which kept him more aware of the cloak of mortality than most.

“I was brought to London during the war and spent quite a lot of time there, because my father was in the War Office then, and I was made aware of what is called the possibility of danger even at a very young age. Then I went back to Ireland and was brought up during the Sinn Fein movement…and we lived in a sandbagged house and, as I went out, these ditches were dug across the road for a car or horse-and-cart or anything like that to fall into, and there would be snipers waiting on the edges. And then, when I was sixteen or seventeen, I went to Berlin, and of course I saw the Berlin of 1927 and 1928 where there was a wide open city, which was, in a way, very, very violent…And After Berlin I went to Paris, and then I lived all those disturbed years between then and the war which started in 1939.”20

His early awareness of danger, the recognized fragility of the body and persistence of violent experiences forced Bacon to contend with death. Bacon internalized this trauma and paired it with his sexual blossoming to emulate jouissance. Pleasure at that moment became inextricably connected to pain, and the inevitability of death. The literal French translation of jouissance is enjoyment, but unlike plaisir, it is an enjoyment of the extreme. This idea of pleasure being pushed to the boundaries of pain, is precisely where Bacon preferred to be throughout his life and career. He acutely understood the dynamics of human uncertainty and the absurdities of our own existence and how that was manifested in this idea of jouissance. His lifestyle as well as his art was a pursuit of this idea. In a television interview he discussed his thoughts on this tenuous realm of human existence;

“Supposing I was satisfied with what I did? How can you be satisfied, because everything escapes you. You know that perfectly well. You know that even if you’re in love with somebody, everything escapes you. You want to be nearer that person, but how can you cut your flesh open and join with the other person? It’s an impossibility to do. So it tis with art. It is almost like a long affair with objects and images and sensation and what you would call the passions.”21

I’ll discuss further the implications of Lacanian jouissance later, but this forms an inseparable link between Bacon’s ideas on the physicality of paint and his own psychological strata. Bacon needed a medium with maximum tactile properties and maximum psychological implications. The Paleolithic framing of painting and the unique light-bearing qualities of oil painting together gave Bacon access to expressing pure sensation outside of the object. The body was in constant motion to Bacon, so sculpture would not have satisfied his need to create a faux-cinematic gesture as he could with the free flowing qualities of paint. Nor could the static, suspended in time, nature of photography. Only paint allowed Bacon to seat the post-war psychosis of modern living into postmodern expression.

Historical Pope Paintings

Photography’s genesis poisoned the well of painting’s dominating narrative with its ready-made simulation of object reality, flattened and pure. As visual creatures we readily abandoned the binding force of pigment in exchange for the fantasy of photography. With the rise of industrialism, photography offered a new kind of magical realism that ungrounded us from painting’s legacy and bound us to a new machine virtual. For the first time in human history, tactile surface was subjugated. When Bacon saw photos of Velásquez’s painting Portrait of Pope Innocent X, he recognized the power of paint to convey psychology. Having only seen printed replicas of the original painting, Bacon had the convenience of being free from the splendor of the actual surface, allowing him to plumb the psychological implications of paint itself. At first blush, one painter’s understanding of another’s mastery through reproduction must appear contradictory and misguided. If Bacon had seen Velázquez’s mastery of technique first hand, it might have rendered him incapacitated and feeling overwhelmed, in turn forcing him to avoid ever recreating the forty-five screaming Pope portraits. By limiting his own exposure to the Velásquez portrait, he narrowed rather than widened the distance between the two. The postmodern component of Francis Bacon here is his subversion of reproduction and repetition. Sensation to Bacon isn’t limited to the immediate world, but includes imagery of that world, past and present. All inputs are fair game for interpreting and realizing sensation. The photographic allowed him the psychic distance he personally needed to understand the original’s power, without being subsumed by its majesty. As an object, a photograph also gave Bacon access to physical manipulation of the image. His maceration of photographic reference material gave it a physicality he could then translate into paint. By painting what he saw, meaning not just the physical exterior of the person who sat before him, but the metaphysical expression of that person as well, Velásquez captured the pure sensation of Pope Innocent X. The connective tissue of that conveyance was paint. Paint as flesh. Bacon inverted this as a postmodern idea that living and dying are nullified by our simulations of both. The scientific concepts of relativity and quantum mechanics shifted the 20th century into a different understanding of space/time than Velásquez’s (although arguably, Las Meninas predicted within the limitations of classical physics some of the dynamics inherent in quantum mechanics through its use of mirrors). Bacon’s space is both curved (relativity) and fractured and disorienting (quantum). Photographs, especially Muybridge’s, gave Bacon a way of meshing the structure of cubism and the warping of time held in surrealism with cinematic motion to define the shifting nature of space/time. Velásquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X, contained a clearly defined space with the gold chair, creating a frame, thereby remaining firmly within classical painting’s tradition. Bacon in contrast, uses streaks that mimic television scan lines or warped platforms that appear smaller than the pope figure atop them. The pope figure itself often does the unimaginable, pushing paint in a way that even after solidified appears still in motion. One could describe it as cinematic, but that would be a conceit, because cinema is in essence, 24 frames of still photography per second. Flat, static photography. Paint on the other hand, shifts over time due to the nature of the reflected spectrum in contrast to cinema’s projected light. Bacon’s realization of paint’s efficacy in producing such an effect is nothing short of profound and often the one thing, particularly in the pope portraits, that is lost amongst the conversation that is misdirected by the scream. This is the intuition of genius that can only be defined by proprioception, that innate ability to understand the kinesthetic possibilities of paint as a representation of our own perpetual movement. Bacon describes this kinesthetic conflict:

“Painting materials are in themselves abstract, but painting isn’t only the material, it’s the result of a sort of conflict between the material and the subject. There’s a kind of tension there, and I feel that abstract painters eliminate one of the two sides of this conflict right from the start: the material alone dictates its forms and its rules. I think that that is a simplification. I also find that the human figure with its constant changes is very important. Abstraction has never been enough for me; it has never satisfied me. It seems to me that abstraction basically reduced painting to something purely decorative.”22

The Pope is symbolic to most because he represents the Catholic Church and an embodiment of political power. What Velásquez saw was not just (or perhaps not at all) the one arbiter of the voice of God (Pope Innocent X), but the man who sat in the chair. Study for a Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1965No matter his eminence’s stature, he was a man composed of flesh and blood, reified by delicate layers of pigment suspended in linseed oil. Bacon reduced this more plainly, because he was free of religious symbolism. To him, the Pope represented a human embodiment of glorified horror and psychosis, nothing more. Both painters knew pigment was earth and therefore a direct corollary to the body, to matter. The difference lay in Bacon’s denial of symbolic spirituality. His appropriation of the pope was a way of symbolically assimilating Velásquez’s powers as a father-figure painter, and exemplar master of the form. Just as with his crucifixions, Bacon used the pope from Velásquez as an ideal in painting and a way at describing a particular kind of sensation. Bacon said of his own Portrait of Pope Innocent X;

“Can you analyze the difference, in fact, between paint, which conveys directly and paint which conveys through illustration? This is a very, very difficult problem to put into words. It is something to do with instinct. It’s a very, very close and difficult thing to know why some paint comes across directly onto the nervous system and other paint tells you the story in a long diatribe through the brain.”23

Confusing for many who view Francis Bacon paintings, and probable cause for the persistent dismissals of American art critics, is Bacon’s un-ironic approach to the sublime in painting. Whereas Chaïm Soutine was seen by de Kooning as a precursor to Abstract Expressionistic painting, Bacon saw Soutine as an example of how the subject and the handling of the paint were equally important. He didn’t want to fragment painting into a decorative expression of existential crisis, he wanted to use paint as flesh to embody the trauma of everyday reality living within us all. This is not to deny the importance of de Kooning, Pollock, et al., despite Bacon’s disparaging remarks toward them and abstract painting, but rather recognize the split that occurred between the American post-war approach to painting and Bacon’s. Bacon was firmly distancing himself from Modernism. Francis Bacon incorporated the Real as an expression of the body couched in the magnificent beauty of our meaningless existence. Gilles Deleuze in his book The Logic of Sensation makes this distinction between sensation in Bacon and the modernism of abstraction:

And positively, Bacon constantly says that sensation is what passes from one order to another, from one level to another, from one area to another. This is why sensation is the master of deformations, the agent of bodily deformations. In this regard, the same criticism can be made against both figurative painting and abstract painting: they pass through the brain, they do not act directly upon the nervous system, they do not attain the sensation, they do not liberate the Figure—all because they remain at one and the same level.24

For Francis Bacon, all of life remains intact and cumulative until death, as it is and nothing more—pure sensation. His painting sought to unravel the paradox of mind/body through a pursuit of painted jouissance. This is and was a distinctly postmodern position. The emergence and primacy of Pop Art has deepened the mind/body delusion, rather than unravel it. Lyotard describes the birth of postmodernism as the beginning of a cultural fragmentation and pluralism. Violence, after Hiroshima, transcended the raw, up-close and personal sensibility it had retained for millennia. Americans, unable to ground this newfound reality of potential mass extinction and their complicity in it, devised ways of concealing the horror, our sensation. Francis Bacon created a different postmodern strategy, one that dealt with our fears directly by reinvigorating our connection to sensation through our own anthropology. Life was always violent to Bacon, and he experienced that first as a child, and then in the pursuit of rough sex and the company of thugs, thieves and drug addicts. He fully embraced the randomness of quantum existence and found in paint, the ability to work quite literally with matters shifting presence. He backwards engineered the Real through physical manipulations of a simulation — photography. It would not be hyperbole to suggest Bacon saw little distinction between the painted figures he put to canvas and the realities of every day living. All were a commingled series of sensations that formed a precise reality.

Jouissance & Trauma

The rise of Naziism and the trauma of WW II created a schism in the steady progression of the Avant-garde. Instantaneous mass annihilation fractured the human narrative. A psychic abyss opened up, forever destroying the illusory underpinnings of logic held by humanity before the bomb. It was becoming much clearer, that what Bacon had foretold in his 1944 painting, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, was that humanity is an accident, and a horrifying one at that. Bacon’s atheism freed him from the constraints of religious symbolism and as Milan Kundera puts it; “even the great subject of the Crucifixion, which used to concentrate within itself the whole ethics, the whole religion, indeed the whole history of the West, becomes in Bacon’s hands a simple physiological scandal.”25 Unlike the Abstract Expressionists of the New York School, Bacon had witnessed the aftermath of war first hand, “sometimes having to pull dead or mangled bodies from the wreckage.”26 This pushed Bacon away from any internal existential struggle and firmly into the expressive dynamic of making the body the center of human debate. Humanity wasn’t manifested through the open-ended machinations of drips and flowing paint, but through the morphology of the body. It is in the acceptance of the absoluteness of death the dominating postmodernism of Francis Bacon was derived. He said just months before his death;

“Life and death go hand in hand in any case, don’t they? Death is like the shadow of life. When you’re dead you’re dead, but while you’re alive, the idea of death pursues you. Perhaps it’s normal for people to have this feeling when looking at my paintings. It rather surprises me because on the whole I’m an optimist, but in the end why not?”27

The first forty years of Bacon’s life were filled with destruction and decadence. Bacon chose not to take an absurdist position, nor did he embrace one of bleakness. Instead he embraced an absolutely guiltless, optimistic atheism. “I’m optimistic about absolutely nothing”28 he was famous for saying. In other words he was optimistic about the abyss, the very idea of emptiness. At the core of this seemingly paradoxical viewpoint was Bacon’s connection to Lacan’s notion of jouissance, a biochemical expression that inextricably links our neurological impulses to both pain and pleasure (the very same brain chemistry, primarily dopamine and endorphins, produce feelings of either pain or pleasure). Lacan’s is a psychological precept that deals with the dynamic revealed first in Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, where the duality of pain/pleasure is examined. Lacan, however distinguished himself from Freud by suggesting the dynamic between pain and pleasure is indistinguishable, irrevocably tethered. Two Figures, 1953Libido and sexuality for Lacan are tied to the Freudian concept of the Death Drive, that inner desire to return to our biological beginnings — return to the earth. The idea of jouissance is distinguished however, from libidinal desires which Lacan saw as fantasies, or symbolic. Instead, jouissance occupies a special place that sits in opposition to the biological, as if a germ implanted in us to work against our own biological tendencies. This idea of jouissance, of contraindicative behavior against our biological imperatives brings with it a certain knowledge and that knowledge serves as a mirror, a reflection of truth as its opposite. It is at the core of what gives us meaning. Jacques-Alain Miller elaborates:

“To say that knowledge is the means of jouissance is to say that even as it works towards its articulation, knowledge continuously produces and reflects the loss of jouissance, and thus jouissance flows under the signifier. Henceforth, this jouissance that flows under the signifier is the equivalent of meaning. This is what will lead Lacan to speak of jouis-sens, enjoy-meant, in the sense of meaning enjoyed. Henceforth, truth as the meaning of the signifier appears as the parent of this metonymical jouissance.”29

The onset of early childhood asthma and allergies formed the rough ground to see existence as perpetual suffering for Bacon. Ianthe Knott, his only surviving sibling until 2009, spoke of his difficulties breathing and the torture of an asthmatic living amongst horses and dogs.30 Rejected by his father who often beat him and suffering from acute asthma, Bacon experienced personal trauma from a very early age. The family was living on an English estate during the inception of the IRA in Ireland and was under the constant threat of violence as outsiders. Ianthe spoke of the constant threat of the IRA burning every other English farm to the ground; “I think ours was the only house that wasn’t burned”31 Bacon’s father, a Major and veteran of two Boer Wars, was the antithesis of Francis. Eddy Bacon was a horse trainer in Ireland and bet on horses, a cynical and impudent act looked down upon by other horse trainers. He also banned alcohol from the house and left the children largely in the Victorian charge of a nanny. His stark Protestantism, and strict discipline must have placed him at tremendous odds with his weak, sensitive, artistic and homosexual child. The brutal, austere remnants of Bacon’s childhood remained present throughout his life but retained a particular sting while his father was still alive. This family dynamic manifested jouissance in two key ways. On one hand, Bacon admitted to being attracted to his father sexually.32 On the other, at the apex of his father’s frustration, a family friend, Harcourt-Smith was employed to take Bacon to Berlin, the aim to expose him to a model of masculinity. Instead, Harcourt-Smith turned his sexual prowess on Francis himself.33 These two pieces of Bacon’s teenage life shaped a concept of life firmly couched in jouissance. Sexual attraction was forever linked with violence— paternal violence (masochism) and literal punishment (sadism). Bacon went directly from a sexually repressive, violent overbearing childhood into the absolute open decadence of a Weimar Berlin, where nearly anything was permissible. He learned very early on about the extremes of pleasure and pain and accepting struggle was a core of human existence. This volition, this parallax of competing ideas between a desire to be loved, and sexual violence would form the foundation of Bacon’s postmodernism. His strategy was to destabilize cultural senses of normalcy, and the Real. It wasn’t just Bacon’s sense of otherness in his own homosexuality, but the inextricable relationship his particular sexual experiences shared, very early on, with violence. He understood by the time he was 17 that he was not going to die from his personal intersections with violence, and even more importantly, those experiences were triggering something deeply erotic and hyper-sexualized that revealed a visual truth unique only to Bacon. Again, Žižek explains this Lacanian psychoanalytic principle:

“Within psychoanalysis, this knowledge of drive which can never be subjectivized assumes the form of knowledge of the subject’s “fundamental fantasy,” the specific formula which regulates his or her access to jouissance. That is to say, desire and jouissance are inherently antagonistic, exclusive even: desire’s raison d’etre (or “utility function,” to use Richard Dawkins’s term) is not to realize its goal, to find full satisfaction, but to reproduce itself as desire. How is it possible nonetheless to couple desire and jouissance, to guarantee a minimum of jouissance within the space of desire? This is made possible by the famous Lacanian object a that mediates between the incompatible domains of desire and jouissance.”34

Francis Bacon was expressing raw sexuality in his work at a time when homosexual sex was still illegal in England and culturally unacceptable throughout much of the world. This open homosexual behavior (cruising dark allies and wearing lipstick) fueled the jouissance Bacon was exploring. He courted the danger that being openly homosexual brought with it at the time. He maintained his family connections in his relationship with the older, paternal Eric Hall and by living with his childhood nanny, Jessie Lightfoot. He replaced the absence of a loving father with the paternal relationship of Eric Hall, which steadied him not only financially and in terms of moral support, but provided a stable outlet from which to explore his homosexual attraction to his father. With the death of his nanny, Jessie Lightfoot, he let go completely of his father figure compulsions and move more into the seat of a father-figure himself, successively dating younger and younger men until his death. The death of his nanny and the chaos and destruction of war lent a liberating focus to Bacon’s work. The self-imposed chaos of lurid parties, gambling, drinking and chance encounters with men became less important in the wake of all-out armageddon. This was Bacon’s comfort zone, the organized chaos and predictable violence of mankind. It fit neatly into his childhood understanding of persistent external violence (WW I and the IRA threat) and internal violence (beatings from Eddy Bacon). His sexual excitement toward his father was connected deeply with rejection and brutality but also sexual desire. Bacon sought to control these forces of chaos himself by seeking relationships with men that continually elevated his understanding of jouissance as way of life. With Jessie’s death in April of 1951, traumatized he moved many times over the successive ten years. He began to pull away from his father-figure and lover Eric Hall at this time as well. Around late 1951 Bacon moved in with two friends Peter Pollock and Paul Danquah who lived in Battersea. At the same time he met an ex-fighter pilot Peter Lacy whose extreme sadism attracted Bacon. This was a turning point that opened Bacon up to realize the power of jouissance in his painting. He used the photographs of Muybridge to emulate the fusion of bodies in time and space in sexual concourse and the wild animals he observed on a recent visit to Rhodesia (South Africa). He was moving out of the direct horror and macabre of earlier work and into a newer space where jouissance could be more fully realized in the contained spaces of his new cinematic expressions. Lacy offered a potent cocktail of sexual sadism and youthful vigor (he was younger than Bacon). For the first time in Bacon’s life he had broken the bonds of paternalism and was nearly free of outside financial support (his paintings were selling for an extraordinary price of £400 – £600 each, approximately £9,000 to £13,000 in today’s currency). During this time Bacon painted anonymous men in bars, men coupled and his famous Pope series of studies. Whether it was exorcising demons from his past or fully realizing himself, Bacon moved fully into the postmodern expression of jouissance. Sex was cruelty, especially with Lacy and painting was a tool for externalizing this splintering of norms. Bacon began to fully realize painting as sensation. He understood how to transmit this mix of psychology, brutality and sexuality through a focus on figuration. Georges Bataille gives insight into this notion of figuration, mortality and sex;

“We only know our own sensations, not those of the other…The sensations of the sexual act themselves have a provocative agreement with figures. The sensation exhibits the true object of desire (but the object of desire is itself an exhibit of the sensation). The tepidness of rain in the [brambles? rosebushes?], the dull fulguration of the storm, evoke both the figure and the inner sensation of eroticism. The smoothness, the tumescence, the milky flow of feminine nudity anticipate a sensation of liquid outpour, which itself opens onto death like a window onto a courtyard. But it is human to search, from lure to lure, for a life that is at last autonomous and authentic.”35

Humans are  members of the bestiary and sex is our closest link to that existence. Bacon’s paintings focused on the ecstatic moments’ relationship to death. Sensation at its height was violence. Sexual ecstasy lives in the space between living and dying, Le petite mort. Persisting this state between the noumenal and the phenomenological artistically is a core operation of postmodern thought because it fractures the narrative. Bacon fully accepted the wisdom of learning to die and used the pain of his asthma and the difficulty of his relationships as a foil for his painting. He thrust this idea of jouissance against the physicality of flesh, reducing us all to meat, and translating the ecstatic moment—sensation, into a visual expression or the literal and metaphorical violence of confronting the awareness of our own mortality.

“Eroticism always entails a breaking down of established patterns, the patterns, I repeat, of the regulated social order basic to our discontinuous mode of existence as defined and separate individuals… The stirrings within us have their own fearful excesses; the excesses show which way these stirrings would take us. They are simply a sign to remind us constantly that death, the rupture of the discontinuous individualities to which we cleave in terror, stands there before us more real than life itself.”36

Bacon and Bernini

Bacon’s true genius was realizing through an expression of jouissance the fundamentals of what would later grow into postmodern ironies. He expressed with paint how human violence had reached an apex that nullified its significance and left the only alternative an embrace of jouissance. Bacon never one to deny his connections to the sensations of the Real, fully embraced them instead. Unlike the postmodernism that grew out Warhol’s silkscreened, star-fucking irony, Bacon’s postmodernism grew out of a full acceptance of decadence. Fredric Jameson astutely describes what became the Warhol prescribed form of postmodernism, as an embrace of the absence of decadence:

“One would have thought that the world of headphones and Andy Warhol, of fundamentalism and AIDS, of exercise machines and MTV, yuppies and books on postmodernism, punk hair-dos and fifties’-style crewcuts, the “loss of historicity” and the éloge of schizophrenia, the media and obsessions with calcium and cholesterol, the logic of “future shock” and the emergence of scientists and counter-insurgency strike forces as new types of social groups, would have all the qualifications to pass for ripely decadent in the eyes of any sensible Martian observer; but it is corny to say so, and one of the other tactical achievements of the postmodern discursive system lives in the relegation of the lauditor temporis acti to the storeroom of no longer very plausible or believable literary characters.”37

In 1965 on the day of Bacon’s first retrospective at the Tate in London, he received a telegram informing him of the sudden death, in Tangiers, of his most intense love, Peter Lacy who drank himself to death. The very same thing repeated itself in 1970 with another lover George Dyer, who died on a toilet in a Paris hotel the morning of Bacon’s Grand Palais retrospective, of a drug overdose from Tuinal, Bacon’s prescription sleeping pills. Bacon’s response to this experience sums up his notion on trauma;  “although one’s never exorcized, because people say you forget about death, but you don’t…time doesn’t heal. But you concentrate on something which was an obsession, and what you would have put into your obsession with the psychical act you put into your work.”38

There is another important parallax Bacon established early on, focusing on male power and the reception and subsequent agony associated with it. It is not just the purely sexual focus on the open mouth that Bacon seems to begin to contemplate, it is the deep psychological layering that can be drawn from working with mouths. In fact this is likely part of the reason Bacon was fascinated with Velásquez’s Pope Innocent painting. He often remarked how much he adored the coloration of Velásquez’s mouths. There was erotic beauty in the redness of the lips and the openness of the mouth. Bacon himself was known to frequently don lipstick as a prop of his own dandyism.39 On the other hand, the mouth represented a point of deeply held expression. It is the vehicle with which we communicate and the locus of the scream. The mouth also contains teeth and the ability to bite and inflict damage. Ever since his viewing of the Battleship Potemkin in 1935, Bacon was inured by the screaming mouth. The nurses’ mouth, agape in agony after being shot through the eye was a mirror of Bernini’s Ecstasty of St. Theresa. A single frame that captured the moment of jouissance, that ecstatic moment when the life force departs and endorphins overwhelm the pain centers of the body to produce an elevated death. Bacon saw in this frame a singular expression of jouissance, the actual moment of ecstatic death. The mouth is open in both a scream of pain and terror but also final release — release as in the moment of orgasm. The epitome of jouissance expressed by Lacanian thought as “some concrete, material object of need that assumes a sublime quality the moment it occupies the place of the Thing”40 However, Bacon was not representing abject violence in the way it has often been interpreted, but the violence in everyday existence — the violence of pure energy. This rapture was understood by Bacon in the form of his own rough, masochistic love and the decadent way in which he lived. The idea of jouissance wasn’t in the abstract, in the metaphysical, but in the real moment of release in the painful sex he engaged in with his male partners and the powerful hangovers he lived with the mornings he painted. His one-time housemate Paul Danquah speaks of Bacon’s sexual encounters: “He courted danger in sex. And he was aware of the pleasure of the pain and he was conscious of the excitement of extremes, whether being the punished or the punisher.”41 Bacon saw the confluence of the sublime and the Real seated in the body. Beginning with the phallus (Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion) moving through the mouth (Painting 1946, Head I, II & VI and Study after Velázquez) and resting in the full body (Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus), Bacon’s fixation on jouissance never ended. The landscape of the body was the connection to the Real and drawing from its sexual centers, Bacon was accessing those areas that could most expressively realize the sensation of jouissance.

In the later years of his painting, jouissance took on a bolder, more abstract gesture akin to ejaculation as seen in Jet of Water (1988). In fact contrary to many critical assessments of Bacon’s declining abilities in later years, he actually was at the height of his powers right up until his death in 1992. Always a brutally honest painter and a person fearless in the face of judgment or criticism, Bacon let go more and more of the constructs that served him in earlier work, stripping out the unessential elements in an attempt to approach the purest expression of jouissance he could. As the painter Barnaby Furnas puts it,

“The jet of water is not painted in a conventional sense, rather it’s splattered á la Jackson Pollock — it must have been done flat (no?) — which is analogous to the way real water would behave. This suggested to me the possibility of a kind of material realism, found in the employment of paint itself. Making paint a voodoo substance in its own right, devoid of the need to capture an image, which, as Bacon has said, was photography’s job anyway.”42

Jet of Water, 1988

Jet of Water is Bacon cutting painting down to its bare essentials. The body now is represented by a bodily act and the actual body is no longer needed. In fact if we take it a step further, the body has largely been removed in the conventional sense, from the act of painting as well, as the the controlled brush against canvas has been removed from the equation. Sensation is as direct as it can be, even to the point of removing brushwork. In his obsessive quest to remain true to chaos and ability and accident, he removed his deliberate hand from the equation. It could be said, in essence, he ejaculated directly on to the canvas transforming once and for all his love for the material body as flesh into the material body of paint as flesh. He was directly transmuting La petite mort to canvas in the same way it expressed itself in his bedroom —violent physicality, uncontrolled, free and beautiful. He was four years away from his own passing, and his intuitions regarding jouissance were reaching a level closer to full realization, both in life and in painting.

postmodern lifestyle

Openly homosexual long before it was acceptable, a heavy drinker and a life-long gambler, he embraced fully the Lyotard form of postmodernism; that multiple options exist simultaneously and ironic expression is both oppressive and normal. Lyotard said, “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.”43 In postmodern existence the grand themes or narratives of ethics and history no longer apply because we have fractured them by centering our lives between scientific methodology and absolute meaning, which fragments reality and forces us into a brutal denial, taking the form of looping ironic gesture. Lyotard asserts science is essentially a language game (ever more so with our current reliance on programming language). If empirical truth’s ultimate outcome is self-annihilation (atomic weaponry, et al.) then the language of science (modernity) becomes a compartmentalization of knowledge that inevitably destroys itself. Postmodernism defies this logic by questioning the irrationality of these metanarratives. Lyotard explains,

“What, then, is the postmodern? What place does it or does it not occupy in the vertiginous work of the questions hurled at the rules of image and narration? It is undoubtedly a part of the modern… What space does Cézanne’s challenge? The Impressionists’. What object do Picasso and Braque attack? Cézanne’s. What presupposition does Duchamp break with in 1912? That which says one must make a painting, be it cubist…In an amazing acceleration, the generations precipitate themselves. A work can become modern only if it is first postmodern. Postmodernism thus understood is not modernism at its end but in the nascent state, and this state is constant.”44

Much has been written about the trauma, agony and violence within Bacon’s work, and yet many remain confused by Bacon’s devout subjugation and inversion of symbolism and his deliberately ambiguous responses about his work. Few examine his lifestyle as the true precursor to his postmodern expression. The zoologist and surrealist painter, Desmond Morris knew Francis Bacon and understood Bacon’s lifestyle was really the root of his painterly expression.

“Others may see in this screaming face a reflection of the agonies of war-torn Europe, a statement about the horrors of modern existence, or the entrapment and isolation of modern man in his urban cell. I see nothing of the sort. I see a devout masochist enjoying the thrill of encapsulating the secret joys of his most private moments. The great mystery about Bacon’s work is why this lifelong fetishistic indulgence should have resulted in the creation of such truly great art. But then mystery is the very essence of art. As Picasso once said: “I don’t understand it and if I did, I wouldn’t tell you.”45

7 Reece Mews, Kensington

In the 1950’s two divergent postmodern paths lay before practicing artists. On one hand, there was Francis Bacon’s postmodernism, an overt exploration of sensation through a reinvigorated, loosely expressionist form of figurative painting. On the other, Andy Warhol’s self-immolating postmodernism, rooted in the hegemony of capitalism and embracing a cynical irony. In the wake of a war-torn Europe, wealthy America entered the 1950’s nearly unscathed and oblivious to much of the insanity of WW II. Soldiers that returned from Europe and the Pacific wanted to forget and were quickly provided tremendous incentives to do so in the GI Bill, wealthy America rewarded violence with capitalist outcomes — education, housing and business loans. English culture in the 20th century knew no such outcome. England, particularly London where Bacon lived the greater part of his life, was devastated. The thought of England dominating the cultural zeitgeist was outside their comprehension, and therefore outside the art world’s. The art world’s center was re-situated in New York with the dominance of the Abstract Expressionists. England’s empire was dead and left in ruins and with it their cultural importance. It would take decades before even Bacon was recognized outside of Britain, let alone David Hockney or Lucien Freud. Meanwhile, the New York art world embraced a kind of nihilistic postmodernism that has seen obfuscation and diminution of Bacon, in exchange for the hyper-kitsch of Jeff Koons. This unfortunate embrace has in turn led to our decidedly self-destructive posture as a culture. Worse, because American culture through its imperial extensions, now dominates the world, our form of postmodern aesthetic is the dominant one. This is a new kind of abstraction; the abstraction bound by ironic gesture. We have silenced the senses in favor of the cynical. The philosopher J. M. Bernstein sums this up by saying;

“Delegitimating sensory knowledge takes with it the sensible world. It is not too much of a stretch to see the abstraction from particularity and sensory givenness as the abstractive device of modern forms of social reproduction: the subsuming of the use values or particular goods beneath the exchange value of monetary worth, or the domination of intersubjective practices by norms of instrumental reason that yield the rationalization or bureaucratization of our dominant institutions. Somehow the advance of the modern world, its enlightenment, is the advance of the process of abstraction and the domination of the qualitative by the quantitative. This of course is both a utopia and a nightmare.”46

We are constantly bombarded by stimulation that pushes us further into Baudrillard’s simulacra. We are fixated on staying younger, and in turn bastardize the body with plastic surgery and permanent makeup. Our violence is projected outward and is only understood in terms of simulation (video games) or simulacra (television/internet). The art world has in turn embraced the mediums reinforcing our own dominating paradigms — photography and video art. Painting is mainly seen as quaint and irrelevant art form. Rather than embrace the conjunction of the mind and body, we deny the mind and embrace a hyper-realized and idealized body. Even when painting is embraced as a medium, it is more often than not in the Warhol tradition of decoration, pattern and flatness (with the exception of John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage, who have denatured painting as an ironic gesture akin to velvet Elvis paintings). In contrast, Bacon used figurative painting as a way of confronting the Real of post-war Europe and his own suffering. He chose an incredulity toward metanarratives as opposed to their American embrace. Paint wasn’t facile or quaint to Bacon, but a natural extension of flesh due to its material properties and historical seat. It also offered a way past the one-liner mentality of American postmodernism by offering a pathway to immortality that would perpetuate Bacon’s own physicality. Painting was the ultimate gesture of fully realized jouissance because it lived on outside the artist in enigmatic perpetuity. “I think that only time tells about painting…. I think that the potency of the image is created partly by the possibility of its enduring. And, of course, images accumulate sensation around themselves the longer they endure.”47 What he discovered about painting was its ability to capture the inexpressible, the unexplainable found in everyday life. It was his way of providing others an opportunity to escape the oppression of modern life by accessing the sensations of the Real.

It wasn’t as if Francis Bacon ignored the interdependence of high culture on low, as Pop Art did, because he lived it. Equally at home in a museum or book store as he was in a seedy London social club or back room gambling establishment, he found no contradiction in their mutual presence in his daily life. He painted Popes and socialites as well as drug addicts with egalitarianism. This mirrored the way he lived. His last flat at 7 Reece Mews in the Kensington district of London was an unimproved tenement. Bacon said of this flat, “People think I live grandly you know, but in fact I live in a dump.”48 Although neatly kept, the two-story dwelling was never improved in the entire thirty-one years of his living there. Raw light bulbs hung from the ceiling and a ship’s cordage formed a makeshift railing while climbing an incredibly steep staircase to his second floor studio. Basic wooden counters enclosed an ancient and small gas stove used for cooking. The walls of his kitchen were made of pine clapboarding with a white wash. The kitchen served double duty as the bath with a simple dresser and tub sitting across from the sink and refrigerator. His legendary studio space was of course an expression of working chaos. So much so, that it was literally cut from the house after the artist’s death and situated permanently in the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin, as an archeological artifact. In this tenement dwelling Bacon would imbibe from bottles of vintage Krug or use Château Pétrus (an elite French Bordeaux) in his cooking. Living to Bacon was not an ironic joke but a very real experience that required persistent re-acquaintance. Dwellings were necessary for eating, sleeping and working but comfort was a conceit that led to relaxing, something he didn’t understand. He said of vacationing; “I can’t imagine lying on the seashore, for instance, for hours like people can do, with the dumb satisfaction that the sun is shining on them. That I couldn’t do at all.”49 There was a serious pragmatism to Bacon’s life that allowed for the natural confluence of things and life’s perpetual uncertainty. The tidy but run-down flats allowed him to maintain autonomy, never hiring a servant, despite his enormous wealth. He did his own shopping and dropped his laundry off himself at local Kensington dry cleaners. He preferred buses and the tube over taxis. Despite his austere lifestyle, Bacon wasn’t stingy. He tipped bartenders and taxi drivers lavishly and would frequently buy rounds at Muriel’s in Soho or host lavish dinner parties at his favorite seafood restaurant Wheeler’s. Drinking was another piece of this form of living that likely helped to quiet his dealings with sensation. Bacon’s constitution was legendary in Kensington and both John Edwards and David Sylvester who were close to Bacon for years spoke of his ability to drink all afternoon and late into the night then rise early to paint the next day. David Sylvester, a London art critic who met Bacon in 1952, sums up Bacon’s attitude toward drinking by relaying a story:

“His love of alcohol seemed to be not merely an addiction but a moral imperative almost. He greatly admired a book that he had read by Isaiah Berlin and, knowing that I was acquainted with its author, asked me to invite him to lunch. Berlin accepted, saying that it was always exciting to meet a genius. The three of us sat down together at Wilton’s in an atmosphere of high cordiality, Bacon treating his guest with enormous respect. When the wine waiter arrived, Bacon asked Berlin what he would like to drink; Berlin replied that he didn’t drink. Bacon, for all his social skills, could not conceal his disappointment in his guest and the occasion never really took off. Bacon made no subsequent mention of it to me; Berlin did, ruefully, more than once.”50

Alcohol was certainly a way for Bacon to flatten the emotional content he carried with him from his often tragic personal experiences. As many an artist has experienced, from Van Gogh to Dylan Thomas, alcohol can be a powerful artistic device as well, freeing the mind of certain inhibiting constructs and allowing a more open mental space from which to operate. This was certainly the case with Bacon who said; “I often like working with a hangover, because my mind is crackling with energy and I can think very clearly.”51 This was the controlled chaos of a postmodern lifestyle. Detachment from the imposed narratives of cultural norms and conformity would serve Bacon throughout his life. The rough-hewn neighborhoods against trips to Monte Carlo. The epic drinking but obsessive dedication to a nearly unbroken production of some of the 20th century’s masterpieces. The quest for fine food and wine while inviting London hoodlums along for the ride. His life-long passion for gambling at the game with the worst odds — roulette, and in turn burying his winnings behind old canvases and forgetting about them until the currency grew worthless. Ultimately we are talking about chance. Bacon espoused  liberation in living because it embodied his philosophy on chance. Any state that put him closer to the hard reality of uncertainty was a state he encouraged to the fullest sybaritic extent. Even in his control of his paintings, the way he used gilded frames and insisted on regular glass, Bacon was imposing a form of chance. The dualism of postmodern figurative painting and glass took on a shifting reality. The glass picks up the reflections of the room and its lighting, preventing the viewer from getting too close to the subject inherent in the paint itself. This shifts the viewing experience with every successive witness and creates movement in the painting otherwise not found. It is a cinematic tool and also one that discourages the reading of narrative into the work. Your reflection becomes part of the work itself and you are confronted with new layers of meaning. The gilded frames seat the work in the history of painting while simultaneously suggesting a dismantling of that same history. The frames are not the gilded Michael Jackson’s of Jeff Koon’s, but a deliberate reference to the importance of the history of painting itself. Bacon was following in the tradition of Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Velásquez, not Duchamp, Rauschenberg or Warhol. This is one of the most striking components of Bacon’s oeuvre, his ability to control chaos. He did his utmost to shape the way people would access his work by avoiding discussions on production and making statements that were contradictory to themselves. He would not allow his process to be filmed and his studio was a confluence of imagery, dirt and pigment. The chaos provided heightened access to experience that lived close to danger and accident and therefore jouissance. It was a mimicry of quantum mechanics as described by Žižek;

“Consequently, quantum physics confronts us with the gap between the Real and the reality at its most radical: what we get in it is the mathematized Real of formulas which cannot be translated into ontologically consistent reality—or, to put it in Kantian terms, they remain pure concepts which cannot be “schematized,”translated/transposed into objects of experience.”52

Unlike contemporary forms of postmodernism (reality TV, Jeff Koons, etc.), irony did not come into play for Bacon. In fact, Bacon’s work was nascent postmodernism that preceded the Warhol paradigm of pop culture and irony. Bacon’s untethered lifestyle, bound in chance sexual encounters and sado-masochistic relationships, heroic levels of drinking, bacchanalian dinners, roulette gaming and interactions with both the famous and criminal was his vibrant connection to chaos. Through chance he could strip away the cultural ephemera that might otherwise prevent him from accessing pure sensation. This obsession with sensation led him to explore ways of simultaneously expressing perceived reality and interior reality. Modernism’s focus on phenomenon and utopian constructs prevented humankind from really seeing the reality of man’s brutality, violence and meaninglessness. Modernity, especially in Bacon’s mind, was a veil to sensation and therefore less meaningful than his own form of postmodern expression. This lay at the center of Bacon’s dislike for abstract expressionism, which he said looked like “old lace.”53 Abstract expressionism to Bacon was rooted in modernity and the failed enterprise of unbounded, metaphysics. By the mere fact our own existence was random, brief and without meaning, one could live fully because we were shaping the only thing meaningful about our existence in our actions while alive. Throughout his life Bacon knew great luxury and great necessity but remained centered and optimistic throughout, choosing instead to focus on the work. His flexibility stood in contrast to the promise of modernism’s ideals and in his private life he denied what modernity promised—comfort. From a very early age Bacon had witnessed the irrational violence that followed modernism and saw it for what it was, an empty promise. Instead he chose to live his life free of ideology or irony (an antiseptic to the suffering brought on by modernism).


David Sylvester:  “The will to lose one’s will?”

Francis Bacon:  “Absolutely. The will to make oneself completely free. Will is the wrong word, because in the end you could call it despair. Because it really comes out of an absolute feeling of it’s impossible to do these things, so I might as well just do anything. And out of this anything, one sees what happens.”54

Van Gogh and Bacon

Cézanne valued sensation above all else. He did not envision a world that could be in conflict with sensation, merely one that devalued it. The violence of sensation, grounded in the tactile performance of painting has been atomized, digitized and scattered, becoming a 21st century ephemera — a brutal denial. Francis Bacon predicted this and did what he could to bring the act of painting back into the game of art making. As with Heisenberg’s quantum mechanical world, Bacon aimed to emulate the impossible—the gap between noumenal and the phenomenal. In this regard he was creating a form postmodernism long before it became a late 20th century catch-phrase for everything ironic and fractured. In fact, in the purest sense, Bacon worked outside of irony, seeing all life as a kind of futile act that we must necessarily fill up with meaning to assuage the inevitability of our own mortality. This was the game and art was a means of both filling up life with meaning but also an optimistic gesture against the void.

“Painting has now become, or all art has now become completely a game by which man distracts himself. What is fascinating actually, is it is going to become much more difficult for the artist, because he must really deepen the game to become any good at all. And, return the onlooker to life more valiantly.”55

Francis Bacon was a man of seeming contradiction in a world that was fighting, quite literally for the modern sublime. His sybaritic pursuits were in fierce contrast to his nearly ascetic home life. His homosexuality was an embodiment of the unrequited love with his father and the brutal realities of the body’s fragility. A masochist who preferred the company of drug addicts and thieves as well as famous authors and artists, he sought comfort in the ferocity of one man’s sex against another. The pain and violence of sensation, the jouissance, gave him a foundation in the Real and a context to fight against the impending irony of a future filled with negation. For Bacon life contained a perpetual violence of experience in the form of direct energy. Bacon speaking on his Van Gogh paintings said, “Van Gogh got very near to the violence of life itself. It’s true to say that when he painted a field he was able to give you the violence of the grass. Think of the violence of the grass he painted. It’s one of the most violent and abominable things, if you really want to think about life.”56 This is where painting and life began and ended for Bacon, in the knowledge that existence is pure sensation and that for him, translating his own sensations of the world was best rendered in the flesh of paint and the meat of the body.

We live in a time now that has lost the potency of Bacon’s postmodern expression. The game has gotten the best of us and painting has gone the way of esoteric art forms like jazz and free verse poetry. The current form of postmodernism, now ironically referred to as post-postmodernism, has so deeply encamped itself in ironic gesture and exalted kitsch it can be said it has effectively begun to take the lives of its progenitors, i.e., Ian Curtis, Kurt Cobain, Jeremy Blake and recently, David Foster Wallace. As Adrian Searle stated just after Bacon’s death:

“We are all postmodernists now. It is difficult to avoid the paralysis of knowing too much, of seeing too many points of view; the doubts come tumbling in. Too much leakage. The multiplicity of discourses, formal approaches, language games, all he ‘postmodern’ instances of quotation, requotation and decontextuatlization; the deconstructionist vortex, with it cetrifugal locutions, reversals and ‘misreadings’; all the socio-political arguments concerning context and commodification, all the literature, the applications of Freud and those who come after him, all the appropriations (in the case of the analysts, frequently by those who have never in their lives lain on a couch) …one has to believe that something is still possible, that the situation is not completely framed and unbounded.”57

Francis Bacon’s postmodern gift was his ability to live an unfiltered life, free of the everyday despair and violence of existence without being consumed by a feeling of weltschmerz that more often than not, quite literally kills artists given their sensitivities. Bacon translated the power of living in the context of a postmodern world without letting it consume him. His suffering was matched by the fullness of his living and we are all benefactors of his translation of that experience to canvas. The Buddhists refer to this idea as cutting through spiritual materialism, the idea that the pursuit of spiritualism, or the sublime (in this case of art-making), is a self-defeatist egotistical act. Although Bacon was an atheist, this is a reasonable analogy for his philosophy on art and living. He was very humble when speaking of his own work and often titled his paintings studies. Bacon wasn’t interested in clouding the vision with his own delusions of grandeur. He did this literally in the way he constructed his paintings, constantly stripping down the figure to pure experience, and getting directly to the nervous system. As Gilles Deleuze states it in The Logic of Sensation;

“Figuration and narration are only effects, but for that reason they are all the more intrusive in painting. They are what must be eliminated. But neither the tactile-optical world nor the purely optical world is a stopping point for Bacon. On the contrary, he cuts through them, subverting and scrambling them…The optical world, and the tactile-optical world, is swept out, and wiped away. If there is still an eye, it is the “eye” of a hurricane, as in Turner, which more often tends to the bright than the dark, and which designates a rest or stopping point that is always linked to an immense agitation of matter.”58

Where Francis Bacon has been misrepresented, misclassified and even denigrated (by U.S. art critics)59 his placement within art history and his importance undermined or questioned, is in American critical presentation of him as a mere modernist figurative painter. It isn’t an accident that Damian Hirst finds Bacon the most compelling artist to draw power and content from. Unlike Cecily Brown or Jenny Saville (also Brits) who work mainly from Bacon’s expressionistic figuration, and his unnerving interior psychologies, Hirst sees Bacon for what he was—an original postmodernist. In A Thousand Years, Hirst mimics a Bacon postmodern gesture creating a vitrine with an actual life cycle. “Maggots hatch inside a white minimal box, turn into flies, then feed on a bloody, severed cow’s head on the floor of a claustrophobic glass vitrine. Above, hatched flies buzz around in the closed space. Many meet a violent end in an insect-o-cutor; others survive to continue the cycle.”60 Bacon liked this Hirst piece which he saw just months before his death in 1992 and wrote about it in a letter to a friend. Hirst himself said that Bacon’s work was evocative of the idea “We’re here for a good time, not a long time,”61 which becomes a short hand for the dualistic nature of Bacon’s work. The paintings of course are living on in Bacon’s absence and just now, nearly twenty years after his death beginning to resonate with a larger audience. But, the paintings are also objects that convey a moment in time that is forever lost. That moment of jouissance where horror pushes right up against ecstasy as an explosive mimicry of death urge itself.

Where the oppression of weltschmerz has gripped much of painting in the 21st century, Francis Bacon saw a different vision of art. The current paradigm asserts a focus away from the Real but at the same time falsely asserts its place ironically. It is a denial of identity and faculty that accepts the reality presented to us, unquestioned and unrestrained without looking for the harder reality of sensation. Bacon apprehended sensation through jouissance by pushing the boundaries of paint handling and living with jouissance as often as he dared. He was disinterested in mass media and preferred the direct contact of the clubs, casinos and restaurants he frequented. This shielded him from the oppressive psychosis of postmodernism’s other, darker side, the Warholian side. Today, we are a postmodernists bound in the meta-narratives spun by the perpetual emissions of mass media. This corporate frame has replaced Bacon’s understanding of direct sensation with one of absolute denial of sensation. Pleasure and pain are no longer understood as close relations, instead pain is repudiated and pleasure has been elevated to heroic status. Pharmaceuticals, television, video games and computers have created a painless simulacra that has detached us almost entirely from the Real. True liberation for Bacon was to living close to death every day and therefore denying its power over us. The way he did this was to live free of guilt or shame, open and in pursuit of those things that grounded him the chaos of existence. In our overly nurtured, coddled, brainwashed world, objects are fraught with such imposed content they become sacred. We have lost touch with the realities of everyday experience and our art demonstrates it. The visceral language of living in the Real is wrought with violence, impermanence and decadence. Human beings are a violent, chaotic, unpredictable element within the world and denying so only makes us even more dangerous and destructive. Bacon knew it wasn’t melodrama to confront the Real in the fullest, but the only true way to live without going mad, as Dr. Nathan did in J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition. This apparent duality formed the backbone of Bacon’s postmodern art, which stands in stark contrast to today’s lesser-evolved form. It is why a friend of his, Francis Moynihan once said; “Francis could be the sweetest person in the world and also the cruelest person in the world.”62 This was Bacon’s embrace of chaos and jouissance. The true lesson of postmodernism as Bacon saw it is not to consent to the endless ironic loop as a way of distracting us from the Real, but embrace the duality inherent in our own existence. Again, Žižek encapsulates this precisely; “We are too close to das Ding. That is the theological lesson of post-modernism. The mad, obscene God, the Supreme-Being-in-Evilness, is exactly the same as the God taken as the Supreme Good. The difference lies only in the fact that we got too close to Him.”63 In the end, Bacon’s power lay in his capacity to experience pure sensation and translate that into art that lives on as some of the most powerful and real of the 20th century.

“How can I draw one more veil away from life and present what is called the living sensation more nearly on the nervous system and more violently…There was a very interesting thing that Valéry said about modern art, and it’s very true. He said that modern artists want the grin without the cat and by that he meant that they want the sensation without the boredom of conveyance.”64

—Francis Bacon

1 Wallace, David Foster. Everything and More: a Compact History of Infinity. New York: Atlas Book, 2003. 22-23. Print.

2 Wallace, David Foster. “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction 22 June 1993: 144. Print.

3 “Postmodernism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy/Winter 2010 Edition).” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 1 Dec. 2010. Web. 15 Apr. 2011. <>.

4 Warhol, Andy. The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: from A to B and Back Again. New York: Harcourt, 1977. 144. Print.

5 Bacon, Francis, and Michel Archimbaud. Francis Bacon in Conversation with Michel Archimbaud. London: Phaidon, 1993. 47. Print.

6 Jacques Lacan, Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English. Translated by Bruce Fink. W. W. Norton & Company, New York, NY. 2006. 324. (original p. 388). Print.

7 Francis Bacon, The Last Interview 1991-92; with Francis Giacobetti; The Art Newspaper, June 2003.

8 Hughes, Robert. Nothing If Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1990. Print.

9 Marie-Christine Laznik, International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis | Jouissance (Lacan), 2011 quoting: Lacan, Jacques. (1991). Le séminaire. Book 17: L’envers de la psychanalyse (1969-1970). Paris: Seuil.

10 Wilson, Beth. Encyclopedia of Postmodernism. Ed. Victor E. Taylor and Charles E. Winquist. London: Routledge, 2001. Print.

11 Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London (GB): Verso, 1999. 46 .Print.

12 Bacon, Francis, and Michel Archimbaud. Francis Bacon in Conversation with Michel Archimbaud. London: Phaidon, 1993. 12 . Print

13 Žižek, Slavoj. The Parallax View. Cambridge, Mass. [u.a.: MIT, 2009. 26. Print.

14 Sinclair, Andrew. Francis Bacon: His Life and Violent times. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995. Print

15 Gowing, Lawrence. “The Irrefutable Image.” Introduction. Francis Bacon Recent Paintings. New York, NY: Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, 1968. 8. Print.

16 Wallace, David Foster. Everything and More: a Compact History of Infinity. New York: Atlas Book, 2003. 22-23. Print.

17 Lyons, Joseph, Paleolithic Aesthetics: The Psychology of Cave Art. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 26, No. 1, Autumn, 1967, Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The American Society for Aesthetics. p. 110

18 Žižek, Slavoj, Rex Butler, and Scott Stephens. Interrogating the Real. London: Continuum, 2007. Print. p. 75.

19 Sylvester, David. Interviews with Francis Bacon. 3rd ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999. p.81

20 Ibid. p. 81

21 Bacon’s Arena. Dir. Adam Low. Perf. Francis Bacon. Diffusion Pictures, 2009. DVD

22 Bacon, Francis, and Michel Archimbaud. Francis Bacon in Conversation with Michel Archimbaud. London: Phaidon, 1993. Print p. 145

23 Sylvester, David. Interviews with Francis Bacon. 3rd ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999. p. 18.

24 Deleuze, Gilles, and Daniel W. Smith. Francis Bacon: the Logic of Sensation. London: Continuum, 2008. 32. Print.

25 Kundera, Milan. Tate Etc. Francis Bacon (1909 – 1992) Linda Nochlin, Milan Kundera and others on Francis Bacon. Issue 14, August 2008.

26 Peppiatt, Michael. Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1996. Print. p. 87

27 Bacon, Francis, and Michel Archimbaud. Francis Bacon in Conversation with Michel Archimbaud. London: Phaidon, 1993. Print p. 153

28 Bacon on optimistic about absolutely nothing

29 Miller, Jacques-Alain. “Transference, Repetition and the Sexual Real Reading The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis.” Josefina Ayerza. Web. 02 May 2011. Lecture given 15th March 1995 as part of J.-A. Miller’s course, The Lacanian orientation, in the year 1994-1995. “Silet”, unpublished. Text and notes have been edited by Anne Lysy, authorised by J.-A. Miller, not reviewed by the author.

30 Ibid

31 Ibid

32 Peppiatt Michael. Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma. Boulder, CO. Westview Press. p. 7 and David Sylvester, Francis Bacon, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon. (Thames & Hudson, London 1987). pp. 71-72 Bacon say; “Well, I disliked him, but I was sexually attracted to him when I was young.”

33 “The Estate of Francis Bacon | Biography.” The Estate of Francis Bacon | Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2011.

34 Zizek, Slavoj. “Slavoj Zizek-Bibliography/Desire: Drive = Truth: Knowledge/Lacan Dot Com.” Umbr(a) 1997: n. pag. Web. 26 Apr. 2011.

35 Georges Bataille, The Object of Desire and the Totality of the Real, Zone Books, 1993. p.177

36 Bataille, George, Eroticism. translated by Mary Dalwood, (London & New York: Marion Boyars, 1962 [1957]). Introduction.

37 Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London (GB): Verso, 1999. 377. Print.

38 Sylvester, David, and Francis Bacon. Looking Back at Francis Bacon. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2000. 136. Print.

39 Peppiatt, Michael. Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1996. 115. Print.

40 The Zizek Reader, ed. Elizabeth Wright and Edmund Wright. Oxford, UK. Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1999. 157. Print.

41 Bacon’s Arena. Dir. Adam Low. Perf. Francis Bacon. Diffusion Pictures, 2009. DVD

42 Barnaby Furnas. Tate Etc. “Francis Bacon (1909 – 1992) Linda Nochlin, Milan Kundera and others on Francis Bacon”. Issue 14, August 2008.

43 Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: a Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis, Minn: University of Minnesota, 2006. Print. p. xxiv.

44 Ibid. p. 79.

45 Ibid.

46 Bernstein, J. M.. Against Voluptuous Bodies: Late Modernism and the Meaning of Painting. Stanford, CA. Stanford University Press, 2006. pp. 22-23.

47 Sylvester, David, and Francis Bacon. Interviews with Francis Bacon: the Brutality of Fact. [London]: Thames and Hudson, 1999. Print.

48 Ogden, Perry. Quote by Edwards, John. 7 Reece Mews: Francis Bacon’s Studio. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2001. Print. p. 10.

49 Sylvester, David. Looking Back at Francis Bacon, New York, NY. Thames & Hudson, Inc. 2000. p. 230

50 Sylvester, David. Looking Back at Francis Bacon, New York, NY. Thames & Hudson, Inc. 2000. p. 264

51 Peppiatt, Michael. Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma. Boulder, CO. Westview Press. p. 161

52 Žižek, Slavoj. The Parallax View. Cambridge, Mass. [u.a.: MIT, 2009. Print. p. 172

53 Peppiatt, Michael. Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma. Boulder, CO. Westview Press. p. 182 “he would refer to Jackson Pollock as ‘that old lace maker’ and compare de Koonin’s Woman series to playing-cards.”

54 Sylvester, David. One continuous accident mounting on top of another. An edited extract from Interviews with Francis Bacon by David Sylvester in 1963, 1966 and 1979, Guardian UK,Thursday 13 September 2007

55 Bacon’s Arena. Dir. Adam Low. Perf. Francis Bacon. Diffusion Pictures, 2009. DVD

56 Sylvester, David. Looking Back at Francis Bacon, New York, NY. Thames & Hudson, Inc. 2000. p. 243

57 Searle, Adrian. extract from Unbound: Possibilities in Painting, curated b Adrian Searle and Greg Hilty (London:Hayward Gallery, 1994) republished in Painting from the Documents of Contemporary Art series. Cambridge, MA. Co-published by The MIT Press & Whitechapel Gallery. 2011. p. 101

58 Deleuze, Gilles, and Daniel W. Smith. Francis Bacon: the Logic of Sensation. London: Continuum, 2008. 110-11. Print.

59 Peter Schjeldahl writing in the New Yorker on the Francis Bacon retrospective at the Met; “His paintings, despite their extraordinary visual drama, thus lack a de Kooningesque sense of scale.”, John Richardson in the New York Review of Books said; “seemingly free of sadomasochistic overtones. This may explain why Bacon’s work lost its sting and failed to thrill.”, Roberta Smith writing in The New York Times; “These overwrought creatures work better in movies, like “Alien.”, and finally Lance Esplund writing in the Wall Street Journal; “Your aversion to Bacon’s work may lie in how, not what, he painted. Perhaps you, like me, favor formal coherence over stilted melodrama.” and I could go on.

60 “Damien Hirst – June 20 – August 4, 2006 – Gagosian Gallery.” Current Exhibitions – Gagosian Gallery. Gagosian Gallery, 9 June 2006. Web. 27 Apr. 2011.

61 “Tate Channel: Damien Hirst on Francis Bacon.” Tate Channel: Channel. Tate Modern, 20 Nov. 2008. Web. 02 May 2011.

62 Bacon’s Arena. Dir. Adam Low. Perf. Francis Bacon. Diffusion Pictures, 2009. DVD

63 Žižek, Slavoj, Rex Butler, and Scott Stephens. Interrogating the Real. London: Continuum, 2007. Print. p. 138

64 Francis Bacon to Daniel Farson, The Art Game, 27 August, 1958.

10 thoughts on “Francis Bacon

  1. This is one of the best essays on Bacon I have read. You make it abundantly clear why Bacon’s work is an alternative to the cul-de-sac American version of Post-Modernism. People either cannot feel or are so numbed by the apparatus of contemporary existence, i.e. media, internet, iphones etc., that sensation can only be a virtual experience.
    I am appalled but not surprised by the American critics’ dismissal of Bacon. After all he dared to have an alternative opinion about New York Abstract Expression -ism which obviously doesn’t sit well with them. Bacon’s work challenges on all fronts their view of post-war American supremacy.
    I’m not sure that Bacon was completely aware of all the points you bring up because we know instinct was the major driving force in his work. Intellectual debates with regard to post-modernism would probably have bored him. One thing that I would add is that Bacon never learned to draw. This I think was a boon to him in that it freed him to be as raw as possible without a hint of academic fealty.
    Thanks for this remarkable essay.

  2. D;

    Thank you so much for the kind words regarding the Bacon piece. Eventually it will form the framework of a book on postmodernisms different tacts, but for now this suffices.

    I would also point you to this piece that demonstrates, despite some desputes, that Bacon was a prolific sketcher, despite his having suggested the contrary. Of course we know, he liked to shape public opinion of him and kept the real details of his life and indeed his true personality quite secret.

    The one American critic who got Bacon, was of course born in Australia – Robert Hughes (RIP).

    thanks again for the encouragement


  3. Pingback: Louie Louie Louie – Postmodernist | Imagine Zero

  4. You should get this published in a book format as it is by far the best writing on Bacon I’ve read; it is a great pity that you are not writing the Francis Bacon Catalogue Raisonné currently being compiled and edited by Martin Harrison.

  5. Hi Odin: Those ‘sketches’ that you referenced above – the so-called ‘Italian Drawings’ are not by Francis Bacon – I was offered one such drawing some time ago for free but did not want it! Please do not make reference to them in your book on Bacon; the Tate have real sketches by Bacon; use those for reference.

  6. PS… The Barry Joule material is also not by Francis Bacon. Joule gave away his fake Bacon’s to try and get them authenticated just like the ‘Italian Drawings’ have been given away as a strategy to get them authenticated.

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