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At the end of the 19th century the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche declared that ‘God is dead’; science and materialism had extinguished religious belief – the world was now godless. The sense of a spiritually devoid existence was the concern of the Anglo-Irish painter Francis Bacon, one of the major artists of the 20th century, whose works have set record-breaking prices at auction. Bacon was an avowed atheist. His paintings of violently distorted and tormented figures set in stark claustrophobic interiors represent a bleak view of the human condition.
In her new book Francis Bacon: Painting in a Godless World, Rina Arya also cites Nietzsche to set the context for her study of Bacon’s art. For Arya, Bacon’s uncompromising painting presents the modern ‘sense of Godlessness’. Although as she points out, paradoxically, despite his atheism, Bacon frequently used Christian symbols in his art, in particular the Crucifixion and the Pope. This has been touched on by some critics, but this is the first in-depth study of his enduring preoccupation with religious iconography. Ayra argues that Bacon was dependent on Christianity. He exploited its resonance and subverted its imagery ‘in order to show its untenability in the modern age’, but ironically, in doing so, reinforced the power of its symbolism. ‘In the end Bacon crucifies religion, only to redeem it’.
The artist’s formative early years were marked by ‘conflict and marginalisation’. Bacon was born in Ireland in 1909 to English upper-middle class parents and brought up in an atmosphere of familial and political conflict. His father was an army officer who rejected him because of his homosexuality and there was the constant threat from Irish Republicans. Arya also discusses Bacon’s influences and art practice, while weaving in interpretations of his work and introducing her book’s main concerns. It is an integrated and informative account which sets the scene for the rest of the discussion.
The young Bacon led a peripatetic life in London, Berlin and Paris. In London in 1930 he met the Australian artist, Roy de Maistre, who became an artistic mentor and badly needed father figure. Ayra argues that Maistre’s use of religious imagery was an important influence yet, unlike Bacon, the Australian was a Christian and respectful of his religion’s motifs. The Second World War compounded Bacon’s sense of violence and an ever-present threat in life; he was, for a brief time, an air raid warden. In 1944, he produced his first masterpiece, the triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (Tate, London). Rightly given a double-page spread in Ayra’s book, the work uses three grotesque figures and the Crucifixion as a vehicle to powerfully convey a sense of utter desolation and atrocity.
The three central chapters explore Bacon’s recurrent use of the Crucifixion, which began in the 1930s, and of the Pope and the triptych format normally used in art for altarpieces. Bacon was obsessed by the papal picture Portrait of Innocent X (1650) by the Spanish painter Diego Velázquez. He painted some 20 works inspired by Velázquez’s portrait. Rather than being images of religious authority and holiness, however, Bacon’s grandees are caged, screaming and disintegrating, as in Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X from 1953. Arya considers various interpretations of Bacon’s Pope picture; for instance, as a symbolic humiliation and killing of his father. But for Arya, the most compelling explanation is that Bacon repeatedly denigrated Christ’s representative on earth in order to ‘demonstrate the Godlessness of his vision’ and the demise of organized religion.
Arya also looks at Bacon’s take on humanity and the human body – the focus of his art. For Bacon, there is no noble soul residing in us, nor is there an afterlife. We are corporeal beings driven by animal appetites, and we are mortal. He once remarked ‘we are all meat’. Indeed, many of his pictures show human figures with carcasses. Nonetheless, even though Bacon showed anguish and death, Ayra argues that his art also has a life-affirming vitality and ‘spirit’. His depictions of disordered bodies have an energy and palpability, his figures a presence. Here she sees an overlap with contemporary thinking on Christianity. The body and spirit in the Christian faith were once considered quite separate, yet it is now recognized that the former plays a central role in the faith, as with the beliefs in Incarnation and the Resurrection. Bacon’s emphasis on the sensual body, suffering and mortality, according to Arya, makes his art eschatological, and in a sense ‘very Christian’ as these are also the key concerns of theology.
Francis Bacon: Painting in a Godless Worldis a handsome hardback, well designed (although the typeface is rather small) with numerous high-quality illustrations of Bacon’s art from public and private collections worldwide, spanning his 60-year career. Many are full page and include rarely seen work from the 1930s as well as black-and-white photographs of the artist. The book’s jacket, in particular, has a haunting one from 1970 by Polish émigré photographer Jorge Lewinski. There are also images of the art that inspired Bacon, such as that by Velázquez and the famous early 16th-century Isenheim Altarpiece, with its gruesome Crucifixion scene.
This is a scholarly, sophisticated work with extensive endnotes and bibliography. It engages with a wide range of critical writing on Bacon and weighty themes. Yet the prose is eloquent and intelligible, never abstruse or dense. To come up with a fresh perspective on the painter is quite an achievement as a considerable amount of Bacon scholarship has been produced, particularly since his death in 1992. This book should appeal to those interested in Bacon, including academics, curators, critics or Bacon enthusiasts with some knowledge of art history.
Francis Bacon: Painting in a Godless World by Rina Arya is published by Lund Humphries, 2012.176 pp. 52 colour and 22 mono illus. ISBN 978-84822-044-7
Media credit: ©The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2012