Flirtations with Francis Bacon: Reverse Engineering the Flesh

Three Studies for a Crucifixion 1962

What truly strikes the eye about Bacon’s figures is the corporeality of their flesh and bones:

The meat looks meaty: looking more closely at the canvass-flesh of these figures will expose variegating textures of reds (fresh blood & arteries), pinks (muscle tissue), blues (de-oxygenated blood & veins), yellows and whites (membrane & fat), greens and browns (mucus)…Paint is here laid on the canvas in a couple of ways: oil paint is placed not in adjacent, vibrating blobs as in impressionist impasto, but mixed into various rainbow tonalities in a singular scrubbing stroke, which, in terms of final texture, ends up resembling the layered and accumulative structure of muscle fibre. There’s also the use of aquatint: Bacon paints on the backside of the canvas; he draws out its canvass-y fibre, and mixes it with paint, which he then scratches/etches after allowing for it to dry. This gives the surface, depending on the context, the look of both hairy skin, or of finely shredded, tenderized (with tenderizer) meat – which brings me to the theme of slicing I discussed in the previous post: if Bacon is the coroner, the butcher, or the cinematographer of the flesh, and the coroner is the one who slices meat, then his saw-(foot)prints must also be left behind…Which prints?

Whether you saw stone, bark, or steak, the serrated saw/knife leaves its groovy marks behind on the flesh and fibre of the wood/meet. Every steak can be matched with the knife that sliced it: it is like a fingerprint (also used to map homicide weapons). Note the horizontal shades/grooves that mark the fibrous surface of both the steak and the stump.

saw mark-steak

saw mark tree

Apparently Bacon used Lacey’s corduroy shirts to imitate the grooves found on sawed steak-cuts. The saw-marks both imitate flesh, and hint at the indentations of the serration that sliced them as such. Bacon’s detachment to his meaty human subjects is inhuman.

Similarly, the trajectories of his creative techniques can be traced all over the other ‘components’ of the human flesh, i.e. skin, membranes, mucus, veins, bones. And what I particularly adore about it is how these various components/layers are overlaid to appear simultaneously and to appear ‘natural’: a feat that naked human eye cannot accomplish on its own – that is, of decomposing the flesh to its various constituting layers and viewing them all together at the same time – unless, of course, one holds the pale skin of a delicate wrest against bright sunlight…This is a technique, however, that Bacon seems to have mastered separately. Here’s a theory as to how this was done:

In the 1966 Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne, the first of the three paintings below, we have the ‘cubist,’ sculptor Bacon: he is merely concerned with slicing, distorting, and blowing the face apart, and then putting it back together, in order to arrive at the suggestive play of moving, twitching, living/breathing muscles. The technique only serves the purpose: while the hard, etch-y aquatint can hints at the grind of strong jawlines, per se, it fails to penetrate under the skin.

In the 1955 Study for Portrait II (after the Life Mask of William Blake), the second of the three, we are at the level of mucus and membrane. The oil paint is glossy, the noes seeps through the lips, the lips through the chin…It is reminiscent of a face with third-degree burns: the skin is completely cleared away to reveal the sticky, shiny mucus, the molten membranes, the varicose…

The third, 1956 Study for Portrait, Number IV (After the Life Mask of William Blake), is at the level of expression: this is closest to the bacon as an artist and expressionist, as opposed to the sculptor Bacon of the first work and the dermatologist Bacon of the second portrait. This painting is starkly reminiscent of what someone like Munch would draw.

The muscles, fibres, mucus, membranes, etc. come together when overlaid on top of this last and essential component: the singular, human, expression.  While the sculptural affectivity of cubism misses the gelatinous uncanniness of the level of the membrane, and stark expressionism overlooks texture and representation that constitute the very vitality of living matter altogether, Bacon’s figurines have it all: the spatiality, the texture, and the expression of the human body…pulsing, breathing, creeping…

Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne 1966 by Francis Bacon 1909-1992

Study for Portrait II (after the Life Mask of William Blake) 1955 by Francis Bacon 1909-1992

Study for Portrait, Number IV (After the Life Mask of William Blake)


One thought on “Flirtations with Francis Bacon: Reverse Engineering the Flesh

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