Milan Kundera — The Painter’s Brutal Gesture: On Francis Bacon

October 9, 2015 § Leave a comment

— an essay from the collection Encounter —

When Michel Archimbaud was planning this collection of Francis Bacon’s portraits and self-portraits, he asked me to write the book’s introduction. He assured me that the invitation was Bacon’s own wish. He reminded me of a short piece of mine, published long ago in the periodical L’Arc, a piece he said the painter had considered one of the few in which he could recognize himself. I will not deny my emotion at this message arriving, after years, from an artist I had never met and loved so much.
That piece in L’Arc (which later inspired a section of my Book of Laughter and Forgetting), discussing the triptych of the portraits of Henrietta Moraes, was written in about 1977, in the very first period after my emigration, obsessed as I was then by recollections of the country which I had just left and which still remained in my memory as the land of interrogations and surveillance. Here it is:
It was 1972. I met with a girl in a Prague suburb, in a borrowed apartment. Two days earlier; she had been interrogated by the police about me for an entire day. Now she wanted to meet with me secretly (she feared that she was constantly being followed) to tell me what questions they had asked her and how she had answered them. If they were to interrogate me, my answers should be the same as hers.
She was a very young girl who had as yet little experience of the world. The interrogation had disturbed her, and, after three days, the fear was still upsetting her bowels. She was very pale and during our conversation she kept leaving the room to go to the toilet-so that our whole encounter was accompanied by the noise of the water refilling the tank.I had known her for a long time. She was intelligent, spirited, she had fine emotional control, and was always so impeccably dressed that her outfit, just like her behavior, allowed not a hint of nakedness. And now, suddenly, fear like a great knife had laid her open. She was gaping wide before me like the split carcass of a heifer hanging from a meat hook.
The noise of the water refilling the toilet tank practically never let up, and I suddenly had the urge to rape her. I know what I’m saying: rape her, not make love to her. I didn’t want tenderness from her. I wanted to bring my hand down brutally on her face and in one swift instant take her completely, with all her unbearably arousing contradictions: with her impeccable outfit along with her rebellious guts, her good sense along with her fear, her pride along with her misery. I sensed that all those contradictions harbored her essence: that treasure, that nugget of gold, that diamond hidden in the depths. I wanted to posses her, in one swift moment, with her shit along with her ineffable soul.
But I saw those two eyes staring at me, filled with torment (two tormented eyes in a sensible face) and the more tormented those eyes, the more my desire turned absurd, stupid, scandalous, incomprehensible and impossible to carry out.
Uncalled-for and unconscionable, that desire was nonetheless real. I cannot disavow it- and when I look atFrancis Bacon’s portrait- triptych, it’s as if I recall it. The painter’s gaze comes down on the face like a brutal hand trying to size hold of her essence, of that diamond hidden in the depths. Of course we are not certain that the depths really do harbor something-but whatever it may be, we each of us have in us that brutal gesture, that hand movement that roughs up another person’s face in the hop of finding, in it and behind it, a thing that is hidden there.
The best commentaries on Bacon’s work are by Bacon himself in two series of interviews: with David Sylvester between 1962 and published in the later year, and with Archimbaud between October 1991 and April 1992. In both he speaks admiringly of Picasso, especially of the 1926-1932 period, the only one to which he feels truly close; he saw’ an area there… which in a way has been unexplored, of organic from that relates to the human image but is a complete distortion of it’. With this very precise remark, he defines the realm whose exploration is actually his alone.
Aside from that short period Bacon mentions, one could say that Picasso’s light gesturetransforms human body motifs into two-dimensional and autonomous pictorial reality. With Bacon we are in another world: there, playful Picassian(or Matissian) euphoria is replaced by an amazement (if not a shock) at what we are, what we are materially, physically. Impelled by that amazement, the painter’s hand (to use the words of my old piece) comes down with a ‘brutal gesture’ on a body, on a face, ‘in the hope of finding, in it and behind it, a thing that is hidden there’.
But what is hidden there? It’s self? Every portrait ever painted seeks to uncover the subject’s self. But Bacon lived in a time when the self inevitably eludes detection. Indeed, our most common personal experience teaches us (especially if the life behind us is very long) that faces are lamentably alike (the insane demographic avalanche further enhancing that sense), that they are easy to confuse, that they only differ one from the next by some very tiny, barely perceptible detail, which mathematically often represents only a few millimeters’ difference in the various proportions. Add to that our historical experience, which teaches us that men mimic one another, that their attitudes are statistically calculable, their opinions manipulability, and that man is therefore less an individual than an element of a mass.
This is the moment of uncertainty when the rapist hand of the painter comes down with a ‘brutal gesture’ on his subject’s faces in order to find, somewhere in the depths, their buried self. What is new in that Baconian quest is, first (to use his expression), the ‘organic’ nature of those forms in ‘a complete distortion’. Which means that the forms in his paintings are meant to resemble living beings, to recall their bodily existence, their flesh, and thus always to retain their three-dimensional nature. The second innovation is the principle of variations. Edmund Husserl explained the importance of variations for searching out the essence of a phenomenon. I will say it in my simpler way; variations differ one from the other, but yet retain some thing common to them all; the thing they have in common is ‘that treasure, that nugget of gold, that hidden diamond’, namely, the sought-for essence of a theme or, in Bacon’s case, the self of a face.
Looking at Bacon’s portraits, am amazed that, despite their ‘distortion’, they all look like their subject. But how can an image look like a subject of which it is consciously, programmatically, a distortion? And yet it does look like the subject ; photos of the persons portrayed bear that out; and even if I did not know those photos, it is clear that in all the triptychs, the various deformations of the face resemble one another, so that one recognizes in them some one and same person. However ‘distorted’, these portraits are faithful. That is what I find miraculous.
I could put it differently: Bacon’s portraits are the interrogation on the limits of the self. Up to what degree of distortion does an individual still remain himself? To what degree of distortion does a beloved being still remain a beloved being? For how long does a cherished face growing remote through illness, through madness, through hatred, through death still remain recognizable? Where lines the border beyond which a self ceases to be a self?
For a long time, Bacon and Beckett made up a couple in my imaginary gallery of modern art. The I read the Archimbaud interview: ‘I’ve always been amazed by this pairing og Beckett and me’, Bacon said. Then, farther on, ‘…I’ve always felt that Shakespeare expressed much better and more precisely and more powerfully what Beckett’s and Joyce were trying to say…’. And again ‘I wonder is Beckett’s ideas about his art haven’t wound up killing off his creation. There is something at once too systematic and too intelligent in him, that may be what’s always bothered me’. And finally : ‘In painting, we always live in too much that is habit, we never eliminate enough, but in Beckett I have often had the sense that as a result of seeking to eliminate, nothing was left anymore , and nothingness finally sounded hollow…’.
When one artist talks about another one, he is always talking (indirectly, in a roundabout way) of himself, and that is what’s valuable in his judgment. In talking about Beckett, what is Bacon telling us about himself?
That he is refusing to be categorized. That he wants to protect his work against clichés.
Next: that he is resisting the dogma tics of modernism who have erected a barrier between tradition and modern art as if, in the history of art, the later represented an isolated period with its own incomparable values, with its completely autonomous criteria. Whereas Bacon looks through the history of art inn its entirety; the 20th century does not cancel our debts to Shakespeare.
And further: he is refusing to express his ideas on art in too systematic a fashion, fearing to stifle his creative unconscious; fearing also to allow his art to be turned into a kind of simplistic message. He knows that the danger is all the greater because, in our half of the century, art is clogged with a noisy, opaque logorrhea of theory that prevents a work from coming into direct, media- free contact with its viewer (its reader, its listener).
Wherever he can, Bacon there fore blurs his tracks to throw off interpreters who try to reduce his works to an over-facile programme: he bridles using the work ‘horror’ with regard to his art; he stresses the role of chance in his painting(chance turning up in the course of the work-an accidental spot of paint that abruptly changes the very subject of the picture); he insists on the word ‘play’ when everyone is making much of the seriousness of his paintings. People want to talk his despair? Very well, but, he specifies immediately, in this case it is a joyous despair.
From the reflection on Beckett quoted, I pullout his remarks: ‘In painting, we always leave in too much that is habit, we never eliminate enough…’ . Too much that is habit, which is to say: everything in painting that is not the painter’s own discovery, his fresh contribution, his originality; everything that is inherited, routine, fill up, elaboration considered to be technical necessity. That describes, for example, in the sonata form(of even the greatest-Mozart, Beethoven) all the (often very conventional) transitions from one theme to another. Almost all great modern artists mean to do away with ‘pillar’, do away with what ever comes from habit, from technical routine, whatever keeps them from getting directly and exclusively at the essential(the essential: the thing the artist himself, and only he, is able to say).
So it is with Bacon: the backgrounds of his paintings are hyper-simple, flat- color; but: in the foreground, the bodies are treated with the richness of colors and forms that is all the denser. Now, that (Shakespearean) richness is what matters to him. For without that richness (richness contrasting with the flat –color background), the beauty would be ascetic, as if ‘put on a diet’, as if diminished, and for bacon the issue always and above all its beauty, the explosion of beauty, because even if the word seems now a days to be hackneyed, out of date, it is what links him to Shakespeare.
And it is by he is irritated by the word ‘horror’ that is persistently applied to his painting. Tolstoy said to Leonid Andreyev and of his tales of terror: ‘He is trying to frighten me, but I’m not scared’. Now a days the too many paintings trying to frighten us, and they annoy us instead. Terror is not an aesthetic sensation, and the horror found in Tolstoy’s novels is never there to frighten us; the harrowing scene in which they operate on the mortally wounded Andrei Bolkonsky without anesthesia is not lacking in beauty; as no scene in Shakespeare lacks it; as no picture by Bacon lacks it. Butchers’ shops are horrible, but speaking of them, Bacon says, ‘One has got to remember as a painter that there is this great beauty of the color of meat’.
Why it is that, despite al Bacon’s reservations, I continue to see him as akin to Beckett?
Both of them are located at just about the same place in the respective histories of their art. That is, in the very last period of dramatic art, in the very last period of the history of painting. For Bacon is one of the last painters whose language is still oil and brush. And Beckett still wrote for the theatre that was based on the author’s text. After him, the theatre still exists, true, perhaps it is even evolving; but it is no longer the play writes’ texts that inspire, renew, and guarantee that evolution.
In the history of modern art, Bacon and Beckett are not the ones opening the way; they close it again. When Archimbaud asks Bacon which contemporary are important to him, he says: ‘After Picasso I do not know. There is Pop-art show at the Royal academy right now…when you see all those paintings together, you do not see anything. To me there is nothing in it, it’s empty, completely empty’. And Warhol?’…to me , he’s not important’. And abstract art? Oh know, he does not like it.
‘After Picasso, I do not know’. He talks like an orphan. And he is one. He is one even in the very concrete sense of the life he lived: the people who opened the way where surrendered by colleagues, by commentators, by worshipers, by sympathizers, by fellow travelers, by an entire gang. But bacon is alone. As Beckett is. In one of the Sylvester interviews: ‘I think it would be more exciting to be one of a number of artists working together…I think it would be terribly nice to have some one to talk to. Today there is absolutely none to talk to’.
Because their modernism, the modernism that closes the way again, no longer matches the ‘modernity’ around them, modernity of fashions propelled by the marketing of art. (Sylvester: ‘If abstract painting is no more than patter-making, how do you explain the fact that there are people like myself who have the same sort of visceral response to them at times as they have to figurative works?’. Bacon: ‘Fashion’. Being modern at the moment when the greater modernism is closing the way is an entirely different thing from being modern in Picasso’s time. Bacon is isolated (‘There is absolutely none to talk to’); isolated from both the past and future.
Like Bacon, Beckett had no illusions about the future either of the world or of art. And that moment in the last days of illusions, both men show the same immensely interesting and significant reaction: wars, revolutions and their set backs, massacres, imposture w call democracy-all these subjects are absent from their works. In this Rhinoceros, Ionesco is still interested in the great political questions. Nothing like that in Beckett. Picasso paints Massacre in Korea. Inconceivable subjects for Bacon. Living through the end of a civilization (as Beckett and bacon were or thought they were), the ultimate brutal confrontation is not with a society , with a state, with a politics, but with the physiological materiality of man. That is why even the great subject of the Crucifixion, which used to concentrate within itself the whole ethics, the whole religion, indeed the whole history of the West, becomes in Bacon’s hands a simple physiological scandal. ‘I’ve always being very moved by pictures about slaughterhouses and meat, and to me they belong very much to the whole thing of the crucifixion. There’ve been extra ordinary photographs which have been done of animals just being taken up before they were slaughtered; and this smell of death…’.
To link Jesus nailed to the Cross with slaughter houses and animals’ fear might seem sacrilegious. But bacon is a non-behavior, and the notion of sacrilege has no place in his way of thinking; according to him, ‘Man now realize that he is an accident, that he is a completely fertile being, that he has to play out the game without reason’. Seen from the angle, Jesus is that accident who, without reason, played out the game. The Cross: the game played to the end.
No, not sacrilege; rather a clear-sighted, sorrowing, thoughtful gaze that tries to penetrate into the essential. And what essential thing is revealed when all the social dreams have evaporated and man sees’ Religious possibilities. Completely cancelled out for him’? The body. The mere Ecce homo, visible, moving, and concrete. For ‘of course we are meat, we are potential carcasses. If I go into a butchers shop I always think its surprising that I was not there instead of the animal’.
It is neither pessimism no despair, it is only obvious fact, but a fact that is veiled by our membership in a collectivity that blids us with its dreams, its excitements, its projects, its illusions, its struggles, its causes, its religions, its ideologies, its passions. And then one day the veil falls and we are left stranded with the body, at the body’s mercy, like the young women in Prague who, following the shock of an interrogation, went off to the toilet every three minutes. She was reduced to her fear, to the fury of her bowels, and to the noise of the water she heard re filling the toilet tank as I hear it. When I look at Bacon’s Figure at a wash basin of 1976 or the Triptych May-June 1973. for that young Prague women it was no longer the police that she had to face up to but her own belly, and if someone was presiding invisibly over that little horror scene, it was no police man, or apparatchik, or executioner, it was a God-or an anti-God, the wicked God of the Gnostics, a Demiurge, a Creator, the one who had trapped us for ever by that ‘accident’ of the body he cobbled together in his workshop and of which, for a while, we are forced to become the soul.
Bacon often spied on that workshop of the Creator; it can be sen, for instance , in the picture called Studies of the Human Body, in which he unmasks the body as a simple ‘accident’, an accident that could easily have been fashioned some other way, for instance-I don’t kow- with three hands, or with the eyes set in the knees. These are the only pictures of his that fill me  with horror. But is ‘horror’ the right word? No. For the sensation that these pictures arouse , there is no right word. What they arouse is not the horror we know, the one in response to the insanities of history, to torture, persecution, war, massacres, suffering. No. This is a different horror: it comes from the accidental nature, suddenly unveiled by the painter, of the human body,
what is left to us when we have comedown to that?
The face;
the face that harbours ‘that treasure, that nugget of gold, that hidden diamond’ which is the infinitely  fragile self shivering in a body;
the face I gaze upon to seek in it a reason for living the ‘completely futile accident’ that is life.
Translated from the French by Linda Asher

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