Rina Arya. “Francis Bacon. Painting in a Godless World”

Rina Arya. “Francis Bacon. Painting in a Godless World”
Farnham 2012 ISBN: 978-1-84822-044-7

Francis Bacon, Painting in a Godless World, by Rina AryaAt some point in the 20th century, the world inhabited by some people became “Godless”. There had always been people, including artists, who did not believe in the received religions of their upbringing. By the time Francis Bacon was a young man, he had become one of them. There was nothing unusual or original about this. In Bacon’s case it was simply a matter of sentiment or emotion. Bacon had no intellectual ability to reason his way out of religious belief: by his own account he was effectively uneducated. In later life, by mixing with more intelligent or cultured people, such as Eric Hall, David Sylvester, Michel Leiris, he acquired a veneer of learning. This enabled him to make asinine references to Aeschylus and Shakespeare. So far as we know, he could read no Latin or Greek, which must have made him virtually unique amongst his male contemporaries in the English upper-middle classes of the Edwardian era. (He was most definitely not “upper-class” as the author here calls him.) Even the great art patron, Peter Watson, who was no intellectual, and who was about a year older than Bacon, picked up enough Greek at Eton in the early 1920’s to be able to write part of a postcard to Cyril Connolly 20 years later in perfectly accented and accurate Classical Greek. Had he wanted to, he could presumably have had a decent attempt at reading Aeschylus in Greek; but not Bacon.

So when it came to the Christian belief, and the deep weight of the intellectual structure which had created and sustained it for nearly 2,000 years, Bacon had no answer: he simply chose not to believe it. Yet, he painted pictures which sought to suborn it. Why should this have been?

The author of this fascinating book is right to try to deal with some of the questions which Bacon’s apparently religious pictures raise. That she is not entirely successful in finding answers is hardly her fault. Bacon, as we all know, was a complicated person and he intensified the effect of this complexity quite deliberately and successfully by manipulating how his work and personality were received by the viewing public. He did this with the help and active connivance of David Sylvester.

Bacon and Sylvester, in their different but conjoined ways, set out to manufacture an image of the artist that Bacon was happy to appear to be and that Sylvester wanted him to be so that he could justify his support for him. This involved the enfant terrible being shaped in a certain way. He had to be intellectualised: we were told that he read things, important things that had appeared in Penguin Classics: T.S. Eliot, Aeschylus and Shakespeare and so on; he mixed with important international people of culture, we were led to believe; he spoke gnomically about his work and he endlessly repeated the same old stuff to make sure we had picked it up and could remember it.

All this artifice, this construction, was going on whilst Bacon was painting pictures of sublime power and importance. Here is the beautiful irony at the heart of assessing Bacon: the impossible-to-believe public persona created by Sylvester and Leiris, set against the wonderful, substantive work that he was generating, late into the night, alone in his squalid painter’s rooms.

Why did Bacon give some of his works religious titles; why did he paint all those Popes? Not, alas for the writer of this book, because there was any special interest in religion or understanding of the detail of the beliefs he was so publicly flaying. No, in my view, Bacon was painting them for various reasons. He undoubtedly did not believe in God or in any other religious idea. He thought man was an animal and his body would decay and die and his spirit vanish. As such, painting man as an animal was a natural consequence. But Bacon also knew that all the great artists of the past, with whom he probably regarded himself as being in some sense in competition, had painted genuine religious subjects; and they had done so with power and emotion and success. Even Bacon knew that many of the greatest pictures ever painted were of religious subjects; painted not with cynicism, but from positions of belief and engagement.

Many of the artists he may have liked or respected had done this: Cimabue, Grünewald, Velàzquez, Rembrandt, even Graham Sutherland and Roy De Maistre. Bacon competed with many of them by painting anti-religious variants of their work. It was often commented by contemporaries that Bacon’s work in some curious way resembled that of the Old Masters. He undoubtedly wanted to create this effect and suffer this comparison. He partly did it by taking on the subjects of the Old Masters and subverting them. He was, in this sense, a reasonably strong and self-confident artist. (Picasso, of course, also had the guts to do it, with a whole range of his artistic predecessors.) So Bacon turned the historic images of the Crucifixion into his own, Godless, 20th century version; the Pope’s image by Velàzquez became Bacon’s tool for demonstrating his version of what he saw as the irrelevant worthlessness of the leader of a world church; the historic painterly use of the narrative structure delivered by using triptychs became for Bacon simply a vessel for paintings studying the same subject in three different ways.

This was a brave subject for the author to tackle. She has done a good job in breaking down the different aspects of Bacon’s work which are potentially engaged by her subject and analysing them in a clear and readable fashion. Not all writers about Bacon have been able to write so clearly. She has also incorporated previous writers’ work; as the years have passed, the body of that work has grown enormously, so her achievement in synthesising it is not to be underestimated. Does the book succeed in its analysis? Not entirely, would be my answer. The interpretation of Bacon’s paintings is not a task where “success” is possible; too many traps and fake trails obstruct the process. Some of these traps have been laid by subsequent commentators; many originate with the artist. Bacon’s pictures with religious titles or of Popes were not being produced by the artist pursuant to a coherent programme reflecting an adopted intellectual position in relation to religion. They were more likely, to paraphrase the great man, coming off his “nervous system”, that is intuitively. If that is correct, the task facing the author of trying to analyse works created intuitively was never going to be easy. As ever with a great artist, we are left with the pictures speaking to us in whatever way we choose to hear them. They inevitably say different things to each of us.