FRANCIS BACONLandscape near Malabata, Tangier, 1963, Oil on sand and canvas, 198 × 145 cm. Photo by Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Image taken from Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné, published in July 2016 by The Estate of Francis Bacon and distributed internationally by Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Copyright and courtesy The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS 2016.

Firenze Lai on Francis Bacon

Hong Kong United Kingdom
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Roughly more than a decade has passed since I first encountered the work of British painter Francis Bacon (1909–1992). It happened at the Hong Kong Book Fair, where I discovered a monograph on the artist on a shelf full of art books. I wouldn’t call it “love at first sight,” but I couldn’t stop looking through the pages. I had so many questions about his works and many feelings I couldn’t describe. In the end, I bought the book with the measly HKD 50 that I had with me.

These days, paintings by Bacon fetch astronomical prices, sometimes even rivaling those for works by Picasso. There are a plethora of biographies, interviews and essays written on his life and his practice, and many artists have quoted Bacon as a major influence (Damien Hirst makes this claim, but in my opinion, he is only an imitator).

Speaking about his work, Bacon expressed that he strove to strip the narrative as well as the illustrative away from his imagery without letting the work descend into absolute abstraction. He wanted to construct a bridge between his pictures and the viewers’ minds—shunning that which can be described, while also evading that which cannot be described. Naturally, not everyone resonates with this approach; but to those who do, it’s like looking at a vista from a completely different window, from an entirely different vantage point.

To me, Bacon is both a traditionalist and a revolutionary: he uses conventional canvases and paints to make his figurative pictures, yet he has abandoned the age-old relationship between the painter and the subject, leaving us with just the imagery. In portraiture, there are three parties involved: the painter, the subject and the viewers. Traditionally for the genre, the focus was always on the subject. In a great portrait, the subject might become a vehicle or a prism, transmitting the painter’s ideas or messages to a perceptive viewer. It is all very linear. Bacon’s portraits, however, place the three parties on an equal playing field. The subject in the painting is also Bacon himself, as well as any viewer who stands before the work. In his compositions, symbols are reduced to a bare minimum so there is no room for reasoning or interpretation. Bacon sought a candid empathy with his viewers through his sheer imagery.

To compare his methods with Rembrandt’s: the 17th-century Dutch painter relished in the visceral qualities of the paint itself and wielded the material in a confident, masterful way, while Bacon’s attitude toward his paints was nihilist, reductive. For the latter, creating a textural surface with the paint elicited an emotional response, taking away a viewer’s intuitive experience of the work. Thus, Bacon’s compositions appear quite flat. Of course there are challenges in an approach like this, as the artist must constantly ensure that neither habit nor reason ends up directing his hand. Bacon refused to “speak” the common or universal language of painting, and preferred to step back and focus on a more fundamental, more primal way of communicating with his audience.

Painting today lags behind other artistic media in terms of resolute attempts to experiment and cross-pollinate. Additionally, painting has the added stigma of commercialization as it is the easiest of the various artistic media to sell. With the internet generating more images a day than the number of particles in the Beijing air, and paintings reduced to fleeting pictures on our screens, what is left for painting? The road only grows more and more narrow. In an age when formal or conceptual innovation inundate our purview, it becomes increasingly difficult to find a form of expression that speaks directly to our intuition, our instinct—our gut. So whenever I think of Francis Bacon’s tenacity and courage, I am reminded of what kind of painter I want to become.