弗朗西斯·培根 | 《人像習作》
by Martin Harrison
This remarkable painting counts, in effect, as a recent Bacon discovery, given that for more than sixty years it remained in private collections, lost to public view until it was exhibited at the Guggenheim Bilbao and the Grimaldi Forum, Monaco in 2016. When I first saw it in Zürich, two years ago, it was at a photography studio, where it was being scanned for reproduction in the Bacon catalogue raisonné. Previously I had known it only through a poor-quality black and white reproduction, and my initial reaction to the powerful imagery and visceral quality of the paint mixed surprise and pleasure.
Its ‘intention’ is unclear. Insofar as Bacon offered clues to how his work might be interpreted, he simultaneously withdrew them. He sought ambiguity, but if he obfuscated it was partly because he was uncertain himself of any precise meanings his paintings conveyed. Nonetheless, after the thrill of encountering Study of a Figure, there was the task of doing justice to it in the catalogue raisonné. I am not sure I entirely succeeded, not least because it is difficult to be more than tentative about paintings that resist – and that Bacon meant to resist – facile interpretation. What follows is a partly subjective, and at some points speculative, essay towards further explication of the painting.
Within Bacon’s oeuvre, as a work of 1954 which comprises an isolated male figure on a dark, blue-black ground, Study of a Figure is self-evidently in a dialogue with the ‘Man in Blue’ series of the same year. But Study of a Figure is not merely a companion of the sombre, solitary men in blue: it represents the antithesis of the ‘civilised’, be-suited businessman. The figure is literally stripped down, naked, elemental. The men in the series have generally been understood to be modelled on businessmen Bacon met in hotel bars in Henley-on-Thames, and it cannot be coincidental that the series focusses on censorious, authority figures. But the businessman – clothed or naked – is essentially Peter Lacy, notwithstanding Bacon, even in the landscapes, always painted self-portraits.
By 1954 Bacon’s tempestuous affair with Peter Lacy was already doomed. Their attempt at living together in Lacy’s cottage at Hurst, Berkshire, erupted in violence, and Lacy had destroyed some of Bacon’s paintings. Bacon later described Lacy as neurotic, and being in love with someone as a disease he would not wish on his worst enemies. Yet in order to remain close to Lacy, Bacon rented a space above a shop, seven miles away in Henley-on-Thames, and it was here that he painted Study of a Figure. The melancholy men in blue represent the tedium of officialdom, their sedentary restricted lives, detached from their animal selves, in direct contrast with the subject of Study of a Figure. Neither is a solution to human existence, they are two sides of the same coin, but it should be remembered that Lacy, when not carousing with Bacon, was himself a businessman (he was a stockbroker), as an extant photograph of him in a pin-striped suit serves to emphasise.
Certain of Bacon’s paintings that anticipated significant elements of Study of a Figure place it in a thematic continuum of isolated couples or single figures within sparse settings. For example, Landscape, 1952, (catalogue raisonné reference: 52-11) and Study of Figure in a Landscape, 1952, (catalogue raisonné reference: 52-12), stress the isolation of human existence in an engulfing emptiness of inhospitable environments. In Man Kneeling in Grass, 1952 (catalogue raisonné reference: 52-13), the human figure is located in what is a ‘sample’ of nature or ‘the outdoors’, acted upon by an unknown but menacing force. These staged creations are nevertheless forensically precise, analytically accurate. Study of a Figure extends this concept but with a more ambiguous agenda. There are affinities between Study of a Figure and other paintings of the 1950s, for example Man at Curtain, 1950 (catalogue raisonné reference: 50-01), in which a naked man stretches an arm to adjust a diaphanous curtain fastened with safety pins, and the bulky male figure with naked torso encased in a cubicle in Study for a Figure, 1950 (catalogue raisonné reference: 50-03). These mysterious, dark paintings with pale figures are hard to de-code; are they apparitions, or hallucinatory, dream-images that Bacon captured in paint? In Portrait of a Man, 1953 (catalogue raisonné reference: 53-26), which depicts Peter Lacy, he wears a suit and sits in a relaxed manner, arms resting on an armchair that we are not shown. The vision-like image seems to be forming in a shadowed interior; Bacon defines a cube enveloping the figure as though to concentrate and hold the spectre as it vanishes. Similarly, in Study of a Figure the man is incomplete, but the physical presence is more substantial, and the outstretched arms are in tension rather than resting.
In addition to the formal considerations, an exegesis of Study of a Figure could hardly avoid Bacon’s tastes in literature. He was an avid reader, and fundamentally literary tropes played a decisive part in his complex absorption of inspirations. His male figures frequently invoke the machismo-figures who verge on the ape-like in presentation and the flawed hero – Shakespeare’s Caliban, T.S. Eliot’s Sweeney, mythology’s Achilles, Odin, the Fisher King, Oedipus, and Hercules and Samson of The Old Testament. Bacon painted both apes and animalistic humans, many of them located in cage structures. Our empathy for Bacon’s anthropomorphised apes speaks for the skill with which he was able to evoke melancholy and even horror; but when the balance is switched, and a man is portrayed as potentially bestial, one’s initial response is generally more equivocal. Bacon’s Caliban-like men may have been informed by Montaigne, whose books he is known to have read; furthermore, it is probably not coincidental that Shakespeare’s Caliban is believed to have inspired by the French philosopher’s essay, ‘Of Cannibals’.
In T.S. Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes: Fragments of an Aristophanic Melodrama, Sweeney is the main protagonist. Eliot, who had used the character in previous poems, is thought to have based him on a real boxer called Sweeney, but the familiarity of the surname, especially for a British audience, added an extra level of dread; Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, was a Victorian fictional murderer and purveyor of human flesh. In Eliot’s poem, Sweeney Erect, Sweeney is in a brothel and makes a ‘Gesture of orang-utang’; in Sweeney among the Nightingales, he is ape-like and has zebra stripes along his jaw; the poem’s epigraph is from Agamemnon, the tragedy by Aeschylus, in which King Agamemnon utters on his murder: ‘I am struck deep with a mortal blow’. Violence, hedonism, an animal-like demeanour and tragedy, which form a persistent thread through Bacon’s paintings, are clearly operative in Study of a Figure.
In the painting, Lacy’s naked torso is shadowed with dark striations and intensified with reddish pink and white highlights. The ambiguous expression of Bacon’s figure is perhaps sardonic or resigned, or is the shadowed eye signalling defeat? If the darkened chin denotes a beard, it would support the suggestion that Samson was one of the figures Bacon had in mind. Certainly tragedy, as well as dignity or even hope, infuses the man’s aura. Samson, the Old Testament character, strong in body but weak in character, whose hedonism caused him to be blinded and imprisoned, used the immensity of his renewed strength to destroy his enemies as well as himself. John Milton’s closet tragedy, Samson Agonistes relates the tragic, violent, biblical account but incorporates elements from Greek Tragedy. The chorus explains how Dalila (Delilah) and her hold over him causes his demise:
Draws him awry enslaved
With dotage, and his sense depraved
To folly and shameful deeds which ruin ends.
Did Bacon identify with Samson’s Delilah, the person who brought the hero down to earth? Peter Lacy, the former Second World War fighter pilot, was a modern era hero. Was Bacon’s tactic to seduce, debauch, then enfeeble the masculine principle? The outstretched arms in Study of a Figure inevitably recall Christ on the cross, again a tragic figure who, for believers, embodies hope with his personal sacrifice: Bacon had been painting crucifixions since 1933. The figure is not, of course, overtly Christ-like, but his ‘incarceration’ engenders sympathy and sorrow, like the myriad paintings of not only Christ but also of St. John the Baptist, who after imprisonment was decapitated at the wish of Salome.
Bacon claimed to despise William Blake’s paintings and admire only the literary works, but the pose in Study of a Figure also recalls Blake’s symbolic character Los, Eternal Prophet, in The Book of Urizen. Los falls from a higher spirituality and becomes bound in human form: he is in a struggle for control with Urizen, not unlike Bacon’s fractious liaison with Lacy. In Henley-on-Thames, Bacon had befriended the Blake scholar, George Goyder, who was plausibly the conduit for introducing the image of Los to Bacon. In the following year, while still in Henley, Bacon began his studies from William Blake’s life mask, gaunt heads enveloped in tenebrous spaces and thus not far removed from Study of a Figure. Blake’s philosophy must surely, to some extent, have resonated with Bacon, who as a fellow contrarian would have enjoyed Blake’s ‘proverb’, ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.’
The geometry of the polygonal cage in Study of a Figure is a variant of the patterned ground on which a lone dog prowls in Dog, 1952 (catalogue raisonné reference: 52-17), and in Sphinx I and Sphinx II (both 1953; catalogue raisonné references: 52-15 and 52-16), the Great Sphinx at Giza threatens across the gridded ground. These configurations were based on a photograph of the Nazi rally stadium at Nuremberg, designed by Albert Speer. In the present painting, it rises to imprison a man; if it was intended to resemble a child’s play pen, the setting is far from benign. The ‘cage’ equally suggests an animal enclosure, especially in comparison with Figure with Monkey, 1951 (catalogue raisonné reference: 51-01) and Study of a Baboon, 1953 (catalogue raisonné reference: 53-17). What an adult may be doing in such a structure is open to question.
Vertical bars surround the figure, who seems to be standing in a pit. The man may be suspending himself between two levels, raising himself out of a trapdoor in the floor, or lowering himself into a hole: typically, the illustrational content of the painting is deliberately non-committal. Thus, Bacon leaves open the possibility of an active/passive relationship with his paintings; they are neither easy decoration nor simply artefact, they are an experience, an ongoing encounter, and Study of a Figure richly rewards close viewing and contemplation. Given that Study of a Figure was painted as a pendant to Seated Figure, 1954, (catalogue raisonné reference: 54-04), in comparison with the subdued crouching figure in the latter it embodies strength, implied violence and, despite the man’s confinement, confidence. The paler, bewildered naked man in Seated Figure, with his softer musculature, squatting on the floor, becomes its pathetic counterpart. The psychological game is perhaps one of bluff and double-bluff, for who knows where the power lies in a sexual relationship. Bacon professed that he wished for domination and desired to be raped; Lacy had invited Bacon to forsake painting and "live in a corner of my cottage on straw. You could sleep and shit there" (Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London 2008, p. 178). A partly autobiographical reading of the two paintings, in light of the potential humiliation Bacon later related, remains compelling.
None of these readings precludes the relevance of Ronald Alley’s suggestion that Bacon had referred to Eadweard Muybridge’s photograph, ‘Man Lifting 50 lb Dumbbells, one in each hand’, and in the context of the arm positions – a unique configuration in his vocabulary of gestures – it may be noted that Bacon was also a collector of male physique magazines. In the solemn, decontextualized space of Study of a Figure, Bacon closes in on the figure, whose colouring is bolder and more intense than Bacon’s previous nudes. Indeed, his painterly attack is as eloquent as it is violent: his treatment of the flesh as impassioned as both his circumstances, and this forceful, impressive painting, warrants.