Which is the connection between animal carcasses and variations on The Portrait of pope Innocent X by Velazquez? The painter Francis Bacon, who is the leading figure of avant-garde British art. These days a selection of 62 paintings by Bacon and archival objects can be seen at El Museo del Prado (Madrid) from 03.02.2009 until 19.04.2009, conmemorating the artist´s birth in 1909 and his death in Madrid on 28 April 1992. These paintings are presented in various thematic sections corresponding to concepts of his work at different periods of his life. This allows us to enter into the unique wold of bacon´s artistic obsessions.: Animal, Zone, Apprehension, Crucifixion, Crisis, Archive, Portrait, Memorial, Epic and Late.
We will focus on Crucifixion because is an omnipresent element in his art. The figures and their relationships remain enigmatic, lacking any direct allusions to a religious theme but rather referring to the cruelty that human beings inflict on each other. Some pictures reflect his belief that without God, humans are subject to the same natural urges of violence, lust and fear as any other animal. There are specific references to the devasting events of Second World War. Crucifixion, 1933, Painting, 1946, Three studies for figures at the base for a Crucifixion, 1944, Figure with meat, 1954 and Three studies for Crucifixion, 1962 among others show the Crucifixion theme. Only some are in this exhibion at El Museo del Prado.
Painting 1946 represents an old fashioned butcher´s shop with ceramic festoons on the wall and, looming up in the background, a carcass which -like the Rembrant carcass- The Slaughtered Ox– in the Louvre is also a headless Crucifixion. The introduction of the motif of meat, the raw, bleeding flesh of the slaughterhouse and the butcher´s slab, a sight that affected Bacon like almost no other and was to become his personal metaphor of life and death.
Quite simply, he was fascinated by the sight of raw meat. In conversation with David Sylvester in October 1962 he explained: “I´ve always been very moved by pictures about slaughterhouses and meat. There´ve been extraordinary photographs which have been done of animals just being taken up before they were slaughtered; and the smell of death.I think these pictures were very much based on that kind of thing, which to me is very, very near this whole of the Crucifixion. I know for religious people, for Christinas, the Crucifixion has a totally different significance. But as a non-believer, it was just an act of man´s behaviour to another”.
In a further interview with Sylvester, in May 1966, Sylvester asked Bacon:”The image of sides of meat is obviously one that means a great deal to you”
When asked to comment on the difference between this theme and others, Bacon replied: “Well, of course, you´re working then about you´re own feelings and sensations, really. You might say almost nearer to a self portrait. You´re working on all sorts of very primitive feelings about behaviour and about the way life is…And of course, one has to remember as a painter that there is great beauty in the colour of meat.
David Sylvester asked: “Indeed, of course, Rembrant used a carcass (…) hanging up almost as a stand-in for the Crucifixion, intentionally or not.
Bacon´s words: “I never think of that. And I never think of it as a carcass (…) even. The odd thing is that I don´t think that carcass of meat is one of Rembrant´s great pictures, because I don´t think it´s very much like meat. It looks to me like a lump of wax hanging there. I don´t think i t´s a great painting of meat. I don´t know what the great paintings of meat are”.
Bacon´s feelings about meat -about the carcasses of animals, and also about human flesh- were ambivalent: they served as a solemn reminder of his own mortality. Speaking after completing the third tryptych in 1965 he simply stated: “Well, of course, we are meat, we are potential carcasses”.
Bacon was the painter of 20th-century man in all his fragility and violence. He focused on the futility of life, looking back to the classical authors whom he so admired (The painters Picasso, Velazquez, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, the writers Aeschylus´ The Oresteia, T.S.Eliot, Shakespeare, the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca among others) and opening new expressive directions to contemporary painters.
Sources: Francis Bacon´s Official web site, Museo del Prado brochures, Skira Art Books, Los Grandes Genios del Arte Contemporáneo. Biblioteca El Mundo.