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Francis Bacon: Painting in a Godless World

Meryl Doney

Rina Arya

Lund Humphries, 176pp

I have always had questions about the work of Francis Bacon. Why, as an avowed atheist, did he refer so often to the crucifixion, use the triptych (essentially an altarpiece format) and return again and again to the figure of the Pope? Why do I, as a believer, find these images horrifying yet fascinating and affecting? Why do I think him one of the great artists of the 20th century? Rina Arya's beautifully illustrated book goes a long way to answering these questions.

Arya's aim is to explore Bacon's recurrent religious themes in an attempt to forefront and reassess their significance in his art - a rarity among current studies of Bacon's work. Her tone is academic, yet accessible, and she offers short but helpful historical notes which provide a context for Bacon's work.

Arya begins by setting out the background to Bacon's vivid and colourful life. He was born in Dublin into an upper-class English family. His father was a retired army captain with a passion for horse breeding and racing. His early experiences of religion were entwined with sectarian violence. He was not close to either parent, and they did not support his decision to be a painter. He was finally expelled from the family home when his father caught him trying on his mother's underwear.

With very little formal education and with only £3 a week allowance from his mother, Bacon moved to London and then on to a hedonistic 1920s Berlin and then Paris. Largely self-taught as a painter, Bacon was befriended by the Australian Roman Catholic painter Roy de Maistre who taught him the basics of technique. His first benefactor, the wealthy businessman Eric Hall introduced him to culture, ideas and the art world. Two further artists - who also employed the symbol of the Crucifixion - had a significant influence on the young Bacon: Graham Sutherland and Pablo Picasso.

It is clear that Bacon, though raised a protestant in Roman Catholic Ireland, was an avowed and articulate atheist. In an interview in 1965, he says, '… man now realises that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without reason.'

But his was a complex and ambivalent atheism, his work often dependent on religious themes. In looking at these, critics and commentators have offered a number of theories as to their appeal to the artist. Some suggest his preoccupation with religious images may spring from his experience of sectarianism in Ireland, his repeated use of the image of the Pope to his need for a father figure, and his rendering of the predominantly male body to his homosexuality. But Arya insists that Bacon's approach is far more nuanced and she is convincing in her exploration of these four themes in turn.

Firstly, the cross. Bacon made at least eight major Crucifixion paintings, spanning five decades, including the work that launched his career, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. He gave many reasons for this choice of subject, including its aesthetic and formal possibilities, its anthropological aspect as an image of extreme torture, and its cultural and religious resonance. Arya sees him as stripping away the sanitising veil that has been drawn over the image, thus restoring its sacred meaning.

Secondly, the Pope. The original Velazquez picture of Innocent X, which Bacon cannibalises, conveys not just the man, but his office and authority. Bacon's popes are deliberately stripped of both. They are imprisoned, terrified and screaming. Arya acknowledges the element of revenge upon his father. But there is more. She asserts that the most compelling reason for Bacon's use of the Pope is to demonstrate the bankruptcy of the Christian faith and the Godlessness of his vision.

The three-fold form of the triptych infers a narrative movement from left to right and an intensity of feeling from the human sadness of the scenes around the cross. There is evidence that Bacon used this form to convey movement and relationship, but not in the Christian sense. Having been influenced by Eadweard Muybridge's experiments with photographs of the moving image, Bacon employed the triptych to convey the body in dynamic movement.

Fourthly, Arya focuses on the subject most central to Bacon's work, the body. For him the figure was an 'armature' which enabled him to explore different facets of the human being. He was exploring how to paint the figure in a world overshadowed by post-war horror, how to depict the body in a non-naturalistic way, yet without lapsing into abstraction, and the paradox of representing motion in a static medium. But he also explored the distorted and 'opened-up' body - relishing the lack of boundaries in his figures and the relationship of the human to the carcass and to the animal.

Finally, Arya examines the idea of the sacred and profane. The profane, as in the realm of the everyday, and the sacred, described as ambivalent and dual - it can encompass the holy and the malevolent. These categories are used to discuss the power of Bacon's religious imagery. Arya's conclusion is that Bacon reconsecrates symbols that have become profane through overuse, reviving their significance by articulating their sacrality, even if it is dark.

I'm not sure I go all the way with Arya's reading of Bacon's religious works. At times she comes close to signing him up as a card-carrying Roman Catholic artist! I am tempted to imagine him screaming in his grave. It's like blandly ignoring a teenager's desperate act of protest. Bacon did everything in his power to demonstrate the emptiness and futility of a Godless world. But here he is being portrayed as an artist who, 'whilst denigrating the meaning of the symbol, paradoxically reinforces its meaning because his art engages with questions that are central to theological debates, such as the role of suffering, the sensory nature of the body and the inevitability of death.'

On the other hand, Arya's conclusion provides traction for anyone who wonders why they continue to be drawn to Bacon's powerful and visceral work.