Around this time last week we brought you a look inside Anselm Kiefer's studio as part of a sneak preview from a Phaidon Focus book we're publishing on the acclaimed German artist. Today our Phaidon Focus is on a series of Francis Bacon's most famous paintings inspired by Velasquez's Pope Innocent X portrait. Scholars have pored over the paintings and the possible inspirations behind them ever since Bacon painted them in the 1950s.
Bacon worked on his pope paintings, variations on Velázquez’s magnificent portrait of Pope Innocent X, for over twenty years. He was already exploring the idea while in the South of France in late 1946. The first surviving version (Head VI) dates from late 1949, and he finally stopped in the mid-1960s. Subsequently, Bacon announced that he thought the works ‘silly’ and wished he had never done them. He acquired endless reproductions of the Velázquez painting from books, but famously did not see the original when he visited Rome in late 1954.
Clearly Bacon was not just producing homages to a picture he loved. Artists have always made copies as creative exercises, and Bacon may have been particularly inspired by the example of Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), who made many transformations of pictures that he especially admired by Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), Jean- François Millet (1814–1875) and others. Bacon’s popes depart even further from their source, often replacing the pontiff’s head with the equally recognisable screaming face of the wounded nurse mown down by the soldiers’ gunfire in the Odessa steps sequence of Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin.
Study after Velazquez 1950 © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved
The insertion subverts the encapsulation of power and self-assurance projected by Velázquez. The screaming mouth, isolated from other facial features and divorced from any narrative context, suggests existential agony. The pathos of human vulnerability and loss of faith or conviction are accentuated by the precisely rendered space frames in many Bacon images of popes, which make the figures register as ‘enclosed in the wretched glass capsule of the human individual’, to cite the evocative phrase used by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy (1872), one of Bacon’s favourite books.
The papal theme may have had a more contemporary resonance for Bacon, given that he embarked on his variations in 1946 immediately after the completion of Painting, with its dense references to Nazi iconography. He may have been attracted to the Velázquez picture as an iconic distillation of power, which made it such a vivid precursor to Fascist propaganda photography. In later works in the series, Bacon inserted references to photographs of the then pontiff, Pope Pius XII, a controversial figure who was thought by some to have appeased the Nazis. A photograph of Pius on his throne, being carried from St Peter’s, appears in one of Sam Hunter’s 1950 studio montages, and was clearly the basis for some of the subsequent pope pictures.
Pope 1 - Study after Pope Innocent X by Velazquez 1951 © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved
Bacon’s obsessive reworking of the papal theme suggests that it may have possessed further significance and perhaps psychological charge for the artist in relation to his sexuality. It has been remarked that the Pope in official garb is in a sense the ultimate drag queen, or less literally that depictions of the Holy Father, known in Italy as ‘il Papa’, may encapsulate Bacon’s traumatic feelings about his own father. The latter was a conventional, inflexible military man to whom the teenage Bacon had felt sexually attracted, as he recalled many years later, but who brutally admonished and rejected him when he discovered his son’s homosexual inclinations. Such speculations about the possible ‘subconscious’ content of the pope pictures involve perhaps a rather crude application of the methods of Freudian psychoanalysis. Once again it is neither altogether possible nor helpful to pin Bacon down.
The Phaidon Focus series is designed as a lively, authorititive and accessible introduction to the work of the artists featured in the (initial) six-strong series (Kim, the editor, is already hard at work on the next instalment). As the title suggests, each features special Focus sections that explore specific and important themes, series, pieces or events in each artist's career, so whether you're new to the artist or you already know a bit you'll come away enlightened and, we hope, nourished. Take a look at the series in the store.
The Art of Francis Bacon
An Essay by John David Ebert
Francis Bacon’s art is the kind of art that surfaces into view when a World collapses. Like the art of Hieronymous Bosch or Pieter Brueghel, which unleashed a cavalcade of horrors at precisely the time when the Christian macrosphere was undergoing disintegration due to the impacts of new tools and principles of the scientific age then dawing — i.e. the perspectival grid captured in Durer’s 1525 woodcut of a Draughtsman Drawing a Recumbent Woman; the retrieval of Platonic mathematics by Copernicus — such an art opens up the Gates of Hell, as it were, and unleashes a flood of cosmic monsters which the functioning macrosphere had been specifically erected to defend Civilization against. Just as the walls of Medieval cities had kept the siegeing armies of the Vikings and later, the Moors at bay, so too, the Western mind had built ontological walls designed to keep the demons from the world Out There from infiltrating the collective consciousness of European society.
In Bacon’s case, it wasn’t the Moors armed with their newly acquired technics of gunpowder that brought down the walls, but the Nazis with their V2 rockets and their corporately manufactured Zyklon B nerve gas that ruptured, and then exploded, the West’s final metaphysical bubble, that bubble which the Swiss philosopher Jean Gebser termed the “Integral Sphere,” and which had come into being as a collective endeavor of all the arts and sciences of the nineteenth century, where it had served as an ontological sphere that gave a unity of purpose and metaphysical meaning to the project of Modernity taken as a whole.
It was in the aftermath of the great apocalyptic war that ended history, then, when the ancient monsters which the Christian mythos had captured, bound and thrust down into the underworld — sealing it with a huge cosmic rock — found that the entrance to their world had been blown open and that they were free, once again, to crawl about the surface of the earth. Such monsters, like the cosmic beings out of a Lovecraft tale, are invisible and not readily apparent to the senses, but it is precisely the task of the artist, of any age, to make the invisible visible.
And so the canvases of Francis Bacon came into being as an attempt to render these demons perceptible to our faculties of vision and sense in an age in which the structuring scaffolds of grand metanarratives no longer existed to defend us moderns against them.
The first such group of monsters to concern us are, of course, the three creatures of Bacon’s great work Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) [pictured above], a work which he always regarded as marking the inception of his oeuvre. He had already been painting since 1929 or so, but he regarded these early works as gauche and awkward attempts to find a style, a style which crystallized all at once in the 1944 triptych, his first real achievement as an artist.
It is important to note that, as the title indicates, this is a crucifixion, not the Crucifixion, for Bacon’s work is concerned with the formation of singularities, not the repetition of archetypes, which had been one of the main concerns of Modernism. For Bacon, it is true, does borrow the three figures at the foot of Grunewald’s great Isenheim Crucifixion — Mary Magdalene (left panel), Christ (center panel, indicated by the blindfolded Christ he has taken from Grunewald’s Mocking of Christ) and the lamb (right panel), but he transforms them beyond all recognition into monsters, and in doing so, articulates (albeit in the picture language of images) a complex theory of the morphogenesis of monsters. For Bacon’s work, despite all his hand waving at any attempts to find meaning in his canvases, is about the formation of singularities, and this early triptych represents the inception of that project.
Bacon’s theory here — even if only unconscious on his part — is that monsters are created through a complex process of morphological folding and stretching of organisms such that they are torqued and twisted until they no longer conform to any preexistent animal patterns. As Deleuze and Guattari point out in A Thousand Plateaus, it was the eighteenth century biologist Geoffrey St. Hilaire who proposed, in opposition to Cuvier, that all animals in nature are really only one animal, a primordial Uranimal that has been elongated, stretched and twisted during the processes of embryogenesis in order to specify all the earth’s animal forms. You get a cephalopod, he said, by folding a vertebrate in half from head down to tail: voila, a squid! Or a giraffe by stretching the neck of a vertebrate while simultaneously shortening its torso. Or a snake by removing the legs of a lizard and stretching it out lengthwise. And so on.
Deformities, likewise, St. Hilaire held, were created when a human being was born before the morphogenetic process was completed: a heteradelph, for instance, is really an individual arrested at a very early stage of embryogenesis before the organism has been fully differentiated. And indeed, when one glances at a page of nineteenth century drawings of embryogenetic processes throughout the animal world — such as those famously drawn by Ernst Haeckel, for instance — with all their pre-formed, half-formed and yet-to-be-formed embryos, and then back again at the creatures of Bacon’s triptych, one does begin to see that monsters are indeed created when the morphological folding of the organism during embryogenesis is arrested.
Certain things can happen to an embryo which would destroy the skeleton of a fully formed vertebrate: it can be folded in half, twisted asunder and shifted around as though it were a Creature Without Organs. But it is only the finished creature which corresponds to a pre-existent animal pattern and which is therefore not a singularity, but rather conforms to a Type that is already in existence. If the embryo, however, is born before the topological foldings are complete, then you have a monster: that is to say, a creature that does not conform to a pre-existent and therefore recognizable pattern.
Bacon’s project, then, which he announces in this first great triptych, is to create new forms, whether human or animal, by appropriating the folding and stretching processes of embryogenesis, forms which are, therefore, completely novel and which correspond to no known patterns or archetypes: singularities, in other words. This is why his project is so radically different from Modernism — despite its superficial similarities of figuration, etc. — because it is based on an ontological theory not of matching but of making. Modernism, and indeed, the entire history of Western art, was based on — or at least, consistent with — the old adequatio theory of truth in which there exists a correspondence between things and pre-established truths. A thing is true because it can be said to correspond to a pattern, usually Platonic, that pre-exists and makes possible, the truth itself.
But in an ontology of singularities, such as that which, for example, Deleuze articulates in his Difference and Repetition, truth is not about the correspondence of knowledge with its object. For Deleuze, the philosopher creates concepts by extracting singularities from the flow of cliches, banalities and conventions. Truth is not, for Deleuze, an old-fashioned matter of Platonic matching of the thing with the archetype that makes it possible in the first place, but rather the creation of really novel, and therefore fresh ideas, or in the case of Bacon, new forms.
Modernism, on the other hand, despite its ethic of “make it new,” was nonetheless Platonic in essence, since it was all about the rediscovery of mythic — and mathematical — archetypes, precisely the Jungian archetypes of the collective unconscious, which it made visible through the works of Picasso, Klee, Beckman, Chagall, etc. etc. who were all concerned, to one degree or another, with myth-making.
This is not the case, though, with contemporary art, which actually creates its own truths as it goes along. It does not match them to Platonic Forms, Ideas or otherwise already known categories, and it is therefore based on an ontology of making, not matching. This is why it is so hard for most people to grasp: because it does not refer outside of itself to some other, already known metaphysical world of Forms, and the mind therefore has difficulty getting a grip on it.
And this is precisely why Bacon belongs as one of the founding fathers of contemporary art and not, as he is commonly seen, as one of the last belated stragglers of Modernism. Everything in his work is new: nothing corresponds to or refers to other worlds or archetypes, mythic or otherwise, beyond the work of art itself. Bacon creates his own world as he goes along, constructing a semiotic of meaning that is entirely his own and which has significance only within the world of unique forms that he creates. It is, therefore, a hermetically sealed, self-enclosed and also self-referential world whose semiotics derive only from signifiers that refer to his own made up signifieds.
It is an art that takes place outside the metaphysical age, and all of its structures and metanarratives, which ended with Modernism and also, incidentally, History itself during World War II.
And so, lacking a pre-existent metaphysical universe within which to make sense out of his images, it seemed to Bacon (mistakenly) that what he was doing had no meaning and meant nothing. On the contrary: Bacon was like an alchemist constructing a tiny world of his own inside of a glass beaker; hence the significance of the famous perspectival cubes that he often used as staging for the exhibition of his images. They are hermetically sealed vessels inside which he invents tiny homunculi that he then proceeds to torture with his experiments. But what takes place inside these glass terrariums has no reference to any other world existing outside them. Such meaning as they have refer only to Bacon’s microverse and not to any other metaphysical macrosphere inside which his art takes place.
Bacon, that is to say, does not create in a world; his images are worlds unto themselves and therefore cannot be understood along the lines of any sort of Platonic theory of matching that tends to burden much art criticism, which often proceeds by examining the relation of this or that painting or work of art to earlier pre-existent works of art by way of which they are measured. There is some dialogue with the past, it is true, in Bacon: his fascination with Velazquez and Van Gogh come to mind. But of course his semiotic is not a pure one: it is still mixed with striations of Modernist agendas in which dialogues with the Old Masters were de rigeur. But such dialogues do not compose the fabric of Bacon’s microverse. They are merely atavistic organs left over from previous epochs of art evolution which are in no way essential to understanding how the new organism functions in the contemporary milieu in which it finds itself situated.
Bacon Descends Into Hell
The first such archetypal atavism, then, that we encounter as we proceed through Bacon’s oeuvre is his descent into the underworld, which begins with his shocking Painting 1946. This painting of a hanging side of beef split down the middle, and a man with the top of his head sheared away standing beneath an umbrella, functions in a way that is directly analogous to the ancient entrances to temples and cathedrals that were usually adorned with frightening threshold guardians. Think of the Kirtimukkhas of the Far East or the apocalyptic Christs on the west portals of European cathedrals.
Indeed, for the next decade or so, Bacon will spend his time sojourning in a murky, cavernous World Below populated by self-luminous figures that radiate their phosphorescence out of a dim and uncertain all-surrounding darkness: a collection of Popes and mysterious, anonymous businessmen that remind one of Homer’s twittering shades. This is the period of Bacon’s dialogue with Velazquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X, which appears to grow out of the series of heads that he paints beginning with Head I of 1948 (below), especially since Head IV is actually the first of the Pope paintings.
It is in Head I, furthermore (above), that Bacon first begins to construct his hermetic cube, a corner of which can be glimpsed surfacing into view above the screaming head in the top right corner. By the time of the first of the Velazquez Popes with Head IV (below), the cube has been constructed, and the screaming Pope sits securely within it, a prisoner of its semiotic overcoding.
This geometrical cube is a sort of apparatus of semiotic capture that Bacon constructs as a miniature coordinate system within which his laboratory experiments can take place. In the Age of the World Picture, as Heidegger described it, back in the 17th century, the entirety of Western science and philosophical thinking unfolded inside of a similar cube in the form of the Cartesian x, y and z axes, which were also an apparatus of semiotic capture, since anything that appeared inside them, such as the Scientific Object or the Philosophical Self, was immediately overcoded by the sign regime of the scientific episteme. Objects were deworlded, becoming pure things in themselves, and the Subject, too, in philosophy from Descartes’s cogito to Husserl’s Transcendental Ego, became a pure subject-in-itself, floating free of all world parameters. That particular cube signified the knowledge apparatus during the metaphysical age, and in the 19th century it disintegrated and gave rise to an epistemic sphere: as Jean Gebser points out, Modernist art is painted on the curved space of non-Euclidean geometry. By Bacon’s day, however, both Cube and Sphere were gone, bombed out of existence by the horrors of World War II, horrors which were so extensive that they reached all the way into the metaphysical plane and wrecked it, too, with the thoroughness of one of those Allied firebombings of German cities. Bacon, therefore, had to construct his own apparatus of semiotic capture in his art since there was no longer an extant one to overcode all of his art inside of a metaphysical and encompassing sphere of significance. Thus, it is precisely while journeying through his underworld that this semiotic cage, essential for all the rest of his art, is constructed.
The other thing that Bacon works out during his sojourn is his particular facial semiotic. It is precisely on the features of his anonymous businessmen that he proceeds to recode the human face by “defacializing” it, to use D&G’s term, in which he scrambles facial features in order to undo their signifying codes. Bacon’s faces are masks that do not signify on the West’s traditional plane of signification, but are, rather, asignifying masks that refer to nothing beyond themselves. In contrast to tribal art — which Picasso’s facializations often signify — in which the mask is always a mask of some spirit being or other entity that pre-exists the individual wearer and defacializes him by absorbing him back into the ancestral realm of the tribe, Bacon’s masks do not point to a signifying plane of recognizable entities or archetypes, for their facial features are completely scrambled and therefore signify, as he always said, nothing. They are, rather, masks that undo the codes connecting the figure to this or that pre-existent system of meaning, masks in which Bacon is unplugging the human figure from all such narrative systems whatsoever.
Long about 1956-57, an Event transpires in Bacon’s art, an Event that indicates his emergence from the underworld. This is the Color Event that begins with his dialogue with Van Gogh in the series of eight paintings that he did in 1957 as reworkings of Van Gogh’s 1888 Painter on His Way to Work. It is as though Bacon has come up from the dark, lightless underworld that had formed the interior of his world space for a decade and brought up from that underworld the shade of Van Gogh, like Orpheus attempting, but in this case, succeeding in bringing Eurydice back to the day world with him.
In Van Gogh’s painting, furthermore, there is a shadow cast upon the ground by the artist as he strides down the road in the middle of the day, and in reworking this image, the figure of the Shadow enters into Bacon’s canvases as a permanent acquisition, a sort of etheric scar of his journey to the underworld, which is composed of nothing but shades. In his lightless underworld paintings, there had been no shadows because there was no exterior light source, and a shadow cannot be cast without one. The figures were themselves shadows. But once he emerges from the underworld into the day world, with all its primary colors, the shadow can now be cast upon the ground before him as a reminder of the underworld etheric double that trails us as a sort of absent signifier throughout all our life, as Peter Sloterdijk puts it in his Spheres I: Bubbles.
From this point on, Bacon will keep largely within the daylight world in his canvases, where objects are not self-luminous but rather illumated by exterior light sources (Van Gogh was a painter who was at his best in daylight scenes). Indeed, it is almost as though the shade of Van Gogh has been brought forth from the underworld, so that Bacon can sacrifice him and infuse his substance into Bacon’s canvases as a new Color Event that signifies the artist’s shift from Night to Day.
But the Shadow, from henceforth, never leaves Bacon’s canvases, where it remains as a floating signifier waiting to be filled in, as indeed, it was, by the time George Dyer entered his life.
Dyer entered into Bacon’s life in 1964 and became his primary lover until Dyer’s death by suicide in 1971. Bacon’s first portrait of him, a triptych (shown above), appears in 1964 at just about the time that Bacon was becoming preoccupied with portrait studies of specific individuals, an obsession that would remain characteristic of his canvases for the next decade (in addition, of course, to the interiors). Bacon painted very few portraits of people he did not know, and his immediate circle of friends appear and reappear all throughout his canvases, sometimes as close up head shots, sometimes as figures in his interiors, during this period: Muriel Belcher, Isabel Rawsthorne, Lucian Freud, Henrietta Moraes and Dyer himself all form a kind of tribe for Bacon, whose features he defacializes and then refacializes onto the plane of his own signification.
In doing so, Bacon is, of course, operating within the convention of the portrait study that extends back to Jan van Eyck and Giovanni Bellini, but whereas those portraits took place within the great metaphysical age, Bacon’s take place within the post-metaphysical age and therefore, do not have the same codes of signification as the great portraits of classical Europe. The great European portraits are facializations of men and women that signify their coding into the Age of the World Picture, in which they are transformed into Pure Subjects beholding a realm of Pure Objects in infinite space. The cogito of Descartes and the transcendental subject of Kant are basically the metaphysical scaffolding into which the great European portraits are plugged, and from Descartes to Husserl, the subject of the Portrait is simultaneously the transcendental subject of the metaphysical age.
But with the collapse, as I have said, of Cartesian phase space by the time of Modernism, the portrait study had to be reterritorialized onto the curved sphere of non-Euclidean geometry that formed the cosmology of Modernism, an art of which Picasso was, of course, the great master. By the time of Bacon, this world is gone, and so his portrait studies no longer refer to such planes of signification. The asignifying mask that he had developed during his journey through the underworld in the 1950s of his anonymous businessmen is now transplanted to the specific faces of real, actual individuals, who are thereby refacialized onto the plane of Bacon’s own personal realm of signification, which is a realm of singularities and novelties, and not, as I have pointed out, Platonic archetypes.
His 1968 painting, Two Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer (shown above), is the closest thing to an aesthetic credo that can be found in his art, and shows the viewer exactly what he is up to: Dyer is depicted sitting cross-legged in a chair beside one of Bacon’s own portraits of him, which leans up against a blue wall. The portrait is a work in progress, and only the figure of Dyer, with a head that looks like it has been split in half, has been completed.
Dyer is, of course, Bacon’s main subject during this period: he is painted so often as a figure in Bacon’s art that one begins to suspect that he functions in the role of Bacon’s alter ego (Bacon, in the early 60s, had just begun to execute self-portraits, but when Dyer showed up in 1964, these largely ceased). In this respect, he functions as an equivalent to the electronic avatar which all of us, nowadays routinely, cast forth as a shadow into the electronic flatland, one of Baudrillard’s famous simulacra that are currently replacing the Real.
So, in other words, the Shadow that had first appeared in any significant way in Bacon’s art beginning with the Van Gogh series in 1957 is a role that is now taken over by Dyer himself, who becomes a sort of three-dimensional personification of it. Dyer was, in other words, Bacon’s shadow, and Bacon plugs him into the role of the Shadow in his art.
Thus, in the painting Two Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer, Bacon is showing us how Dyer functions as Bacon’s Shadow, his substitute avatar, as it were, on his canvases, by representing a half-finished canvas of his him as figure minus ground leaning against the wall. The series of nails that Bacon has painted onto Dyer’s image on the unfinished painting within the painting tell the viewer that Bacon is nailing his refacialized figures onto the plane of his own semiotic significance (in this painting, represented by the black, unfinished surface of the canvas which functions as a stand-in for the hermetic cube) where, because they do not refer to any pre-existent faces or achetypes, they signify non-specific, that is to say, n-dimensional entities. They are like topological complexities in n-dimensional space that are very difficult for the mind to get a grip on. But the key thing to understand is that by not referring back to the plane of Modernist signification, where they would be tribal or mythic figures, they are not merely two-dimensional figures, for the figures of myth and tribal facializations are of fewer not more dimensions than the physical world. Myth flattens out three (or perhaps four) dimensional reality into the two-dimensional world of eternal repetitions and shorthand abbreviations into single images of complex cosmological processes. Myth compresses and flattens; it does not complexify.
Bacon’s project in this respect should be starkly contrasted with what Andy Warhol was up to at exactly the same time in New York City. Warhol, as I have discussed in my study of him in Dead Celebrities, Living Icons, was the great Icon painter of the world of the celebrity. What Warhol captured in his silkscreens was not three-dimensional celebrities themselves but rather their two-dimensional avatars as processed through electric and photographic vision machines. The celebrity’s descent into electric circuitry, which really began to take off in the 1950s with James Dean, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, was a process of generating two-dimensional avatars that took on their own independent life in the mediatized world, often gaining strength in direct proportion to the loss of the real celebrity’s own vitality.
But the classic 1950s larger than life celebrity was a forerunner and prophet of the world which we all inhabit today, for with the democratization of the cult of the celebrity via YouTube and other social media, everyone nowadays generates their own electronic avatars as a matter of course. We now live in the 2D Society that came into being immediately after the collapse of the Modernist macrosphere at the end of World War II, during which period a landscape of shopping malls, resort hotels, business buildings and theme parks emerged as a world of non-places void of meaning and historical significance, culturally denuded and therefore flat. A world of advertising logos, in other words, that has come to replace the traditional complexities of the Old European metaphysical world of nation states signified by flags and coats of arms.
But the task of the contemporary artist is to resist all this by creating microworlds as little machines that reverse entropy with n-dimensional, not two-dimensional, constructions that no longer refer to traditional planes of signification, such as those of the mythic or Cartesian kind, but which also do not refer to the two-dimensional plane of virtual reality, either. Bacon’s facializations of the 1960s, then, counter this flattening of the human being into electric avatars by creating a plane of signification upon which his Figures are n-dimensional complexities that must be understood on their own terms. Bacon’s project, then, though it may not have been known to him consciously, was nevertheless to create a realm of singularities and complexities that specifically function as a counter-environment to the prevailing ad logo world that was then in process of closing down around us and has now captured all of us into its codes.
Disintegration of a World
With Dyer’s death by drug overdose, then, in 1971, another major Event transpired in Bacon’s art, the last, and perhaps the most transformative of all. In committing suicide by drug overdose, Dyer played the role that is normally played by the disoriented celebrity whose avatar has the paradoxical effect of shrinking him down into a realm of dissolution and disintegration into drugs and alcohol. But it is Bacon who is the star of the show, not Dyer, who merely played the role of the shadow, but a shadow which, by being represensted obsessively in Bacon’s paintings, was nevertheless made famous. When Dyer died, however, two things happened to Bacon’s art: first, Bacon began to represent himself in a series of obsessive self-portraits that extended all throughout the 1970s, as though he were trying to fill in the gap left by the missing signifier of Dyer’s sudden absence from his world. And secondly: the impact of Dyer’s death resulted in the slow, gradual disintegration of Bacon’s interiors along with his hermetic cube.
At first, Bacon wrestles with Dyer’s death in a series of triptychs, as for instance in the 1971 triptych called In Memory of George Dyer (shown above), in which Dyer is represented in the center panel specifically and unmistakably as a shadow reaching up to unlock a door (probably on his way back to Bacon’s underworld). And in the famous Triptych May-June 1973 (shown below), where Dyer’s death is represented in a sequence of images that show him vomiting into a sink in the right panel and dying on the toilet in the left. But in the center panel Dyer is show being nearly engulfed by an ominous and mysterious Shadow with a shape that does not resemble Dyer, or any human being at all, but which is unmistakably that of a demon, and specifically the demon that most art scholars identify with the Furies that now come to haunt Bacon’s work from henceforth.
Monsters, mostly absent from Bacon’s art for nearly a decade, now begin to reappear in his art, heralded by the death of Dyer at precisely the point at which the walls enclosing his interiors in a protective membrane now begin to come down, leaving him vulnerable to their impact. This is immediately evident in the Triptych May-June 1974 (shown below), which depicts, for the first time, one of Bacon’s interiors — minus walls — as a sandy island out on a beach with the sea and the sky looming in the background. Dyer, significantly, is represented as a figure in all three panels.
With the opening up, then, of what had hitherto functioned as a closed, hermetically sealed box inside which Bacon’s experiments could take place, the monsters begin to enter in: the creature that had formed Dyer’s shadow in the Triptych May-June 1973 makes its first appearance in the Seated Figure of 1974 (shown below), where it is seen floating into one of Bacon’s interiors in which a seated figure is turning away from a rectangle that opens up the entire right side of the canvas to a blue void (the sea?) from whence the ominous creature comes floating in.
We also see this same creature hovering over the geometric cube in the 1976 Figure in Movement (shown below), as though it were an avenging angel of death come to destroy Bacon’s semiotic machine.
The same figure turns up in its most vivid form as the left panel of Bacon’s 1981 Triptych Inspired by the Aeschylus of Oresteia (shown below), which confers on it its identity as an avenging Fury.
But all through the later 1970s, the walls of Bacon’s interiors have been melting away into featureless orange or vanilla colored voids; or else huge black rectangles begin to come in like swallowing mouths where they dominate the canvases, as in Triptych August 1972 (shown below).
It is precisely at this point that Bacon’s landscape paintings begin to appear, just as the walls of his interiors are disintegrating. With this spherological collapse, as Peter Sloterdijk would put it, the outer world of Nature which Bacon had so assiduously excluded from his canvases for so long begins to surface into view, announcing the end of his microworld. In Landscape 1978 (below), the semiotic cube becomes transparent to a field of grass upon the curved surface of the earth:
then it disappears altogether in A Piece of Waste Land in 1982 (below):
In the first version of Jet of Water in 1979 (reworked in 1988 as one of his final canvases) a gush of water that had first been glimpsed as the sea on the horizon in the earlier triptych now comes in like a drowning flood to begin washing Bacon’s interiors away for good:
By the time of the 1983 Sand Dune (shown below), the semiotic cube that had once contained his hermetically sealed interiors is now completely buried beneath a huge hill of sand, like a civilization that has been swallowed up at the end of its cycle by Nature:
It was Dyer’s death that had set in motion this chain of disintegration that led to the collapse of Bacon’s microsphere and his semiotic cube, and so, with his last painting, the Study from the Human Body of 1991 (shown below), the viewer is confronted with a final, enigmatic image, one of the strangest and most innovative of Bacon’s entire career:
Dyer is depicted at the edge of one of Bacon’s interiors, now shown receding into the background, but he has somehow sunken halfway down into the floor of the interior, while the semiotic cube has retracted and withdrawn to the point where it just frames Dyer’s head. Dyer’s form hangs near the edge of a precipice, and it is as though we are shown, for the first time, the hidden stage set, constructed out of a series of wood panels, upon which Bacon had been staging all of his art for his entire career. The image is like the final image of Peter Weir’s film The Truman Show, in which the character of Truman, while guiding his boat, punches a hole into the stage wall of what he had assumed to be a real sky but which turns out to be only a set. In Bacon’s final image, the exhibition space is gone and Dyer is shown as though he were the meteorite that had crashed into it, signifying the beginning of its dissolution into the abyss. Whatever world exists on the canvas to the left of the painting, we cannot see.
But perhaps it is only Death.
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