Contrasting the Flesh of Freud against
the Torment of Bacon
“All Too Human – Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life”
Having always been a fan of Lucien Freud’s portraits, it was not surprising to be delighted by the current collection on display at Tate Britain. I counted 16 paintings in all by Freud but amongst a much larger exhibition titled, “All Too Human”, which included more than 20 other artists, both contemporary and modern. My highlight from the show much to my astonishment, quelle surprise, was Francis Bacon: my Bacon blind spot has been replaced by empathy, curiosity even, as I finally warm to his work. Hence the focus of this piece is Bacon’s life and work.
Any Bacon masterpiece (and I have seen a few) has never warranted more than a cursory glance at best, the perfunctory nod, perhaps because I’ve always found his paintings to be a tad too unsettling to explore, even disturbing, at times macabre yet engrossing and gritty. Admittedly, that sentiment has not totally dissipated but, (this could be a metaphor for life) a little more understanding especially in relation to context made all the difference this time around. Why? Because I paused a little longer and read a little more. Consequently with each baffling question I was drawn into a sort of vortex seeking answers to seeming impenetrable questions. Weeks later, I’m still processing how I feel about Bacon’s work as if I’ve been provoked, prodded intellectually and emotionally and as a result am seeking some sort of resolution.
There are a couple of important considerations to bear in mind as regards context when viewing this exhibit. The first is the political and social landscape leading up to and including the period Bacon and Freud were at their peak artistically (Bacon lived through both world wars, Freud, the Second World War). The 20th century has been called the age of anxiety, i.e., on the one hand, in the industrialised world, people were living longer, had access to better food, cars, central heating and painkilling drugs, but on the other hand, they experienced terrible loss as a result of war. In addition, from the arrival of the camera in the late 1800s, photographs gave people a glimpse of the horrors of war including nuclear war. Added to that, the questioning of religion meant that it was becoming increasingly hard to believe in God. Undoubtedly, all this turmoil made an indelible mark on the artist’s psyche and the results are certainly visible in the Bacon paintings, perhaps more subtly in Freud’s work, but nonetheless the effects of an existentialist crisis are clearly evident – when you know what to look out for.
The second consideration relates to the type of art catching the public imagination at the time. Though Bacon and Freud produced very different artworks, there was one issue which united them artistically: they were dismayed that figurative art had dropped off the radar and had been overtaken by abstract art. Indeed, Bacon condescendingly referred to it as “an indulgence in decorative introspection”. As a result, both Bacon and Freud led the backlash against this new art movement prolifically producing works of figurative art, often amid controversy and regularly commanding the front pages of newspapers. In Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, the works of Bacon and Freud were seen by many as being in bad taste, however, they were merely confronting reality, a reality that not everyone wanted to see in such glaring clarity.
Though Freud and Bacon were friends for more than 25 years, both were highly strung so theirs was a volatile relationship. Both artists had their achilles heel, for Bacon it was his drinking, Freud was a compulsive gambler, both of them addicted risk takers. It is said that Freud would hand over a painting to his bookie in lieu of his gambling debts. Interestingly when Freud’s paintings started to acquire magnificent sums in the auction houses, his gambling habit ceased.
Aesthetically, Bacon and Freud used very different methods. Freud worked from life only, and Bacon from photographs and memory using his hands and rags to throw the paint as well as loaded brushes to get the desired effect. Freud lived his life instinctively but his painting was very controlled whereas Bacon worked at speed finishing a picture in a morning. On first viewing, it seems that the challenge Bacon sets himself is to paint the inner life of his subject as well as the exterior but without completely losing recognisable form, whereas Freud’s emphasis is on using paint to re-create the sitter’s flesh …….. in all its glory.
Francis Bacon was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1909 to a British couple who had recently moved to Kildare, close to the Curragh racetrack, essentially because Bacon senior had just retired from the British army and wanted to establish himself as a horse trainer in Ireland. Francis’s mother was a descendant of LL Firth, the creator of stainless steel (note to self when next viewing: look for any references to steel in his paintings).
“I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail, leaving a trail of the human presence and memory trace of past events as the snail leaves its slime”.
Francis Bacon, 1955
As mentioned earlier, when viewing Bacon’s art, one must be cognisant of the fact that he lived through both the Great War and the Second World War. Added to that the political ramifications of living in Ireland during one’s formative years when Anglo Irish relations were fraught, i.e., the War of Independence (1919-21) and the Irish Civil War (1922-23). The Bacon family associated with other Anglo-Irish families, some of whom were attacked by Republican forces during the War of Independence though the Bacons were left unscathed. Inevitably, these tensions made their mark on an asthmatic, impressionable young boy beginning to feel like an outsider and consequently his Irish upbringing was both formative and traumatic in equal measure.
Even leaving aside the ramifications of being British in a hostile land, home life wasn’t exactly conducive to the creation of tranquil watercolour landscapes of the Irish countryside. Bacon’s father was reputedly a cruel man (both sons ran away in their teens) and his parents were often absent when he was young. Fortunately he did have a close relationship with his maternal grandmother who lived nearby and also with his nanny. At age 16, Francis and the family moved back to the UK.
One of his childhood Irish friends, Doreen, recalls Francis as a prolific artist but more surprisingly was his interest in the butcher shop in Naas. Apparently, he was fascinated by the hanging meat and would often persuade his friend to accompany him inside the shop so that he could view the hanging carcasses close up. Decades later, when viewing his work she remarked how visible those carcasses were in his painting.
As well as living in London during the Blitz (1940-41), Bacon would have seen the first photographs to come out of the liberated concentration camps in 1945, undoubtedly, he was moved by the horrors of war. Perhaps this is why he saw himself as a existential painter rather than an expressionist one. Bacon’s biographer and friend, David Sylvester, said Bacon felt that photography had made realistic reporting redundant, therefore his purpose henceforth was to replace it with psychological realism.
Bacon wanted to capture the ‘pulsation’ of a person, their aura and the effect they had on you when they came into the room. Although some of his paintings have a sculptural quality and tenderness, many more have a violent undercurrent with disturbing scenes, distorted figures where their flesh, internal organs and bones are on show externally on the body. You get the sense that he is depicting the internal life of his subject on the outside of the body but at the same time reflecting the artist’s own anxiety about the world. The intensity in some paintings is chilling and the imagery is disturbing and raw, but despite that the vibrancy of the paint and the colours give off a sensual quality. These often contradictory tensions certainly leave you in need of something stronger than a cup of tea in the cafe afterwards.
Several of Bacon’s paintings have a religious context, although the family were neither Catholic or religious, but by the time he departed Ireland, Francis would have felt the overwhelming influence of the Catholic Church……. and not in a good way.
In his 1944 triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, which owes much to Picasso’s Guernica period, David Sylvester describes it as:
“a study of how to assault the nervous system of an onlooker with formal equivalents of pain and mental stress, distortions not merely of art but of daily living and one’s own hold upon it”.
Bacon’s triptych plays on the Christian tradition but making it his own, implying anxiety and dread with no prospect of redemption or rebirth. Another triptych recounts a devastating and degrading sequence of moments in a Paris hotel room depicting the suicide of his lover, George Dyer, the night before Bacon’s one-man show at the Grand Palais in Paris. But the show must go on. Bacon went ahead with everything as planned, showing President Georges Pompidou, famously a connoisseur of contemporary art around the show.
Lucien Freud was clearly an intensely charming and entertaining man, no more so than when painting his sitter. In contrast to Bacon, Freud always painted from life, a portrait that might take seven days a week for a year and often painter and sitter became lovers. …..hence Freud’s 14 children. Such was the intensity of his omnivorous gaze, every minute detail held his attention, every texture, every fragment of clothing was special…..if they were wearing any.
My idea of portraiture came from dissatisfaction with portraits that resembled people. I would wish my portraits to be of the people, not like them. Not having a look of the sitter, being them….As far as I am concerned that paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as flesh does.
Lucian Freud, 1982
One critic said that he had the urge to touch the flesh in this painting and squeeze it between the fingers. While I might have understood the sentiment, admittedly I had no such urge.
The art historian, Simon Schama said that Freud’s ambition was less to represent flesh than to re-make it in his paint referring to Freud’s sitter as a having a “mountainous immensity of … flesh”.
Sitting for Freud meant that you were a mystery to be solved, he said “the point of painting a picture is that you don’t know what will happen”, he had no preconceived notion of how it would look; the aim was never to produce a resemblance, instead Freud wanted to create a figure that was “disturbing, by which I mean alive”. Truth-telling was more exciting for Freud, seeing things as they really are. Martin Gayford, the art historian, recounts Freud saying that every good picture has to have a little bit of poison, by which he meant attitude rather than any physical contamination.
More interesting, Freud declared that to be alive, a portrait had to involve those who view it too making them imagine that there was something of themselves in the painting.
The enfant terrible of contemporary British art, Damien Hirst, remarked that if you look at one of Freud’s portraits from close up, it dissolves into a pattern of marks and hues where the traces of the bristles are visible and raised speckles and ridges stick out like pieces of rock catching the light. But then when you move back a little, the portrait metamorphoses into the rounded forms of skin and flesh over bone.
Freud’s ability to shock the public never waned: think of the outcry when his painting of Queen Elizabeth II was unveiled a few years ago. How did Her Majesty feel as Freud watched her, his eyes secured on “the heart’s great canvas” while piercing into her soul. Oh to be a fly on the wall for those conversations. Freud’s purpose, nonetheless, was the same as with any other portrait, to express the sitter’s nature and essence intensifying what he saw rather than producing a good likeness.
To me, the Queen’s portrait looks masculine, certainly at variance with other portraits of females who seem full of anxiety, fragility and vulnerability even the small painting of his mother at this exhibition although it has a tenderness, in reality he only painted her when she was elderly and fragile and a mere shell of her former self. Famously Freud always painted while standing so it is striking that his female sitters are either seated or lying which begs the question about the degree to which he needed to dominate women. Contrast that with the Queen’s portrait which seems to be painted at eye level. Just saying.
“I don’t want the picture to come from me. I want it to come from them”. Freud
Now in March 2018, arguably we are in the midst of our own existential crisis as seemingly insurmountable conflicts challenge the world, i.e., American political leadership, American gun violence, a resurgent Russia, Brexit, Syria, North Korea, Iran, and the AI/automation revolution, to name but a few. Leaving aside concern and doubts about possible solutions to these challenges, I’m intrigued about what artists today are producing. How are they expressing themselves artistically as they reflect the major struggles of our time.
In the end, writing this has made me realise that I need to revisit this exhibition at least once more to lay to rest the nagging question: do I now appreciate Bacon more and Freud less? But there is also a cognitive dissonance issue to be explored – the assertion by Martin Gayford (the art historian who sat for Freud) that both Bacon and Freud had, in person, an unexpected joie de vivre. With Bacon’s masochistic leanings, and little hint of humour in his work, that certainly came as a surprise.
And finally, remember to look out for the Bacon ‘snail’ if you manage to get in a visit to Tate Britain before the exhibition closes in August.
Francis Bacon in Dublin: Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art Dublin
The Face of Britain, The Nation Through its Portraits: Simon Schama, BBC
Keeping an Eye Open, Essays on Art: Julian Barnes
Man with a Blue Scarf, On sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud: Martin Gayford