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From Francis Bacon to Francis Bacon: The Slice of Life

by Ethan Tussey

by Remy Low for IN MEDIA RES

The work of British artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992) stands as one of the exemplars of modern art's dissolution of the human figure. Many of Bacon's portraits offer a glimpse of the human as a riven by external forces, with impetuous paint strokes used to render bodies like meat finely cleaved and oozing out of the viscous porosity of the flesh.

Why, if indeed Bacon's work conjures up such grotesque images of human dissolution, does it continue to command the attention of so many, especially amongst those of us whose lives appear, by contrast, to be ostensibly governed by civility and orderliness? I submit that our fascination with work of Francis Bacon the artist may be read genealogically from our existential situation in societies ruled by the methods put forward by an earlier Francis Bacon (1561-1626), better known as the "father" of the modern scientific method.

According to the earlier Bacon, human understanding of the world should be reoriented to the rational inquiry of particular problems without recourse to substantive meanings that may have existed prior to the inquiry. Yet as Jatinder Bajaj points out, although such notions as good and evil are eliminated, the Baconian method subjects knowledge to a new ethos: power. For Bacon, "there is a most intimate connection between the ways of human power and human knowledge." Put simply, knowledge should bring greater control or, in modern parlance, management.

In time, this Baconian worldview would serve not only as paradigmatic for the natural sciences, but also as the foundation of modern approaches for the government of social life. From this point, it is not difficult to establish a genealogy between the work of the earlier to that of the later Francis Bacon: the proliferation of knowledges in the human sciences–behavioural, economical, criminological, sexual, etc.–has also meant the multiplication of powers acting upon persons, managing the ever more divisible parts of existence like the escalloped pieces of meat in Bacon's paintings juxtaposed with the figures, which are rendered translucent under the scrutiny of knowledgeable gazes and leaky from their multiple penetrations.

Perhaps, then, the enduring allure of Francis Bacon's art owes not so much to its obsession with decay and death as in its uncovering of our modern, ordered and civil lives as that which is truly morbid.

The Destructive Art of Francis Bacon

Video with Bacon's paintings

from Francis Bacon (2014)
Creator: N/A
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Ethan Tussey