How Francis Bacon boldly thieved his signature image from Munch – and gave it teeth

A new exhibition at Tate Liverpool reveals how Bacon constructed his striking faces.

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The Waste Land was one of Francis Bacon’s favourite poems. A phrase from section 2, “A Game of Chess”, exactly epitomises Study of the Human Body (1982): “And other withered stumps of time/Were told upon the walls”. This closing picture, one of 29 paintings on show at Tate Liverpool, depicts a body part, a gross truncation, bereft of torso and head. Topped by its bottom, it is a rump, a sturdy circumcised cock in a haze of pubic hair, and white-booted legs, advancing towards the viewer, clad in cricket pads.  We are advised that David Gower, the England batsman, was an inspiration, but I wonder if Eliot’s word “stumps” didn’t also play its part, consciously or sub-consciously, as a verbal trigger.

The whole of Bacon’s masochistic homosexuality is encapsulated in this painting. Most of the indispensable parts are there – the penis, the buttocks, the anus – though the mouth is absent, presumably too tender for the ideal rough encounter. In fact, a mouth-part is there, displaced, but not the lips and tongue. You can see a row of teeth in the right cricket pad where, just below the knee, the white protective ridges have been summarily and severely pruned. We are familiar with Bacon’s much-advertised “bleakness” – his default position that flesh is simply meat – but this painting is replete with grim humour. It captures the ridiculousness of sex, its quirks, its absurd categorical imperatives, as well as its terror. It is also a painting about vulnerability: those protective pads represent the fear (and desire) of being hurt and they expose paradoxically the body parts that are conspicuously unprotected, parts that have agreed to be a sexual object.

Before Bacon became a painter in the 1930s, he was an interior decorator, by all accounts rather derivative, sub-Bauhaus.  It’s hard to get excited about furniture, so we lazily accede to this verdict, eager to get on to the paintings. However, there is one aspect of interior decoration that makes a significant contribution to the painting. It is the curtain. In his early days, Bacon had Bloomsbury connections, including Dorothy Todd and Madge Garland, a lesbian couple who were the sometime editor and fashion editor of Vogue. Garland’s Bruton Street flat had as part of its furnishings Bacon’s surgical white rubber curtains. There are curtains, glistening Dacron drapes, in many of Bacon’s early paintings, all of them painted with effortless bravura, as you might expect from a former interior decorator.

Critics have been puzzled by the recurrent presence of a tassel in many of Bacon’s pictures. In Study for a Portrait (1952), a man’s head and bust, you can see the tassel and, on the suit lapel, the shadow of the tassel. The head is based on the bleeding nurse in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, a favourite Bacon source easily identifiable by the skewed pince-nez. Halfway up the painting there is a curtain on metal rings.  The tassel isn’t symbolic. It is there to close and open the curtains. (Photographs of Bacon’s Reece Mews studio by Perry Ogden in this exhibition show similar tassels for electric lights and blinds.)

The ubiquity of curtains is explained by the potent sexual topos of medicalisation – those latex curtains in Bruton Street, the suggestive safety pins in other curtains – where the implicit scenario is one of prescribed helplessness. Where procedures take place and things are done to the patient’s body. Behind the curtains, obedience and submission and the strong possibility of pain. (Many of Bacon’s compositions, we know, were based on K C Clark’s Positioning in Radiography.) This Tate Liverpool show centres its interest on the cage of lines that Bacon used to contain his images – those spectral glass or perspex cubes that are touched in. I think the curtains are more important and carry more charge. The spectral booths are sufficiently explained by Bacon’s admission that they are a simple pictorial device to anchor the central image and concentrate the viewer’s attention. They are there against the threat of aesthetic amorphousness. Whereas the curtains are there to enclose their subjects – who are subject to the premise of physical threat, the imminent arousing unknown, the claustrophobic promise of pain.

Which brings us to the Baconian signature scream. We remember all those screaming popes after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X. There are also screams emitted from apes and chimpanzees and various other human figures. We are familiar with the photographic sources – the bloodied nurse and her crushed pince-nez, the teeth of a machine-gunner also from Eisenstein. But if they are a signature touch, they are someone else’s signature – a brilliant forgery.

There is a famous anecdote about Bacon. Princess Margaret, a touch tipsy at a ball thrown by Lady Rothermere, decided to seize the microphone and sing a selection of Cole Porter and similar stuff. Everyone listened respectfully. But Bacon, who was there, couldn’t bear it – the singing and the sycophancy. He booed very loudly. Caroline Blackwood, who was later married to Lucian Freud, recorded Bacon’s account: “Her singing was really too awful. Someone had to stop her. I don’t think people should perform if they can’t do it properly.” Lèse-majesté – and an index of Bacon’s fearlessness, of his refusal to be intimidated, which is part of his gift as a painter. He is no respecter of reputations and he takes what he needs when he needs to, just as Eliot believed that great poets steal and minor poets borrow. He asset-strips Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox (1655) for several crucifixions.

The scream is stolen from Munch’s iconic painting. What a heist. So huge a theft that no one mentions it. You search David Sylvester’s Looking Back at Francis Bacon (2000) in vain for any reference to Der Schrei. Instead, Munch is dismissed brusquely as a non-influence because he is Expressionist, a painterly stance Bacon explicitly repudiates: ‘I’m not really saying anything [as he thought Munch was], because I’m probably much more concerned with the aesthetic qualities of a work than, perhaps, Munch was.’ So, a rather disingenuous denial of content. But it is unsurprising to me that Giacometti, later a friend and ally, should have initially dismissed Bacon’s work as Expressionist. Bacon takes Munch’s kitsch Nordic universal scream, critiques it and refines it. He gives it teeth.

And the teeth are interesting. They come in two basic types. For human beings, the teeth are uniform, regular at top and bottom. For animals, there are additional incisors – which, now and then, are given to the human mouth to suggest a shared animality. They express pain, the agony of orgasm, pity and terror, rage, appetite, fear, pleasure. One of them might be booing Munch’s cosmic vulgarity. Bacon is true to the versatility of the human mouth. He loved the mouth: “I’ve always been very moved by the movement of the mouth and the shape of the mouth and the teeth. People say that these have all sorts of sexual implications . . . I like, you may say, the glitter and colour that comes from the mouth, and I’ve always hoped in a sense to be able to paint the mouth like Monet painted a sunset.”

What do we make of this declaration? Of this desire to remove the mouth from its bodily functions, its ingestions, its semantic gestures, and see it as a simple inanimate phenomenon? (It is no surprise to learn that Bacon admired Damien Hirst’s flayed cow’s head aesthetically, for its colours – that wet intestinal pink.) We see, I think, Bacon’s dislike of “illustration” and his fascination with the painterly process and the part played by chance. The playwright Patrick Marber remembers “playing roulette with Francis Bacon in the Charlie Chester casino in Archer Street, Soho. He was gleeful. ‘Isn’t it wonderful when you win! And you know what, it’s quite good fun when you lose.’” It sounds perverse and is part of gambling pathology, but it is also indirectly a telling anecdote about Bacon the artist. The excitement of gambling reflects on the comparable excitement of painting – the way it can go wrong at any moment, as well as the brilliant accidents created by the pigment on the brush.

When Bacon spoke in favour of keeping Titian’s The Death of Actaeon for the nation, he emphasised the top corner in which Actaeon is transformed into a stag and torn apart by the dogs: the images, he said, were “never absolutely definite”. This lack of clarity and definition is often a strength in Bacon. Take Chimpanzee (1955): the animal is contained in a spectral cage, incisors savagely bared, behind it and to one side a dark grey wall marked with darker slant lines like a sign for rain in Japanese painting. The lines represent steel mesh, very effectively. But what Bacon really gets, in spite of the apparent blur of brushstrokes, is the chimpanzee’s pink prehensile feet and the shortness of the legs.

Or consider Triptych (1967) (formerly known as Triptych Inspired by T S Eliot’s Poem Sweeney Agonistes, a title wished on Bacon by his gallery). The right-hand panel shows two men fucking, a composition based on two wrestlers in Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic “dictionary” of movement, like stills from a film. The painting gives new meaning to the phrase “one flesh”. It is inextricably itself, with a single set of teeth there in the mix. In the left-hand panel, two post-coital women with long hair and possible breasts, lie intertwined and splayed, having done it in front of a mirror, a mirror that reflects their feet and a desolate chest of drawers with its upper drawer pulled suggestively open. The confusion of the bed is captured exactly by virtue of its inexactitude.

Bacon can be surprisingly exact and representational. In the foreground of this panel Bacon has painted an ashtray and a soft pack of cigarettes. In the central panel is an eviscerated hold-all, rendered with great panache, with a line of zip teeth. There is a cloth-covered stool on which rests a leather-bound ledger. All these details are unmistakable.

His rendering of faces is recorded strikingly in this show. We think of the archetypal Bacon face as a set of smears and swipes that emulate motion pictures and movement, but this is a relatively late development. Early on, there are faces in mid-dissolve, partially corroded representations. There are striated features that derive from Picasso’s “primitive” paintings, which look to African carvings. And there are straightforwardly representational portraits, for example of Lucian Freud entering a room down a set of stone steps. The face is conventionally set down and doesn’t look much like Lucian Freud. Bacon gets better likeness with greater freedom of treatment. And he wanted likeness, reasonably enough: “I mean, there’s no point in trying to make a portrait that doesn’t look like
the person.”

There are two paintings from the Man in Blue 1954 suite (IV and V) in which the faces are poised between the conventionally realistic and the faintly unfocused. You could pick out the person in an identity parade – his combed-back dark fair hair, the strong jaw and mouth, the pronounced eyebrows – but the whole is on the edge of pixelation. The paintings have immense conviction: the upper torso is suited, the lower body masked by a conference table, the hands clasped and resting attentively on the table. In V, the posture is listening. He isn’t screaming. His face is recognisable but hard to describe, like a model in wax, just this side of melting. Here there is no cage of lines. That particular function is performed by the lines of the table and the sequence of pleated drapes behind the sitter’s head. It is exquisitely, unostentatiously composed, and miles away from the melodrama and rhetoric we often, lazily, assume in Bacon’s paintings: “But it is more than that: it has a cosmic dimension, as if it were a Mouth of Hell. It seems to suck in and expel every particle of energy in the air.” David Sylvester, mouthing off, as if Bacon were Munch.

The exhibition runs until 18 September

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster