Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Linda Nochlin on Francis Bacon's 'Triptych – May–June 1973'

For me, realism is an attempt to capture the appearance with the cluster of sensations that the appearance arouses in me. As for my latest triptych and a few other canvases painted after I re-read Aeschylus, I tried to create images of the sensations that some of the episodes created inside me.

I could not paint Agamemnon, Clytemnestra or Cassandra, as that would have been merely another kind of histori-

cal painting when all is said and done. Therefore, I tried to create an image of the effect that was produced inside me. Perhaps realism is always subjective when it is most profoundly expressed. When I look at grass, sometimes I feel like pulling out a clump and transplanting it inside a frame, but of course that would not “work”, and we are rightly forced to invent methods by which reality can force itself upon our nervous system in a new way, yet without losing sight of the model’s objectivity.

— Francis Bacon, letter to Michel Leiris, 20 November 1981

Francis Bacon created this ambitious Triptych in May and June of 1973. In the artist’s terms, as scrupulously articulated in the letter to the French critic Michel Leiris cited above, it is certainly a realist work, although it hardly corresponds to less personal definitions of realism. Its iconography refers to a real event, the death of his lover; its mode of expression to the visceral profundity – Bacon’s reality – of the effect produced by this terrible occurrence.

It was in the late 1960s and 1970s that Bacon created his series of triptychs, not all of them completely successful, but many of them powerful and disturbingly original. According to the French theorist Gilles Deleuze in his Francis Bacon: Logique de la sensation (Francis Bacon: the Logic of Sensation, 1981), the triptych form enabled the artist to engage with the human figure without being drawn into the conventional storytelling mode. “It’s not only that the painting is an isolated reality, and not only that the triptych consists of three isolated panels and the fundamental rule that they never be united into a single frame: it’s rather that the Figure itself is isolated in the painting… And Bacon has often told us why: in order to avoid the figurative, illustrative and narrative character that the Figure would necessarily assume if it weren’t in isolation.”

In this work, however, one of the most memorable of the great triptychs of the 1970s, Bacon is less set than usual on staving off the demon narrative. Here, contrary to Deleuze’s assertion that the form serves an isolating function, it seems to me that the images beg to be read as a story, from left to right. And the story, at once personal and melodramatic, is riveting: the suicide, just before the opening of a major retrospective of Bacon’s work in

1971–1972 at the Grand Palais, of George Dyer at the Hôtel des Saint-Pères in Paris. The ignoble furniture of daily recuperation – the toilet, the sink, the starkly singular light bulb – become the instruments of Dyer’s Passion. To the left, he shits; to the right, he vomits; in the centre, he hovers against the black background, which is transmuted into a giant shadow, his shadow. In the opaque darkness, death itself assumes the form, however inchoate, of a giant bat, a consuming demon, a revenging angel. Sex, death and the throes of creation are at one here, as Jean-Claude Lebensztejn pointed out in a brilliant catalogue essay for the 1996 Bacon retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, an extended analysis of the recurrent squirt of white paint streaking across the surface of many of the artist’s most intense canvases of the period. Figured as a kind of materialised sexual spasm, a jet of sperm, the white spurts up in the final, right-hand image of the triptych, in which Dyer, who has overdosed, spews up his soul into the hotel washbasin.

Why this persistent “fear of narrative”, permeating not only Bacon’s own statements about his work – “ I could not paint Agamemnon, Clytemnestra or Cassandra, as that would have been merely another kind of historical painting when all is said and done” – but most of the critical analyses of his work, both pro and con? Almost everyone who has discussed Bacon – most prominently Deleuze, but David Sylvester as well – hastens to defend the artist from charges of illustrativeness, calling attention to his anti-narrative strategies, strategies in which the format of the triptych, the isolation of the human figure and the patent flatness of the pictorial siting play an important role. Yet if one examines the formal structure of Triptych – May–June 1973, one cannot help but be struck by Bacon’s deliberate effort to create connection among the three images, rather than isolation of the individual elements. The human protagonist at various stages of his dying is bound to his tragic fate by the repeated vertical counter­point of the architectonic framework of wooden panelling, a motif that plays against the dynamic curvilinear interjections of the human form and its appurtenances, and is bracketed at either end by a realistic light switch and wire, such as might be found in the Hôtel des Saints-Pères and marks the event’s specific time and place. The story is narrated in terms of this structure, its sequential agonies staged against the repeated greyish blankness of the rug at the bottom of each panel. Certainly in terms of Bacon’s definition of realism, it is a realist work, but, to me, it is a realist narrative as well.

Anti-narrative defensiveness is understandable enough in the context of the heady days of Abstract Expressionism (which Bacon ostensibly hated, but which obviously exerted a certain seductive power on his formal language), an era when “illustration”, “decoration” and “narrative” functioned as the signs of artistic failure. Nobody, however, really explains just why illustration and narration are such terrible sins, temptations to be avoided at all costs. After all, British art, from Hogarth to the Pre-Raphaelites and beyond, has had a considerable positive engagement with narration – and often narration in the service of morality at that.

Perhaps that is why Bacon and his supporters have been particularly keen to separate the artist from this tradition, to make sure that he is seen and judged as a player in the game of international modernism,as a painter whose formal inventiveness and up-to-date kinkiness and anguish sever his work completely from all connection with the fuddy-duddy past of British pictorial history. But this would be a shame, especially in the case of the 1973 Triptych and some of the other ambitious works relating to it, such as Triptych – In Memory of George Dyer (1971), or Triptych – August 1972, also three-part pictures, recalling, however dimly, the religious triptychs of Christian art.

Almost from the beginning, Bacon’s work has been engaged with temporality, making, at the very least, a flirtation with narration almost unavoidable. Or one might say, more accurately, that Bacon’s imagery, his considerable formal gifts and his technical bravura have been harnessed to change – sexual struggle, the metamorphosis of man into meat, or vice versa; the disruption or coagulation of the structure of face and body, the blatant reduction of the dignity of the human form into a trickle or a puddle of paint; and, at the end, time’s grimmest depredation: the horror, bestiality and meaninglessness of death itself.

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