The Grotesque in Francis Bacon's Paintings, 1999-2009

by Mariano Akerman, art-historian and researcher

Francis Bacon, Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror, 1968. Oil on canvas, 198 x 147.5 cm. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. "Perhaps one day I will manage to capture an instant of life in all its violence and all its beauty," Bacon, quoted by Paloma Alarcó, as she discussed this picture in 2001.

Bacon's paintings are mysterious and suggestive. They are ambiguous and constitute symbols of multi-leveled significance, which is conveyed through the artist's manipulation of the grotesque. As configurations of the ambiguous, Bacon's instinctive paintings engender both curiosity and perplexity, or even attraction and repulsion at the same time. Indeed, a well-balanced yet disquieting interplay between fear and desire, vulnerability and cruelty, suffering and apathy is characteristic of Bacon's instinctive paintings.
Tension and intensity, the combination of incompatible elements, and suggestions of the monstrous and the inhuman abound in the artist's imagery. Bacon uses the grotesque as a means of self-expression, which enables him to ambiguously communicate not only his fascination with power and violence, but also his haunted condition. The grotesque becomes therefore a truly convenient instrument of purgation and transcendence.
Aside from their extravagance, Bacon's instinctive paintings are far from being ornaments (i.e., mere accessories such as fanciful grotteschi or capricious arrangements in auricular style). Above all, they are inalienable personal reports that encapsulate a private truth—the artist's contradictory feelings and sensations, which are neither decorative nor entirely evasive.
Essentially paradoxical, Bacon's grotesque art is at once profound and superficial. And if the grotesque often involves the ridiculous, then the instinctive paintings are inclusive up to the point of mixing up the nonsensical with the serious. For Bacon's is an art of simultaneous witticism and unreasonableness.
Through his instinctive imagery, Bacon willingly walks along the border of an emotional precipice, suggesting his obsession with sex and death, his apathy in matters of vulnerability and suffering, and his irresistible fascination with power and aggressiveness.
With its immediacy and vagueness, Bacon's grotesque artwork at once reveals and conceals the painter's ultimate intentions, and in such a blurred way that the very notion of identity becomes problematic in the paintings.
By depicting the ambiguously combined and the equivocally suggestive Bacon disorients the viewer, who cannot establish precise meaning in his ever-changing images. Various readings are thus possible and they seem all equally valid. Considering that instinct implies the abolishment of morals, at the time of contemplating Bacon's imagery we are to arrive at our own moral conclusions (certainly irrelevant to the artist and his calculated lack of concern). At this point everything melts under our feet, because in Bacon's grotesque realm the only safe given is insecurity.
Today we know that the artist's instinctive paintings are not the sole product of accident or chance, as the painter might have liked us to believe. Significantly, the instinctive pictures constitute carefully planned compositions relating to Bacon's private life. Anti-illustrational or not, such instinctive images function as visual traps. As a whole, the painter's imagery persistently suggests a monstrous, double-edged reality.
In this context, we realize Bacon's manipulation of the grotesque and his decisive intervention in turning it into a useful vehicle for self-expression. Bacon's instinctive art proves to be profound, but is also problematic—a New Grand Manner of Painting merging the defiantly powerful, the disquietingly extraordinary, the suggestively monstrous, the sarcastically allusive, the theatrically manipulative, and the extremely personal.
As a species of confusion par excellence, the grotesque suspends belief and invites a search for meaning. Pushing us to consider alternative possibilities, the grotesque paralyses language and challenges categories. Grotesque art is basically thought-enlarging art.*
All this is particularly true in the case of Bacon, whose grotesque art conjures up multiple ideas and associations, to grant us an active role as both spectators and interpreters. This is possibly the ultimate meaning of the artist's pictorial freedom, at which he has arrived through a remarkable manipulation of the grotesque.
The entirely personal element that inhabits Bacon's instinctive paintings has an immense capacity to open the valves of feeling. It is this expressive, ever-changing element of Bacon's suggestive art which I find extraordinarily rich: pictorial instinct is a provocative, grotesque element which coherently unites Bacon's truth and our freedom.

Mariano Akerman, The Grotesque in Francis Bacon's Instinctive Paintings, July 1999; revised version February 2009, to mark the centenary of the artist's birth.

Francis Bacon, Self-Portrait, 1972. Oil on canvas, 35.5 x 30.5 cm. Gilbert de Bottom Collection, Switzerland.
* The ideas of this paragraph have their source in Geoffery Galt Harpham, On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982

© 2009 Mariano Akerman. All rights reserved. Material not to be reproduced or republished without the previous written authorization of its author.

Motif from the central panel of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (Francis Bacon, 1944) and its visual source of inspiration from Maladies de la bouche (Ludwig Grünwald, 1903). Original research. Comparison by Mariano Akerman. 2008. All rights reserved.


PrinceSitaDeCrisTaL said...

So you also speak english as well as spanish. It looks like i'm looking for u in all webs haha EXCELLENT WORK, I think i'm becoming a "fan" of you.


Sara Mahmood said...

I found this text communicates the "multilayered" genius of Bacon with a startling clarity. Each word you use makes its own distinctive contribution to understanding the power of this artist. This is not common when critics waffle on about the qualities of the artists whom they analyze. You use adverb and adjective combinations extremely well: "a grand manner of painting that merges the defiantly powerful, the disquietingly extraordinary, the suggestively monstrous, the sarcastically allusive, the theatrically manipulative etc."
All artists weave personal experience as well as their passion for particular aspects of the human experience and the influence of other artists into their work.

CdC said...

Keep on ωriting, great jоb!

M.E. said...

Highly energetic аrticle, I lovеd it a lot.

JP. said...

Great blog! I look forward to seeing your new developments over the time :)