Francis Bacon: Humanist artist who believed life “is meaningless” (Part 2)

Francis Bacon: Humanist artist who believed life “is meaningless” (Part 2)

I first read of Bacon’s work in a book by Francis Schaeffer.

FRANCIS BACON’S EYE OF DESPAIR
By John W. Whitehead

Of course, we are meat. We are potential carcasses.
—Francis Bacon

Irish-born Francis Bacon (1909-1992), possibly the greatest painter of the latter half of the twentieth century, quintessentially exemplified modern humanity’s loneliness and alienation. Indeed, Bacon is considered the greatest British painter since William Turner.

Bacon’s paintings cry out for lost values and lost greatness; for a dehumanized humanity deprived of its freedom, love, rationality; for everything the great humanist painters had celebrated in Judeo-Christian and classical tradition.

Bacon’s life illustrates that no man is an island. The influences on his lifestyle and work were multitudinous.

One in particular was his fascination with carnage and carcasses. Bacon, in fact, became fascinated with animal carcasses in butcher shops and even expressed the beauty of the carnage at automobile accidents. He translated his interest in violence to the canvas: “I think of myself as a kind of pulverizing machine into which everything I look at and feel is fed.”

Bacon also used a manual on oral disease as an inspiration for his work, along with Eadweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion (1887). What did such books have in common? Robert Hughes in The Shock of the New (1993) writes:

Detachment: the clinical gaze on the human body as a specimen, all its privacy brushed aside. Bacon thought there was a strong analogy between the body’s various availabilities—to inspection, sex, or political coercion.

Bacon’s sources, thus, evoked different forms of abandonment. An early patron described Bacon’s “predilection for portraying people as though they were alone, unaware of any other presence.”

Moreover, as Bacon commented to a friend, “the news-photograph of the thirties was his education in painting. It formalised disrespect. It wrenched the figures of authority out of their high places. It caught them unguarded and inconsequent, ‘racked by tics, their faces distorted, their clothes in disorder, their bodies off balance’.”

Bacon, an atheist, faced constant torment, dissatisfaction and uncertainty, never knowing the security of a traditional religious belief. However, in a perverse way, Bacon was one of the most deeply religious painters of the century. The agony of his unbelief became so acute that the negative in his work—pessimism, loneliness, despair, emptiness, distortion, darkness, stark mortality—became an almost religious attribute. In fact, Bacon had an acute fascination with the crucifixion of Christ. “I’ve always been very moved by pictures about slaughterhouses and meat, and to me they belong very much to the whole thing,” Bacon once said. “I know for religious people, for Christians, the Crucifixion has a totally different signature. But as a nonbeliever, it was just an act of man’s behavior, a way of behavior to another.”

Bacon, however, clearly expressed his atheistic pessimism: “Man now realizes that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without purpose, other than of his own choosing.” On another occasion, he remarked: “We are born and we die and there’s nothing else. We’re just part of animal life.”

Thus, Bacon, in terms of humanity and the supernatural, reached not only a position of unbelief but of despair. His paintings express modern humanity’s condition: dehumanized man dispossessed of any durable paradise.

Bacon poignantly illustrates his despair in a number of his paintings. A casual glance at his Crucifixion (1933) reveals that the stick-like limbs of a luminous and fantastic insect were superimposed by Bacon onto the crucifixion of Christ. Biographer Andrew Sinclair writes: “As he said later, he wanted his pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them like a snail, leaving a trail of slime.” Despite his atheism, Bacon identified his own suffering from his homosexuality and anguish with the martyrdom of Christ.

Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) seems to depict the loss of all hope. One commentator notes: “The forcefulness with which these three Greek Furies…hurl their misery and rage at us proves the extent of his own loss of faith.”

Bacon painted Three Studies under a tremendous hangover. “It’s one of those pictures,” Bacon later said, “that I’ve ever been able to do under drink. I believe that the drink helped me to be a bit freer.”

One art analyst noted that the “figures in the three canvases were joined in the theme of the violence that men did to one another by the power of sex and hatred. The body on the right, lying head down, suggested an inverted crucifixion by Cimabue, which Bacon thought was like ‘a worm crawling…just moving, undulating down the cross’.”

Bacon’s work epitomizes the spirit of twentieth century man—a grasping for meaning and dignity within an environment of dehumanization and meaninglessness. He once said: “Nietzsche forecast our future for us—he was the Cassandra of the nineteenth century—he told us it’s all so meaningless we might as well be extraordinary.”

Bacon’s human corpses (his figures of Christ hung like mutton in a butcher’s shop) showed a belief in the absolute mortality of man without hope of redemption. “Of course, we are meat,” he said, “we are potential carcasses.”

Bacon’s distorted and idiosyncratic images bear eloquent witness to the actual events of the post-war period and more generally to twentieth century humanity’s innate capacity for mass violence. The artist as prophet, Bacon is the extreme voice of despair in which people are totally dehumanized, blurred, decrepit banshees. Robert Hughes writes: “In his work, the image of the classical nude body is simply dismissed; it becomes, instead, a two-legged animal with the various addictions: to sex, the needle, security, or power.”

While it may be true, as Bacon said, that “you only need to think about the meat on your plate” to see the general truth about mankind in his paintings, no modern artist has hammered at the twentieth century human condition with more repetitive pessimism.

Up until recently, the public has been exposed to Bacon’s finished paintings. Now with the release of the artist’s sketches from the Joule Archive, we get a glimpse of the genius at work.

Bacon first met Barry Joule in 1978, when the two men began a friendship that would last fourteen years. In April 1992, Bacon arranged to make a trip to Spain and asked Joule to drive him to the airport. Before they set off, Bacon gave Joule a collection of material, which Joule understood to be a gift. Bacon revealed little about the gift and died a few days later in Madrid.

This amazing bundle turned out to be an old photograph album full of sketches, as well as a number of books and a collection of over 900 photographic images—many of them worked over by hand. The album’s two covers are painted with large crosses, which have given the work its current name—”The X album.” The book’s inside covers feature drawings, and the 68 pages from the album held in the Joule Archive feature a further series of boldly worked oil sketches and collages, filling the front and back of the sheets. Many of the images in the album relate to Francis Bacon’s works from the ‘50s and ‘60s, and arguably, most of the album was executed toward the end of this period.

With Bacon’s Eye: Works on paper attributed to Francis Bacon from the Joule Archive (Barbican Art and 21 Publishing, 2001), we have reproductions from “The X Album.” This amazing work contains images that are, by turn, erotic, beautiful and appalling—yes, typically Bacon.

Related posts:

Responding to Oppenneimer and Lizza:Defending Francis Schaeffer’s influence on believers such as Michele Bachmann(Part 1)

Today I read an article in the New York Times, “Son of Evangelical Royalty, turns his back and tells the tale,” August 19, 2011. The liberal Max Brantley of the Arkansas Times Blog called this article by Mark Oppenneimer “the best reading of the morning.” Oppenneimer asserted: Edith Schaeffer also wrote books, and in 1977, Frank, an amateur filmmaker, […]

Francis Schaeffer’s “How should we then live?” Video and outline of episode 10 “Final Choices”

E P I S O D E 1 0 How Should We Then Live 10#1 FINAL CHOICES I. Authoritarianism the Only Humanistic Social Option One man or an elite giving authoritative arbitrary absolutes. A. Society is sole absolute in absence of other absolutes. B. But society has to be led by an elite: John Kenneth […]

Francis Schaeffer’s “How should we then live?” Video and outline of episode 9 “The Age of Personal Peace and Affluence”

E P I S O D E 9 How Should We Then Live 9#1 T h e Age of Personal Peace and Afflunce I. By the Early 1960s People Were Bombarded From Every Side by Modern Man’s Humanistic Thought II. Modern Form of Humanistic Thought Leads to Pessimism Regarding a Meaning for Life and for Fixed […]

Francis Schaeffer’s “How should we then live?” Video and outline of episode 8 “The Age of Fragmentation”

E P I S O D E 8 How Should We Then Live 8#1 I saw this film series in 1979 and it had a major impact on me. T h e Age of FRAGMENTATION I. Art As a Vehicle Of Modern Thought A. Impressionism (Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Degas) and Post-Impressionism (Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, […]

Francis Schaeffer’s “How should we then live?” Video and outline of episode 7 “The Age of Non-Reason”

E P I S O D E 7 How Should We Then Live 7#1 I am thrilled to get this film series with you. I saw it first in 1979 and it had such a big impact on me. Today’s episode is where we see modern humanist man act on his belief that we live […]

Taking up for Francis Schaeffer’s book Christian Manifesto

I have made it clear from day one when I started this blog that Francis Schaeffer, Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan and Adrian Rogers had been the biggest influences on my political and religious views. Today I am responding to an unfair attack on Francis Schaeffer’s book “A Christian Manifesto.” As you can see on the […]

Francis Schaeffer’s “How should we then live?” Video and outline of episode 6 “The Scientific Age”

E P I S O D E 6 How Should We Then Live 6#1 I am sharing with you a film series that I saw in 1979. In this film Francis Schaeffer asserted that was a shift in Modern Science. A. Change in conviction from earlier modern scientists.B. From an open to a closed natural system: […]

Francis Schaeffer’s “How should we then live?” Video and outline of episode 5 “The Revolutionary Age”

E P I S O D E 5 How Should We Then Live 5-1 I was impacted by this film series by Francis Schaeffer back in the 1970′s and I wanted to share it with you. Francis Schaeffer noted, “Reformation Did Not Bring Perfection. But gradually on basis of biblical teaching there was a unique improvement. A. […]

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: