Francis Bacon, Head VI (1949)

London. A sunny Wednesday morning with highs in the 50s, the sun goes down at 5:30pm, and I’m recovering from an exhibition of Francis Bacon’s animal paintings at the Royal Academy. The introduction on the wall said his paintings speak to “our current predicament”—an elastic phrase that sets the mind wandering through today’s calamities and disasters, wondering how they might connect with Bacon’s frightening figures that flicker between human and beast.

We inspect these grisly images, us fortunate art-goers who can afford to linger in a museum on a rainy Tuesday afternoon. Some of us wear masks, others are bare-faced, and all of us are most certainly confused while the pandemic zigs-and-zags. Now our screens are wallpapered with headlines about military incursions, disrupted gas supplies, and economic sanctions. Or as Bacon observed: “The whole horror of life, one thing living off another.”

He described the crucifixion of Christ as “just an act of man’s behavior,” yet his depiction of it looks more alien and magical than anything the Catholics conceived. This cosmic tension captures the mental windshear of modern living. Bad weather fills Bacon’s canvases: damp and clammy, the faces of his subjects melting in the rain. But it’s more than body horror. There’s a reverence for death. The most ghoulish scenes from my dreams float before me, demanding to be taken seriously. “I think most artists are very aware of their annihilation,” said Bacon. “It follows them around like their shadow.”

What is it about a Bacon painting that yanks me back into the gallery each time I’m about to leave? The mouths. More specifically, the teeth. These detailed grins and snarls provide an entry point into the surreal, for the dissolution of logic into something even more real. I can stare at Bacon’s portraits for hours, my eye struggling to understand the face before me, even though it already makes sense, for it exists deep in the basement beneath words and speech, somewhere among the limbic muck and heat of being a panting, living mess: a person.

Bacon believed in “an area of the nervous system to which the texture of paint communicates more violently than anything else.” I think he’s right.

Earth – Dissolution I

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