Stephen Mulhall on Francis Bacon

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Francis Bacon, Blood on Pavement (1988)

Francis Bacon, Blood on Pavement (1988)

The December 2008 issue of Inquiry contains an excellent essay by Stephen Mulhall on the Francis Bacon retrospective that is currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (through August 16; it was previously at Tate Britain, where Mulhall saw the show). Mulhall’s essay is entitled “The Violence of Paint,” and it can be accessed by clicking here.

Here is an excerpt:

…It follows that, in this sense (the sense required by the terms of our familiar myth), photography and painting were never in competition. In the alternative terms articulated by the American philosopher Stanley Cavell, we might say that both were and are occupied with establishing and maintaining a connection with reality; but whereas photography does so by overcoming or excluding subjectivity, painting can do so only by accepting its ineliminable presence and working either with or through it. Cavell’s counter-myth can thus happily acknowledge that, from the time of Manet onwards, painting was forced to forego its obsession with likenesses of reality; but on his accounting of it, this was not because photography’s invention taught painting a lesson about its own nature, but rather because the illusions of reality that painting had learnt to create no longer provided the conviction in, the connection with, reality that it continued to crave. What painting gradually discovered thereafter was that the only way to maintain that connection, and thereby maintain its connection with the history of painting (the enterprise of producing meaningful objects in paint), was to maintain itself increasingly apart from all objective reference.

Here, Cavell’s counter-myth plainly declares its orientation in his experience of Abstract Expressionism and its immediate successors, in the New York School of American modernist painting of the 1950s and 60s. And this brings us back to Bacon’s work, since he made no secret of his refusal to accept the sense of painterly possibilities and necessities that the reception of the work of Pollock, Newman, Stella, Louis and Olitski appeared to impose. More specifically, he claimed that abstract art in general “is only really interested in the beauty of its patterns and its shapes”, and hence was simply too weak to convey emotions, or to record reality, in a way that might offer any resistance to an audience’s expectations; in the end, he could only understand its popularity as a passing effect of “fashion” (IFB, 59-60). But one of the many virtues of this exhibition is the extent to which it reveals how close Bacon had to come to that contrary sense of the artistic terrain in rejecting it, and the full temporal span of its working out. For just as his early reliance upon the cascading folds of drapery or shower curtains (as in Study from the Human Body [1949]) now seems directly to anticipate, echo and counter Morris Louis’ veils and furls of colour, so his later deployment of thin, even, saturated (and usually dual or bifurcated) fields of colour as the ground for his later human figures and mythical fiends seems clearly in conversation with Rothko as well as Newman…

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