The exhibition’s title refers to the boxes/cages in which Bacon confines his subjects. The viewers/voyeurs can see them; the subjects can only feel them confining them. The paintings are undeniably disturbing — only the unconscious or dead would not be disturbed.
This is for me an advance on artworks which produce indifference or provoke ridicule. The most popular artworks, Impressionist paintings, are, arguably, little more than beautiful images, copies of what the artists see. Bacon felt capturing images to be inadequate. The aim should be to capture reality — the reality of the human condition.
Exploration of the psychological makeup of individuals interests many socialists as the recent debates around Freud in Socialist Review demonstrate. But surely Bacon’s starting point for his exploration is too bleak, that humans are “just another animal…subject to the same…urges and fears, liable to the same containments” as it states in the accompanying booklet?
Discussing his painting “Crucifixion” he said, “We are meat. We are potential carcasses”. One of his best known works, “The Nurse from Battleship Potemkin”, isolates and strips naked a victim of the Tsarist troops in the Russian Revolution. There is nothing to indicate she had been part of a hopeful uprising. She is merely a victim, a specimen we can study as she dies screaming.
Bacon began enclosing his subjects to describe the fraught human condition after the Second World War. But images of tortured human bodies could be seen on newsreels as the Nazis’ crimes were revealed, so what were Bacon’s images adding to this reality? Britain after the war was a period of collective consciousness and action which won, for example, the NHS. There is not the slightest hint of this hope in Bacon’s work. Undoubtedly suffering in the war would remain in people’s minds but wouldn’t their current experiences throw glimmers of light into their “invisible rooms”?
“Three Figures and Portrait” (1975) uses the idea of mirrors or optical lenses to confuse the space we see. The man at the back could be a portrait but it could also be a voyeur watching the contorted naked figures. “Triptych” (1967) was inspired by a T S Eliot poem, evoking how Bacon felt reading its themes of violence and life’s futility. The middle figure is reduced to bloodied meat. Humanity again as powerless victim.
It is, of course, perfectly valid for artists to portray how they experience life in an alienated, unjust society. It would be silly to expect stirring images of struggle. But shouldn’t attempts to describe the human condition include some less despairing references? Not for Bacon. As art critic Robert Hughes put it, “No modern artist has hammered with more repetitive pessimism at one corner of the human condition.”
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