I have an Art History class on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 8 AM. We're talking about modern art, mostly from the 1940s and beyond, and most of what we've covered so far has been abstract expressionism, after a brief cover of the art leading up to it.
For today's reading, we got to Francis Bacon. And I found that I had quite a lot to say about Francis Bacon. So much, in fact, that when we ran out of time and tabled the discussion for Wednesday, I went back to my dorm and wrote down what I was thinking so that I wouldn't forget it.
And then the writing just kept growing.
So I'm making a blog post about it.
The first thing that I have to say is that flat art doesn't do much for me, particularly when it comes to abstraction or surrealism. My mind doesn't really connect unless there's at least the illusion of depth -- I tend to prefer abstract sculpture for precisely that reason, because my mind can actually connect to it as a thing that I should consider, but even then it's iffy. So most of the artists we've been covering aren't doing it for me. I'm honestly trying to keep an open mind, and I appreciate the idea behind the movement and the meaning of it all as a whole, but I look at Pollock or Kandinsky or Dubuffet or de Kooning and it means nothing to me, and even knowing (and in some cases seeing through video) how much work and thought really goes into these images, and how much formal talent the artists really have, the deep metaphors mentioned in the text just feel like pretentious bullshit.
Maybe I just really need to see them for myself, up close and personal, and not just pictures in a book. I don't know.
But then I turned the page to Francis Bacon's triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, particularly the third one with the overly wide mouth, and for the first time reading this book (Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being, Second Edition by Jonathan Fineberg) I had an immediate, gut reaction to an image. Even more so when I turned the page and found Study After Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X. Nowadays it's comparable to your average well-rendered zombie, but with the heavy-but-not-total darkness and the unnatural skin tone and the way it sort of blended into the background, it has quite the character of its own, and with the rest of the chapter having covered Dubuffet's intentionally childish works and Giacometti's anonymous figures, I was not expecting a zombie pope.
We had an assignment to look up a short Youtube video relating to one or more of the artists in this chapter. I, and much of the rest of our little class, chose to research Bacon (as opposed to Dubuffet or Giacometti). Looking through such videos exposed me to even more of Bacon's work as well as his goals with and attitude toward his art.
I have a particular fascination with a trope known as the Uncanny Valley. The Uncanny Valley is this idea in psychology that as something approaches recognizable humanity, it becomes gradually more acceptable, until it reaches a certain point where the acceptability suddenly plummets, because the thing is simultaneously human but not human enough, and the parts that are recognizable and familiar only serve to heighten the sense of wrongness in the rest of it. The point of the plunge is different for different people -- that's why some people are particularly afraid of clowns, or ventriloquist dummies, or RealDolls, or anthros, or whatnot. It's part of the driving force behind Slenderman. Me, I'm not terribly sensitive to it, and am completely comfortable with a lot of things that others find creepy, but I still find it fascinating. (Although I do have a thing about mouths. Images where the mouth is open and totally black and just sort of melting open way too wide just creep me right the fuck out.)
I think that the Uncanny Valley is a keystone of horror -- not shock or disgust or cheap thrills, but real, deep horror -- and Francis Bacon cultivated a very good sense of it. In a few of the videos the word 'triggers' is mentioned, and I think it's appropriate -- Bacon explicitly referred to images in film, to pictures from slaughterhouses and meat packing plants, and even color plates of human diseases for his inspiration. Dubuffet and Giacometti and de Kooning and Picasso all have figures in their works, but even when those figures are twisted in terrible ways, they're stylized, safe -- neutered. You can disconnect. You can look without being drawn in. Whereas Bacon has these realistically rendered, recognizable, human elements in most of his works, particularly ears and wide open mouths with straight, white teeth, and his figures (sometimes using the term in the loosest possible sense) have depth and proportion and muscle and flesh, and he gives you something that's just real enough, just human enough, that you connect with it -- and in connecting with it, the horror smacks you full in the fact. You get an immediate sense that there is something very wrong here, there is something horrible going on, and maybe you don't know what it is or why it is, but you want to get the hell away from it -- or not, because at the same time it's both horrible and fascinating.
In a way, compared to the other artists at the time, Bacon's works are exploitative. And despite the connotations of the word, I don't mean that in a bad way. I mean that rather than rely on people stopping to consider the deep meaning of his works, Bacon was exploiting human psychology to get an immediate, visceral reaction from his viewers, not to shock or disgust them, but to show them the world that he had lived through -- that the horror juxtaposed with the humanity wasn't a juxtaposition at all, but a simple fact. The man lived through both world wars and in the midst of revolutionary Ireland, after all.
Nowadays, art like this is relatively easy to find, and some of it's wandered more into shock or gross-out value in an attempt to shake up an increasingly jaded audience, but Bacon's early contributions certainly shouldn't go unnoticed. Personally, I'm not at all a fan of shock or gross-out works, but I love macabre realism and illusionistic surrealism, and I'm a fan of any artist who can work the Uncanny Valley.
|The colors are all so deceptively sedate, considering it looks like she has no skin on her face.|