Francis Bacon’s work challenged everything I initially knew about art. Art to many is dominated by the creations of the ‘masters’ and is thought to be strictly a fine art practice of achieving beauty and perfection used for economic benefit. However, when examined closely, art is a manifestation of our entire existence- a manifestation of our individual human experience (both independently and collectively), a time-travelling vessel of history and ideas, but fundamentally a window into the psyche of an individual – the artist. The book ‘Bacon and the mind: Art, Neuroscience and Psychology’ opens the discussion for a psychological analysis of Francis Bacon’s work and considers the psychological influences on the role of the ‘artist’. It aims to uncover the unconscious decisions and desires that lead to the very brushstrokes of Bacon’s defining works and pieces.
The book consists of a culmination of essays written in exploring Bacon’s work psychologically. The first essay – ‘The Lens Within the Heart: Bacon’s Memory Theatre’ is written by Christopher Bucklow and centres on how Bacon’s work acts as a mirror to his inner desires -giving a life form to his inner duality and conflict.
Below are a series of extracts from the essay I was drawn to and my notes in relation to the work
“Images were handed to him, like a medium, from the same mysterious source… Daimon, his poetic anti-self, personal and yet resplendent with all supernatural gleams of the godhead”Extract from Christopher Bucklow’s Essay ‘The Lens Within the Heart: Bacon’s Memory Theatre’, within ‘Bacon and the Mind: Art, Neuroscience and Psychology’ page 13
The idea that his work was instinctive and came from something inside him makes his work feel untarnished. The essay compared his approach as almost ‘uneducated’ or childlike. This comparison is not to be assumed to be a negative criticism of his works but what makes his work admirable. It encompasses the underlying innate desires of the unconscious without pre-thought inhibition on how to please the visual world and audience. Comparing his work to a ‘medium’ was extremely interesting, something I never considered when looking at his art. This idea that he is communicating with a higher version of himself or an ‘anti self’ seemed striking and contributed to this authentic narrative. Similarly, this influence from parapsychology and the supernatural highlights how Bacon was never satisfied with what he knew and was curious in discovering and understanding the unknown or unfamiliar parts of himself- like a medium.
“My sense is that this triptych does not depict three separate seers, but rather once, caught in the frames of short film documenting her shifting tormented form…There in the poem’s epigraph (Eliot’s The Waste Land), the prophetess is neither dead nor living, but in perpetual limbo, and when asked what she wants, replies only she wants to die – as I think she must have been slowly doing with bacon at this time”Extract from Christopher Bucklow’s Essay ‘The Lens Within the Heart: Bacon’s Memory Theatre’, within ‘Bacon and the Mind: Art, Neuroscience and Psychology’ page 13
The idea that something is neither ‘dead nor living’ epitomises the essence of Bacon’s work as a whole but primarily his piece Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. His work, in a way, thrives under this idea as he tries to depict a part within himself that is so distant from the conscious mind and normality in society. Therefore, these parts rarely can be compared to life and are closer to something dead or something somewhere in-between- like a psychological purgatory. The figures displayed in his work are somewhat familiar to humans as they resemble certain elements of human or animal anatomy. However, the complete annihilation and mutilation of the figures remind the viewer, and Bacon himself, of how perpetually odd parts of existence are. Bucklow perfectly describes this oddity as being ‘in limbo’ – in a state of two worlds at once. This interpretation of his work concerning Eliot’s poem shares a sense of light into the paradox that Bacon encompasses. Similarly, the idea that the three figures are the same and morph between the three canvases links to a more personal element in his life. Linking this change with the influence of Christianity in his life may suggest his self-evaluation or self-awareness stripping him of his sense of his humanity or, on the contrary, comparing him to an animalistic figure.
“Given Bacon’s own title for the paintings, the prophecy which this furious Daimon delivers must be that of death by crucifixion. Fear death by cross. But whom does the prediction concern? The ego or the Daimon herself? Could it be the ego that goes to death, as in Bacon’s masochist fantasies of symbolic ‘dismemberment’ during the physical and psychological pulverising he sought and longed for at the hands of his lovers? Or does the prophetess prophesy her own demise?”Extract from Christopher Bucklow’s Essay ‘The Lens Within the Heart: Bacon’s Memory Theatre’, within ‘Bacon and the Mind: Art, Neuroscience and Psychology’ page 16
Though the title Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion was not to directly link with the Christian interpretation of the Crucifixion or link directly with Christian ideologies, his life and work were always somewhat intertwined with the very idea of Christianity. Potentially, the existence of Christianity and its values have unconsciously tormented Bacon’s unconscious ‘Daimon’ and the ego. The idea of ‘fear by the death of the cross’ seems to define the three works as the three figures change form. Could this be Bacon revealing his innermost fears, desires and thoughts that ultimately challenge his humanity? The raw vulnerability present seems natural and defiant and does not seem weak with humiliation which further highlights what Bucklow mentions- which part of him fears the cross? Is his unconscious mind scared of his being or is it his conscious mind? Or is it not him at all?
“He was also seemingly a willing victim of the materialist viewpoint, by who held to its tenets with alacrity, while at the same time being wounded by them. What consolations must it have offered? For we even see materialism infecting his psychology- which was rat run and behaviourist in his mechanic concentration on the nerves”Extract from Christopher Bucklow’s Essay ‘The Lens Within the Heart: Bacon’s Memory Theatre’, within ‘Bacon and the Mind: Art, Neuroscience and Psychology’ page 17-18
Bacon, infatuated by his emotional desires/feelings and the materialist viewpoint, provides an honest dissection of his inner psyche. His conflict between understanding himself and understanding the world makes his work feel somewhat more normal and human. In an interview with Bacon, he claims that people may feel horror when they look at his work and are disgusted – which is a response many do encompass with his work. However, he continues by saying that his work is essentially a mirror- a true depiction of reality. Other artists, in his eyes, may create this false narrative and imagery of a happy and peaceful world, but Bacon argues this to be a covered-up version of reality. The horror in his work is the reality that he might have encompassed through challenging his existence- by questioning if his feelings are real or just a biological materialisation.
“He thinks of narrative as illustration, which he is always against. Narrative as he sees it is illustrating a pre-existing idea, a pre-existent story… He prefers the work to remain in picture language, the language of the Daimon, the only language the Daimon speaks, a language that cannot be translated without mangling its beauty, or destroying the sense and restricting its power of allusiveness”Extract from Christopher Bucklow’s Essay ‘The Lens Within the Heart: Bacon’s Memory Theatre’, within ‘Bacon and the Mind: Art, Neuroscience and Psychology’ page 18
To some extent, this interpretation sums up Bacon’s wider influence on other future art movements and developments. Much like many other artists of his time, artists became primarily concerned with the visual image’s instinctive emotional response between the viewer- completely rejecting the idea of narrative, meaning or storytelling. This idea, further supported by existentialist writers, suggests that a work of art had to be unconstrained by pre-thought out ideas or trials of composition as it begins to lose authenticity and direct links to the unconscious. The work becomes tarnished and tainted by conscious thought and external factors. Therefore his instantaneous approach to painting sparked a new deeper psychological creation of art that began to reflect an equal part of the artist as it did the art itself.
“if the 1962 Guggenheim (illus?) triptych was painted on the wall of a pyramid chamber, we would have no difficulty in identifying it as an image of the journey of the soul… If the same image was discovered under the whitewash on the walls of an English Parish church we would have no trouble seeing as an expulsion, a stern Father god at left banishing a son, never to return. Everything is affected by context”Extract from Christopher Bucklow’s Essay ‘The Lens Within the Heart: Bacon’s Memory Theatre’, within ‘Bacon and the Mind: Art, Neuroscience and Psychology’ page 25
Linking to the ideas from above, context can systematically change the viewers’ interpretation of the work. This isn’t to say that Bacon’s work shouldn’t be considered in isolation, but interpreting his work for symbolism or iconography, whether intentionally created for symbolic reasons or not, should be considered.