Beauty In The Slaughterhouse: Francis Bacon’s Books And Painting

Bacon en toutes lettres, Centre Pompidou, Paris (through January 20)
Francis Bacon: Late Paintings, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (February 23 — May 25)

Reviewed by Sarah Stewart-Kroeker and Stephen S. Bush

Humans are susceptible to puncture and cut, and in the end, like all dead organic matter, we’ll spoil. Whatever else we are, we’re meat. Francis Bacon’s paintings incessantly remind us of these truths. Whereas Pablo Picasso’s cubism was perspectival and worked from side to side — merging left, center, and right, Bacon’s is physiological and works from the inside out: interior, surface, and exterior. Organs and bones intermingle with skin and hair. In his oeuvre, the human subject itself serves as the memento mori, it is always figured and disfigured, fleshy and skeletal, animated and decaying.

Georges Bataille, one of Bacon’s influences, wrote that the cultural predecessor of the butchershop was the temple, in which animals were sacrificed and then quartered and consumed. Moderns, in his estimation, have lost their sense of the sacred. In other times and places, bloody rituals bound the members of the community together as they ceremonially consumed the victuals. Today, we want our slaughterhouses out of sight, out of mind, lest we be forced to acknowledge the gore without which there would be no haute cuisine.

Francis Bacon, Second Version of Painting, 1946 (1971)

Bacon, too, took inspiration from the meathouse. He too would insist that we attend to the pervasiveness of horror that underlies ‘decent’ society. Butchery confronts the viewer in one of the very first paintings one encounters at the Centre Pompidou’s exhibition of Bacon’s work. In the artwork, Second Version of ‘Painting’ 1946 (1971), a man with a smeared face sits cross-legged against a bright yellow background, underneath a hanging cow carcass (with splayed limbs that reference Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox and in turn crucifixion iconography). He is surrounded by two slabs of meat skewered on a circular rail. An umbrella provides shelter, but casts a dark shadow even as it does.

The exhibition, Bacon: Books and Painting, emphasizes the artist’s literary influences. Interspersed throughout the presentation of sixty of his late works are six rooms devoted to authors that marked Bacon’s oeuvre: Aeschylus, Friedrich Nietzsche, Georges Bataille, Michel Leiris, Joseph Conrad, and T. S. Eliot. These rooms are barren except for the books themselves, accompanied by recorded readings of excerpts. (The minimalist presentation of the books lent them a certain aura, but more explanatory text would have helped orient the visitor to each author’s relation to Bacon’s style.)

Bacon painted a number of his friends repeatedly, though always from photographs. Working from photographs allowed for a different relation to the subject, otherwise inhibited by their presence. George Dyer, one of Bacon’s lovers, is a dominant presence in the works on display, most strikingly a series of three triptychs in the first full room of the exhibition, painted posthumously. Dyer committed suicide a few days before a major retrospective of Bacon’s work at the Galeries nationales du Grand Palais in 1971, which marks the beginning of the period on which the Pompidou exhibition focuses.

Much has been made of the violence of Bacon’s depictions of the human: the brutal mutilations to which he subjects his subjects. For Michel Leiris, a friend and one of the writers featured in the exhibition, this reflects Bacon’s voracious desire to reach the depths of the real — a penetrating desire that expresses not a will to ruin and destroy but an erotic drive to get to the very heart of things. Strikingly, however, Bacon’s use of photographs places him at a remove from the subjects whose presence he strives to represent. Photographs mediate his relation to and his representation of the subject. As we know from the examination of the contents of Bacon’s studio, many of the photographs from which he evidently worked were crumpled, folded, ripped, or painted over. These damaged photographs in one sense distance Bacon from the subject: not only are the photographs themselves material representations of the absent subject, but their damage further corrupts their representative imaging of the subject. The damaged photographic images mirror the reality of human vulnerability to damage Bacon seeks to capture. The advantage a photograph might be assumed to present the portraitist is its fixity, unlike a living, present human sitter. But Bacon introduces changeability to the photograph, and in so doing alters not only the photograph itself but the perception of the subject.

Working from these altered photographs allows Bacon a freedom of expression and representation that reflects at once a kind of disruptive violence — to the photograph, just as to the subject — and a transformation. A certain aggression toward the subject opens up a certain idealization. By all accounts, Bacon’s relationship with Dyer was deeply fraught, but the posthumous paintings in memory of Dyer are both intimate and dramatic. The triptychs of Dyer shown together in the first full room of the exhibition convey the damage to his body, his dissolution, and they also render him monumental in multiple modes. In Triptych August 1972, Dyer is affectingly vulnerable: the left panel portrays Dyer sitting on a chair, mostly nude, a Pepto-Bismol pink fluid seeping from his body and pooling on the floor. His face, eyes closed, is partially turned from the viewer, his brow well-defined, his mouth parted to reveal the whites of his teeth. His torso is partly overtaken by a creeping darkness that nearly severs his upper body from his legs, which dissolve into skeletal wisps. This triptych conveys dejection and dissolution but also a quiet, suffering dignity.

Triptych August 1972 (1972)

In the second series, Triptych May-June 1973, by contrast, Dyer is repulsively exposed in bodily excretions. In the first painting of the triptych, he is hunched naked and fetal-like over a toilet; in the third, curled over a sink, vomiting into it. In the center painting, neither toilet nor sink are in view but he is shown sitting in the same bathroom doorway, this time his head propped on his elbow, while a dark winged and horned shadow spills out onto the floor, a demonic form seeping from Dyer’s body. This is the darkest and most grotesque of the Dyer death triptychs. In the third triptych, In Memory of George Dyer, 1971, he is most alive, and imposing in his physicality. This series includes a figure of a prone boxer, fists raised; the second shows Dyer as a picklock, his body suited while his naked, muscled arm is framed against the white door; in the third, a bracing portrait of Dyer in profile seeps onto a reverse mirror image on a café table. The series of triptychs, placed together in one room, render Dyer a theatrically tragic figure.

The theatrical tension between dissolution and transfiguration may refer us to two other literary-philosophical influence featured in the exhibition, Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy and Aeschylus’ Eumenides (the final play in the Oresteia cycle and a dominant literary reference that traverses decades of Bacon’s work). Nietzsche thought art should penetrate to the roiling, ecstatic self-oblivion of the Dionysian substratum of reality, to a feeling of primordial unity at the “very heart of nature” — to be transfigured into symbolic, Apollonian dream-pictures that allow the spectator to pass through visceral Dionysian dissolution to contemplation of existence. From the encounter with the “nauseating and repulsive” Dionysian reality, art approaches to “transform these horrible reflections on the terror and absurdity of existence into representations with which man may live.”

For Nietzsche, the art-form that reconciles these two impulses is pre-Euripidean Greek tragedy (Aeschylus and Sophocles). Tragedy is born of the chorus: the tragic chorus is the key to the reconciliation of the Dionysian and Apollonian principles that animate art. The chorus interposes itself between the viewer and the staged drama as the “ideal spectator.” This is the principle of transformation that undergirds dramatic art: the viewer becomes the Dionysian reveler in the chorus, and the chorus beholds the Apollonian redemption in dramatic representation.

Second Version of Triptych 1944 (1988)

In this light, Bacon’s repeated reference to the Furies (goddesses of vengeance) in his late works, who are the chorus in Aeschylus’ Eumenides, takes on a particular cast. The Furies, as the tragic chorus, are the figures that mediate the Dionysian ecstatic dissolution in the horror and absurdity of primal existence and the Apollonian aesthetic redemption.

Two triptychs in the exhibition feature the Furies: The Triptych Inspired by The Oresteia of Aeschylus (1981) and Second Version of Triptych 1944 (1988), which is the second version of the famous Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944). Furies also appear in a number of other paintings, such as Seated Figure (1974); Painting March 1985 (1985); Oedipus and the Sphinx After Ingres (1983). In all cases, the Furies are deformed, sometimes bird-like, sometimes indecipherable (amoeba- or crustacean-like shapes with protruding arms), sometimes a jumble of limbs and bone, often blood-spattered, always monstrous. When Bacon paints them with mouths, as in the Second Version of Triptych 1944, they are gaping maws with bared teeth.

Water from a Running Tap (1982)

Nevertheless, Second Version of Triptych 1944 reveals a refinement in Bacon’s depiction of the Furies: in the 1988 version, the colors are more monochrome, the bodily forms are smoother, as if polished by the temporal interval of 44 years, and smaller in proportion to the open space in which they are framed. The second version is less claustrophobic; while the figures retain their violence, they impose themselves less aggressively on the viewer, set back in the spaciousness of the canvases.

When the Furies reappear in Bacon’s work after Dyer’s death, they are often taken to reflect his guilt, purely macabre symbols. But Nietzsche’s account of the tragic chorus highlights their mediating role. Not unlike the photographs that mediate both the violent dissolution and the transfigured representation of Bacon’s subjects, so too the Furies’ return accomplishes a certain shift in Bacon’s painting. Perhaps no painting better represents the Apollonian lightness that emerges from passage through Dionysian dismemberment than Water from a Running Tap (1982), a painting Bacon himself called “immaculate.” In Water, a tap, framed by a window-like geometric form, pours out a misty froth of blues and pinks. The pale, luminous blue of the window stands in the empty space of the rest of the canvas, an aperture circumscribed by delicate lines. Water is a painting of such airy beauty that it stands out like an oasis in the midst of so much blood and dark.

To speak of beauty in relation to Bacon’s work is jarring. Twentieth century artists, from Dada onward, rejected beauty for being too conventional, too conservative, too supportive of the status quo. Bacon would seem to fit this mold. His most frequent motifs–the grotesque, the disfigured, and the visceral–seem designed to repel attraction.

But Michel Leiris has a different take on beauty. In On Tauromachy (“On Bullfighting”), one of the books displayed in the Centre Pompidou exhibition, bullfights exhibit a disturbing “tauromachic beauty.” The graceful vectors of the bull and fighter, the charges and the spins, are marred but simultaneously enhanced by the violence. Drawing from André Breton and Charles Baudelaire, Leiris describes beauty as an attractive arrangement that has some stain, some fault. Beauty is not the perfect composition of static forms, but rather the “convulsive” (Breton) dynamism that comes from the presence of the ugly in the midst of the attractive. In the midst of the horrors of the twentieth century, artists cannot continue to idealize perfection, but neither can they–or we–do without beauty altogether. Ours will have to be a tainted beauty.

Study for a Bullfight, no. 2 (1969)

Bullfighting was the subject of several of Bacon’s paintings, two of which are included in the Pompidou exhibition: his ghostly last work, Study of a Bull (1991), and Study for a Bullfight, no. 2 (1969). Beauty, tauromachic or otherwise, is difficult to detect in these. In the latter, the bull and bullfighter merge in a frenetic blur against an ochre and pink background. A slightly concave panel depicts a crowd that appears more fascist than aficionado. At the painting’s edge, a cluster of tiny, unidentifiable persons sit in judgment. An amorphous dark blob in the foreground is perhaps the fluid remains, mixed with dust, of a prior contest. Is there beauty here? Perhaps in the gentle white curve of the bull’s backbone, a supple contour in the midst of fury and destruction. We find such moments elsewhere, as in Dyer’s closed-eye contemplative repose in the left painting of Triptych August 1972, uncannily peaceful even as the darkness overshadows his chest and torso. The proportions in Bacon’s work seem to be the opposite of what Leiris suggests. Beauty is not an appealing sight, made real by a blemish. Everything is blemish, with just a hint of the pleasant. This beauty is present in the most unexpected places. “How beautiful meat can be,” Bacon once remarked.

In Memory of George Dyer, 1971


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