Francis Bacon: How necessary is context?

Freya Doggett 12 February 2020

Picture your bog standard art exhibition. Setting: Tate Britain. Temperature: 3 degrees higher than is comfortable. Notice how the visitors drift from room to room at varying pace – yet most remarkable is their intent focus on the paragraph of text that introduces the context of the paintings or works of art in question.

A couple of weeks ago, I visited the Bacon en toutes lettres exhibition at the Centre Pompidou. I don’t fully know what it was about this collection of his works that so forcefully captivated me, but it certainly wasn’t the context or theme. The idea of Francis Bacon’s works being linked to philosophical writings and literature found in his personal library was the central focus, and bar the initial paragraph of writing on the wall in the first room to introduce the exhibition, there was no textual information to construct an opinion from, which was actually remarkably refreshing.

Many people, most noticeably (to me) my mother, are understandably disturbed by his choice of subject matter, and decide they dislike Bacon as an artist. Ranging from mauled animal carcasses to tangled lumps of human flesh that are either anchored to a table by a syringe or enclosed in a cage-like structure, it would be somewhat out of the ordinary to be left unfazed.

One inevitably wonders what could possibly have happened in Bacon’s life to cause his creative output to be so vehemently bestial. Stifled by conservative tradition during his childhood, his future was going to go one of two ways. And since it panned out that he was not only homosexual but also inherently creative, the option of remaining on good terms with his military, and militant, father was somewhat eradicated.

Theories abound concerning the whys and wherefores of the dodgy father-son relationship with regard to Bacon’s predominantly masculine and violent oeuvre, as well as the various abusive relationships he pursued. It is precisely this that gives sense to the Bacon en toutes lettres exhibition: he is reported to have liked dark stories by authors who would not conform, because he found personal parallels with them. Critics claim that books served Bacon a form of guidance that he had previously lacked: while Aeschylus provided him with a coping mechanism for his personal tragedies, Nietzsche showed him existential meaning without needing to succumb to any religious dogma.

And this is all totally credible, as far as his life story goes. But in terms of experiencing Bacon’s art itself, I see less connection between what he supposedly read and any of his paintings that stood before me. A particular chat between Bacon and art critic David Sylvester comes to mind: “At all costs, I don’t want someone who looks at my paintings to think I’m trying to tell a story. For me, narration, which is a function that’s sometimes ascribed to pictures, is a way of killing painting. It’s an admission of impotence. To isolate each figure, each behaviour, would force the viewer to seize just one form at a time for what it is, and nothing else.” A natural thought pattern might be to have a certain author or narrative in mind while looking at one of Bacon’s paintings. However, though contextual information may help us to make more conscious sense of his work, it almost seems to me like we’d be barking up the wrong tree.

For someone like Bacon, I see context and conscious narration as surplus to requirements. His work is about composition, colour, technique, and feeling; what it might ‘mean’ is secondary to all that. It is about the emotion that is aroused in the viewer by his visceral brush strokes of dysmorphic power, and not the secondary, more ‘conscious’ thoughts that come to mind. So while his works may very well evoke a poetic universe rooted in tragedy, that doesn’t mean we should necessarily attach a meaning, or an idea from a book in his personal library, to his paintings. To detach context from the work of art we see before us, to allow the subconscious “accident” to prevail over habitual conscious thoughts, is not only important, but also rather pleasant.