Books

A Multi-faceted Look at Francis Bacon’s Psychology

The five essays in Bacon and the Mind: Art, Neuroscience and Psychology call us to grapple with an artist whose life and work were anything but simple.

Francis Bacon, “Head I” (1948) Oil and tempera on hardboard, Approx. 40½ x 29½ in. (103 x 75 cm) – irregular, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2019

In association with Thames & Hudson, the Estate of Francis Bacon has published the first in a series of books intended to elucidate Francis Bacon’s emotional motivations behind his celebrated paintings through the perspective of art, neuroscience and psychology. Though his source imagery was often illustrative photography (examples include Eadweard Muybridge’s naked male wrestlers and a screaming image from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film The Battleship Potempkin), Bacon famously tried to reject all narrative closure concerning his paintings. This book respects that wish and aims to protect Bacon’s work from the crippling crunch of closure.

Comprised of five essays, Bacon and the Mind: Art, Neuroscience and Psychology, is splendid to look at. Printed on lush matte paper stock are a plethora of color reproductions of Bacon’s paintings and a few images that influenced him. Some, like the darkly heated “Head I” (1948) and enigmatic, elegiac “Two Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer” (1968), gloriously take up a full page. For me this is excellent, in that I cannot abide sustained looking at Bacon’s actual paintings that sit behind the glass that he insisted upon putting over his visceral surfaces. Where the glass kills the unaffected grandeur of the paintings and tames the vividness of his spasmodic curling strokes, the book’s matte paper allows for deep looking at his paintings. Bacon said in 1963 that great art unlocks the valves of intuition and perception about the human situation at a deep level, and the matte allows for that as we dig into the essays.

Bacon and the Mind: Art, Neuroscience and Psychology book cover (all images courtesy the Estate of Francis Bacon)

Contemplating the intensity of Bacon’s images as I leisurely read the book’s first text by artist Christopher Bucklow, who, by tracking an asserted unconscious urge within Bacon’s oeuvre as the scourged white male body, argues that Bacon’s sexual attraction to his father, blurred by booze and memory, shaped the artist’s sensibility for physical lust and his comparable visceral ideas of art. The story goes that his father found the teenaged Bacon wearing his mother’s underwear and brutally beat him in the same Irish horse stable where Francis first enjoyed sex with a stable boy. Thereafter, women’s sexy fishnet stockings became a mainstay of the artist’s wardrobe as a way to ward off his bouts of melancholia.

Next, clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst Steven Jaron brings a neuroaesthetic reading to Bacon’s destructive drinking, sexual brutality, and gambling and risk, maintaining that these elements became part of Bacon’s “hard wiring.” Intelligently, Jaron’s psychology-based essay fruitfully turns to the earlier book by Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation which questions the implications of the artist’s habitual compulsive obsessions with “the wound.” Indeed, Deleuze has clearly described how Bacon ascends from actual wounded figurations to virtual sensations through his use of the diagrammatic field of consistency. According to Deleuze, Bacon found through his illustration-type images a way to paint in the non-narrative sweet spot of sensation that oscillates between the actual and the virtual.

“Portrait of George Dyer Crouching” (1966) Oil on canvas 78 x 58 in. (198 x 147 cm), Private collection © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2019

I find this argument compelling, but Bacon’s yearning toward sensational ‘wounding’ seems most concisely explained (if one wishes a convincing explanation) by Bacon’s flagrant masochistic ferocity. As Jaron mentions, it is well known that Bacon began in Berlin in 1927 to enjoy the brutality of sadomasochism. He especially enjoyed being beaten up by his great love Peter Lacy, who died of suspicious causes in Tangiers on the cusp of Bacon’s 1962 Tate retrospective. Bacon’s relationship with George Dyer, whom he met in late 1963, was also laced with stormy masochism and ended in tragedy. Just before the opening of Bacon’s 1971 Retrospective at the Grand Palais, Dyer was found dead from an overdose squatting on the toilet in their bathroom at the Hotel des Saint-Pères.

Such brushes with violent sex and death speak directly to the implied risks concerning Bacon’s virtuoso hit-or-miss engagements with oil paint: risks of creative destruction that obviously enriched his matière. Bacon’s flamboyant painterliness, arrived at as if by chance or accident on flat monochrome fields, exemplifies Andre Breton’s Surrealist declaration that “Beauty will be convulsive or cease to be.” Yet Dada-based Surrealist chance operations are scarcely mentioned in the book, perhaps because in his late work Bacon dispensed with flicking brushwork accidents and chance.

“Figure at a Washbasin” (1976) Oil and dry transfer lettering on canvas 78 x 58 in. (198 x 147.5 cm) Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Caracas © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2019

The psychoanalyst Darian Leader also offers stimulating insights from a Lacanian psychoanalytic perspective, including two key inverted mirrored incidents of great emotional impact for the artist. Peter Lacy and George Dyer both died, assumedly of alcohol and drug poisoning, on the eve of Bacon’s most important art exhibitions, but it is weirder than that. As Leader tells it, Bacon and Lacy broke up when Lacy found Bacon in flagrante delicto with another man in their bed in Tangiers; and Bacon found Dyer with another man in their hotel room in Paris, just before he croaked.

Next, John Onians explores Bacon’s creative destructive instinct in terms of neural plasticity and probes Bacon’s mind through a study of the curved horizontal lines in Bacon’s paintings. Onians postulates that these curved spatial lines come from the modernist tables Bacon made in the late-1920s (one is reproduced here) in the style of Le Corbusier and also points out that these curved thin lines echo the curved rails of the horse racing track where Bacon’s father lived out his career as a horse trainer and breeder. This is followed by a review of Bacon’s more general interest in animal intensity.

“Two Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer” (1968) Oil on canvas 78 x 58 in. (198 x 147.5 cm) Sara Hildénin Foundation, Sara Hildénin Art Museum, Tampere, Finland © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2019

Semir Zeki and Tomohiro Ishizu close the book out with a fascinating (if dry) neuroscientific academic paper on the brain science behind Bacon’s method of shocking by way of facial and figure deformation.

Though probably not every extravagant extreme of the artist’s life and work has been addressed here, Bacon and the Mind: Art, Neuroscience and Psychology is a rewarding plunge into his brain that every painter and lover of painting should take, especially those able to visit the current Bacon exhibition at the Pompidou Center entitled  Bacon en toutes lettres (Bacon: Books and Painting). That show (with this book in mind) ties Bacon’s paintings to the depths of his sadomasochistic mind as stimulated by the writings of Eschyle, Nietzsche, Bataille, Leiris, Conrad and Eliot. This range of considerations informs the haptic thoughts embedded in Bacon’s memory-fueled paintings, where information acts in unison with imagination.

Bacon and the Mind: Art, Neuroscience and Psychology, edited by Martin Harrison with essays by Christopher Bucklow, Steven Jaron, Darian Leader, John Onians and Semir Zeki is now available at Amazon.

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