Pedro Calderón de la Barca, excerpt from La Vida es Sueño (1635)
De la Barca's work encapsulates the human anguish and distress upon recognising an all-encompassing absurdity of life, the paradox that neither our conscious nor subconscious states really mean anything. For de la Barca life has an ephemeral character and is a troublesome journey from birth towards the grave with little to hold onto. However, de la Barca was not a nihilist because he finds catharsis in religious thought.
¿Qué es la vida? Un frenesí.
¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión,
una sombra, una ficción;
y el mayor bien es pequeño;
que toda la vida es sueño,
y los sueños, sueños son.
Painter Francis Bacon (1909-1994) , whose life was characterised by a constant enduring duress that manifested itself in all aspects of his life, bore a fascination for one of de la Barca's contemporaries, namely the painter Diego Velázquez and his depiction of Pope Innocent X
Velázquez Portrait of Innocent X (1650)
It is Francis Bacon I wish to focus on in this entry, having read art critic Michael Peppiatt's treatment of Bacon's life in Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma. The strength of the biography lies in the fact that Peppiatt knew Bacon personally for a time span of over 30 years.
Bacon remarked that his Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X was a combination of Eisentein's screaming nurse (see below) and the Velázquez painting. In Bacon's painting, the scream does not refer back to Expressionism and its attempt at depicting existential angst (like in Edvard Munch's painting The Scream) because, as Bacon said: "I am not expressionistic; I have nothing to express". Rather, his focus lay in the colour of the mouth, the teeth, the saliva, remarking that "I was absorbed by the beautiful red and purple of the interior of the mouth much like Monet was obsessed by haystacks and the light falling on them from hour to hour."
Bacon encountered most forms of problems during his life: From a harsh childhood at the hand of an uncaring and violent father, to a youth of drift and prostitution in the decadent capitals of Europe to the suicide of his lover and death of most of his close friends. He lived through both World Wars that traumatised 20th century Europe, survived the Blitzkrieg in London while being a staunch atheist: "We are born and we die, and in between we try to give meaning to this meaningless existence by our driving forces". He embraced nihilism from a very early age, stating that he did not believe in anything and was a fierce critic of established beliefs, with a certain emphasis on Christianity: "I myself want to go on living as long as I can ... After all, there's nothing else. You can only go on living from moment to moment. You cannot prepare for death, because it'snothing".
His childhood was one of mistreatment by his father (who had him punished by whipping) and general insensitivity to his quite fragile state (he had asthma and horse allergy but his father was a military man and constantly insisted on him riding long distances with the horses they owned, causing violent outbursts of allergic reactions). His family belonged to the Ulster loyalist segment in Ireland (the unionist movement that believed Ireland should be a constituent country of the United Kingdom and oppose any joining with the Republic of Ireland), which meant that the family lived in a constant state of fear of being attacked by the Irish Republican Army (IRA): "Disaster was the leitmotif of nearly every memory Bacon chose to bring up when he talked about his childhood".
Francis showed little interest in his education: "It was all rather ridiculous, my life at school. But then, for some reason, I had always known that life was ridiculous". He spent 18 months at Dean Close School leaving before he was to be expelled. Back home as a 16-year-old, Francis caught the wrath of his father for toying with his mother's underwear on, and was "expelled" from home.
So he was sent to Berlin in 1927 in the hopes that he would become more "manly". The man his dad sent him with was deemed very manly, but they nevertheless still ended up sleeping together (so that attempt failed). Francis was succeeding in his main ambition, which he called "simply to drift and follow my instinct -to drift and see". Peppiatt remarks that he was "part Rimbaud, part Genet, part theif, part prostitute". Berlin in the Weimar Republic was at its peak of decadence: "Berlin gave Bacon not only his first full exposure to metropolitan vice but also his first taste of Continental sophistication". He arrived at the peak of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement (a post-expressionist movement in the words of critic Franz Roh),with painters like Otto Dix and his evocations of Berlin's juxtapositionof luxury and degradation.
Otto Dix, Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden, (1926)
After two months in Berlin he left for Paris, the city that became the centerpiece in pushing Bacon towards the painted medium. It is explained that when he saw Poussin's seventeenth century painting Masscre des Innocents at Château de Chantilly, it served as a catalyst for his imagination. The painting of a mother, frantically trying to prevent a soldier from putting her infant to the sword, prompted Bacon's lifelong obsession with the mouth opened in a scream: "Probably the best human cry ever painted".
Poussin Masscre des Innocents (17th century)
He likewise engendered a fascination for Eisenstein's silent film Battleship Potemkin (1925), especially obsessing about the cry of the nurse. Peppiatt's thesis is that the nurse represents Bacon's grandmother, and Poussin's soldier represents Bacon's brutal father. Bacon's obsession led him to find a medical book with hand-painted illustrations of diseases of the mouth (by Ludwig Grünwald), reflecting his "inherent morbidity and interest in pathological conditions". It should be noted that Bacon's older brother Harley died of lockjaw (a disease of the mouth).
Eisenstein Battleship Potemkin (1926)
Besides Poussin and Eisenstein, Bacon closely followed the advent of surrealism across Europe. He was interested in Breton's Manifeste du Surréalisme and the subsequent publication La Revolution Surréaliste. Bacon argued that Picasso had come closer to anyone in the century to "the core of what feeling is about". Later on, he submitted his work to the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936, but was excluded for being "insufficiently surreal", which was one of the great ironies of his life because Bacon was both highly obsessed with chance (an essential element of Breton's psychic automatism), as observed by constant visit to casinos (where he mostly preferred the roulette, despite its poor odds), and held Picasso as being the most inventive author of the 20th century: "Bacon absorbed surrealism through Picasso".
Bacon returned to London in 1928. It would be 15 years before he established a reputation in the art scene with Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944). Peppiatt argues that rather than developing late, he made it very hard for himself to develop.
In his twenties Bacon formed a relationship with an Oxford man called Eric Hall who was 20 years his senior. The relationship lasting some over 15 years practically ruined Eric Hall's marriage and fortune (spent by him and Francis in Monte Carlo casinos), without mentioning that Eric's son Ivan went mad and blamed Francis Bacon for it: "It's because of you I'm like this".
Later on, his other partner George Dyer killed himself on the eve of Bacon's retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris. Despite knowing of the news, Bacon carried on with a stoic demeanor, showing the then president Georges Pompidou around the exhibition during the vernissage. Bacon himself acknowledged that his life bore resemblance to elements of Greek tragedy. The work Oresteia by Aeschylus had impressed itself upon Bacon in his early years, having found it through a reading of T.S. Eliot's The Family Room. Both texts consider the themes of guilt and atonement, and this was something Bacon was very preoccupied by: "What Bacon admired specifically in Eliot was his ability to evoke in a new language ancient notions of despair". As in the later painting Triptych Inspired by T.S. Eliot's Poem 'Sweeney Agonistes'" from 1967 Bacon draws inspiration from an Eliot poem where the character Sweeney remarks that "Death is life, and life is death".
Bacon found inspiration in Jewish painter Chaïm Soutine and his theme of the dismembered carcass, setting forth his own vision of "a cannibals' world from which all moral relationships have been erased" .
Soutine Side of Beef (1925)
In post-war Britain Bacon painted some of the most horrid images of human pain, agony and distress to this date. Critic Robert Hughes has remarked that any distortion to a human body that an artist might make in a postwar society would have to bear comparison to the distortion of real human bodies in the Nazi death camps. The range of bodily distortions and contortions that Bacon treats in his painting can thus be seen in the light of the post-war trauma of Europe: "Bacon was obsessed with the mortality of human flesh." The seminal picture encompassing these ideas was Painting 1946 that Bacon claims came to him by accident:
According to Hughes, in Bacon's work the ideal body of classical art is dismissed. The nude becomes a two-legged animal with a drug addiction. Bacon was interested in depicting the isolation of humanity, and he did so by choosing to paint people alone in confined spaces. When he did paint people together they were men engaging in a sexual act. In Bacon's work all sexuality is turned into violence, a sort of dog-like grappling in closed rooms whose furnishings you cannot identify. The bed suggests an operating table, the walls the colour of cheap motels.
The mouth as an artistic motif played a major role in the repertoire of Bacon. The reason for this could be that he wanted to play with the dualistic nature of the mouth: The mouth being both the means by which lovers kiss as well as the treacherousness of the sharp teeth concealed within the mouth that can bite and kill. Similarly, the crucifix as a religious motif was a major element in Bacon's early painting. Some critics (e.g. Peppiatt) have likened his obsession with the cricifix with the thesis that Bacon possibly considered that his existence felt like a crucifixion; that he had been singled out to suffer, and that only by expressing the pain in the most highly charged fashion could he convey what he felt most deeply about human life. Picasso had painted Crucifixion in 1930, and this influenced Bacon's 1933 series of three Crucifixion paintings. The choice of religious motifs (not only crucifixion but also his obsession with the religious paintings of Velázquez) was very provocative given Bacon's atheism. It is furthermore ironic to add that Bacon died in a catholic hospital in Spain and was burned in a coffin bearing a cross.
Finally, it should come as a consolation that Bacon's ardent nihilistic paintings and beliefs were mostly accompanied by poignant observations on the human conditions. His work is indeed linked to "horror" in that it is shocking to see in a museum, but it also engenders a search for the truth about existence (and the element of horror might be necessary to achieve this). Bacon himself, while not adhering to any formal system of belief, held optimism as a lifelong exception to this: "Life is so meaningless we might as well try to make ourselves extraordinary."
In the spirit of the surrealist movement (that Bacon so deeply admired but was never allowed to join) we ought to remember that Breton in his novel Nadja remarks: "La beauté sera CONVULSIVE ou ne sera pas".