Francis Bacon and Photography

Following the global publication of ‘Francis Bacon Catalogue Raisonné’ and the recent exhibition at the Grimaldi Forum in Monaco; ‘Francis Bacon, Monaco and French Culture’ The Fine Art Group wanted to release a small opinion piece about his life and works.

The temptation to see analogies between Bacon’s life and work is something that the artist himself encouraged[1]. Looking at the subject of Bacon and photography, one not only has to consider the medium’s influence on his artwork but also Bacon’s presence within photography. It is interesting to look at how his cultivated, enigmatic profile grew through the reproduction and propagation of his own image, despite his disdainfully stating that photography: “is a means of illustrating something and illustration doesn’t interest me.” This statement, however, is not reflected in his behaviour, and thus through weaving a narrative between his painting and his use of photography one can read a remarkable record of his life; not necessarily a direct reflection of it but “rather, an irregular echo, a reworking of lived experience.”[2]

Many of the most iconic images from Bacon’s life record an affected chaos; the photographs of his London studio (now relocated to Dublin) present a world of such extreme disarray to the point where it almost feels staged. “I believe in deeply ordered chaos”, he once said, and this is exactly how he presented himself –  the surface image of a man so anarchic in his order that it cannot be anything by the product of very careful planning. Bacon’s understanding of and slight disdain for photography allowed him to exploit the medium in such a way as to control and impregnate his own image with a disorder and grittiness that perfectly captured his espousal of a new bohemian lifestyle that took him worlds away from his conservative upbringing[3]. Famous photographs of him (often times taken by celebrated photographer and fellow member of the London School, John Deakin), such as that of Bacon standing topless holding up two halves of a butchered pig, recall, to great affect, not only the artist’s fearless embrace of more modern subjects but also portrayed his ability to make a likeness in which truth came unwrapped and unpackaged[4].

When Bacon was first exploring his artistic prowess, photography was by no means a new medium for it had certainly flourished as an art form in the early 20th century. The advent of photography, in fact, parallels a theme that is strongly present in Bacon’s work throughout his career – that of an unstoppable modernity grappling with a rooted artistic virtue that culturally lends itself towards respecting long-guarded traditions. Bacon’s oeuvre regularly walks the line between the historical and the contemporary or, more specifically, demonstrates how the contemporary can blur, change and contort the historical. One sees this in his choice of subjects; his numerous explorations of the Crucifixion and his use of aesthetically iconic works such as Velazquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X or Van Gogh’s Painter on His Way to Work (a work, incidentally that was destroyed during the Second World War and therefore, ironically, only now exists in photographic form).

By choosing subjects that are familiar to the viewer and emphasise strong cultural connotations Bacon provided a centre point to his paintings that is both recognisable and often canonical; from this point he then diverged dramatically, distorting the familiar images until the works take on an uncanny new life of their own, drawing the viewers in and alienating them at the same time.

His close friend and biographer, Michael Peppiatt, once wrote that: “In Bacon’s eyes the past lay waiting to be raided and reassembled in chance conjunctions which disrupted but drew from the continuum of tradition.” This statement enlightens us to part of Bacon’s main purpose in painting and highlights the reason for his somewhat fraught relationship with photography. It explains, in effect, what comes across as an artistic resentment of photography: “photographs are only of interest to me as records”, he declared in an interview with Michel Archimbaud in 1991. But perhaps they record too much too precisely. If Bacon drew inspiration from ‘raiding’ and reinterpreting the past, he was able to do so with a strong degree of freedom. Pictorial records of the distant past, pre-photography, are objects that were themselves reinterpretations of historical events. Photographs, one could argue, are too exact a record and become documents of fact that cannot be raided and reworked. In short, photography curtailed Bacon’s ability to ‘raid’ the past and present it to his viewers in a new format.

Contrarily, however, Bacon relied heavily upon photography in order to produce his work, using photographs in a way that Susan Sontag much later described as: “a pseudo-presence and a token of absence.”[5] The portraits Bacon painted of his friends, some of his most famous and poignant works, were all painted from photographs as he refused to paint from life – indicating that he required this absence in order to feel free to allow his artistic expression to take effect upon the images. Bacon once described friendship as: “Two people pulling each other to pieces”. In his portraits the friends are ‘taken apart, whipped, mauled, and distorted in the strange fury of his love; but they survive ennobled like the heroes of an epic struggle.’[6] And this was the process he used in metamorphosing the original image in the photographs, destroying as best he could the image-clarity of photography, the concrete factuality of the medium.

As the artist himself once said: “Great art is always a way of concentrating, reinventing what is called fact, what we know of our existence – a reconcentration… tearing away the veils that fact acquires through time.” Photography, it would seem, appeared to Bacon as one of these veils. As a consequence, it both curtailed and enhanced his work, as an art form that both threatened and inspired him but that he seemingly felt most comfortable with when the lens was under his control and when he and his life where the subject of the medium’s gaze.

Article composed by Morgan Long and Rebecca Jennings

[1] Domino, Christoph. Francis Bacon: Taking Reality by Surprise. Thames and Hudson, 1997, p. 13
[2] Ibid.
[3] Peppiatt, Michael. Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma. Constable and Robbins, 1996, p.61
[4] Influence and Inspiration: Francis Bacon’s Use of Photography. 1996. Visited 12/08/2016
[5] Sontag, Susan. On Photography
[6] Peppiatt, Michael. Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma. Constable and Robbins, 1996, p.273
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