- Man with Arm Raised
- Oil on canvas
- 40 x 25 inches
Mario Tazzoli, Turin (acquired from the above circa 1960)
Piccadilly Gallery, London
Dr. Roger Matthys, Ghent
Galerie Claude Bernard, Paris
Private Collection, England
Sale: Sotheby's, New York, November 13, 1980, lot 32
Acquired at the above sale by A. Alfred Taubman
Milan, Via S. Andrea 11, Tra L'Antico e il Moderno, 1961
Turin, Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna, Francis Bacon, September 11 - October 14, 1962, no. 72, illustrated in the catalogue
Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Pop Art-Nouveau Realism, February 5 - March 1, 1965, no. 9
John Russell, Francis Bacon, Greenwich, Connecticut, 1971, no. 34, illustrated
John Russell, Francis Bacon, New York, 1993, fig. 53, illustrated p. 111 and discussed p. 110
Margarita Cappock, Francis Bacon's Studio, London, 2005, fig. 191, illustrated p. 109
Man with Arm Raised exhibits all the technical mastery and painterly genius that is characteristic of Bacon's very best mature output. Prior to this point, most of Bacon’s figures had been relatively static—seated popes and stationary figures dominated his oeuvre up to 1959. With significant transitional paintings like Man with Arm Raised, Bacon’s subjects burst into movement. Here we see the beginnings of Bacon’s twisted, mobile figures: the attenuated arm extends and bends around the door frame as an anatomically unrealistic appendage, while the thick impastoed surface of his face suggests captured motion. The heavily-loaded brush that defines the impressive volume of his visage swirls in arcs of differing hues—curves that echo the movement of the figure’s body. It was in St. Ives that Bacon began experimenting with color, paint-handling, and re-assessed the spatial configurations of his subjects. Michel Peppiatt explained the significance of the crucial St. Ives period, and has suggested that this was "[the] most fertile decade in Bacon's career, the period when he was at his wildest and most tormented, but also at his freest to invent and destroy... [Bacon] acquired the pictorial means to bring forth his vision, before technical mastery started to absorb the rawness of what he conveyed" (exhibition catalogue, Tate St Ives, Francis Bacon in St Ives, Experiment and Transition 1957-62, 2007, p. 13).
The fulcrum of the composition, a naked human being, is offered up to the viewer primarily by the corporeal essence of its body rather than by traits of physiognomy or other identifying signifiers such as clothes or hair. Peering from behind a door frame, the figure’s body is cloaked by the interior walls, heightening the drama and mystery that pervades this picture. This compositional structure provides an early indication into the architectural interiors that pervaded much of Bacon’s later work. Clutching the door frame and looming out toward the viewer, the body here is locked in a complex sequence of framing devices. The figure remains constrained by the claustrophobic interior space. The doorway, imbued with connotation and metaphor, is a significant autographic device in Bacon's work and is core to some of his later works. Indeed, his awe-inspiring Triptych, August 1972 in the collection of the Tate Gallery, which commemorates the suicide of his lover George Dyer, includes two panels where Dyer is seated in front of doorways that similarly open into sheer blackness. Bacon's doorways are thus portals to an abyss, and that the figure in the present work is near the verge of the doorway, perhaps even moving towards it, introduces a high dose of tension to the scene. In Man with Arm Raised, the figure is separated from the wider context of the scene and, by implication, from the communal environment of shared experience. This provides a literal interpretation of an existential state of being whereby individuals inhabit isolated microcosms, fending for and governed by themselves solely.
Bacon displayed a particular interest in the documentation of paranormal phenomena; found in his studio was the book Phenomena of Materialisation by German doctor Baron Albert Freiherr von Schrenck-Notzing, a publication that set out to index and illustrate such supernatural occurrences. Many images and excerpts that Bacon favored included persons seated in enclosed spaces, partially concealed behind curtains or doors—a formal trope mirrored in Man with Arm Raised. As much as any other artist of the 20th century, Francis Bacon held up the mirror to the nature of the human condition, and Man with Arm Raised of 1960 provides the perfect reflection of what he saw. Akin to many great thinkers in the mid 20th century, Bacon was fascinated by the 1940s and '50s works of the French existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir, and their explorations of themes such as dread, alienation, freedom, and the absurd. In a Europe utterly devastated by the savagery of war, many people questioned the adequacy and relevance of traditional belief systems as a way of explaining the complexities of the world. Stories of undefined higher powers and aspiration to abstract ideals, which had been the basis for widespread behavioral codes, were deemed by many as deficient rationalization of human action after Auschwitz and Hiroshima. The most important characters of Bacon's canon, typified by the figure in the present work, precisely crystallize this questioning attitude. This figure is indeed alone in the world and is suffused with solitary introspection. It portrays a psychology that has abandoned the sureties of religious mythology and the redemption of an afterlife, and is confronting an existence ungoverned by greater forces. Supporting this notion, Bacon’s formal device of a ghostly white vertical and solid planes of color and shallow pictorial space evoke the stark simplicity of the color-field canvases of Barnett Newman, of whom Bacon would have certainly been aware, or the much-admired horizontal stripe paintings that Patrick Heron was making in St. Ives at the time. Devoid of ancient frames of reference, Man with Arm Raised is living out the ultimate existential paradox: confronted with the freedoms of newfound individuality on the one hand, it is doomed to suffer the loneliness of segregation on the other. Indeed, Hugh Davies and Sally Yard have described Bacon’s painting in a way that perfectly encapsulates Man with Arm Raised: "Calling to mind naked men locked away in anonymous, windowless cells, this figure conveys the introspection, regression, and withdrawal associated with ... the quintessential posture of man divested of civilization" (Hugh Davies and Sally Yard, Francis Bacon, New York, London and Paris, 1986, p. 29).
At the same time, the entire head and shoulder wear a thickly impenetrable mask, which divests identity and provides the anonymity that is so essential to the ultimate success of the painting. The head's silhouette is filled with a textural opacity that intentionally gives little insight to personality, and in its rounded shapes and mottled fleshy hues evokes the carnality of the bovine carcasses that Bacon had previously painted after the works of Rembrandt and Chaïm Soutine. This visceral affirmation of the simple substance of human flesh acts as illustration to Bacon's mantra-like adage "we come from nothing and we go to nothing," which he apparently oft repeated as a fundamental belief (the artist cited in exhibition catalogue, Valencia, IVAM, Institut Valencià d'Art Modern; Paris, Musée Maillol Fondation Dina Vierny, Francis Bacon: The Sacred and The Profane, 2003-04, p. 32). The copious smearing of paint used to delineate the face attains a rich texture; the heavy black line defines the chin and sweeps across the cheek, leaving a dark space, further enhancing this compelling and emotive image. Bacon’s work of this period placed a decided emphasis on forces rather than forms. "The living quality is what you have to get. In painting a portrait the problem is to find a technique by which you can give all the pulsations of a person…The sitter is someone of flesh and blood and what has to be caught is their emanation" (the artist, cited in David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London, 2000, p. 98).
In addition, inasmuch as Man with Arm Raised forwards various notions of existence that are complex, layered, and open to interpretation, it is comparable to a work of philosophical significance. Indeed, this is a definitive visual essay in Existentialism and the incarnation of Francis Bacon's explanation of the Human Condition. Frequently instigating idioms such as 'the violence of the real' and 'the brutality of fact,' Bacon's paintings are direct, unashamed and uncompromising; qualities that are perfectly encapsulated by Man with Arm Raised, which so effectively summarizes a world in which we all survive as individuals.