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Eric Bayless-Hall

One inquiring into the nature of Francis Bacon’s Painting, 1946 faces this fact: at a distance, we see depicted objects, and up close, we see the material of the painting and how it was formed. Every painted thing is at once the material that composes it, and contributes to a representation of things beyond that material; and as we change our physical relation to the painting we switch from seeing one to the other of these aspects, taking now, as it were, a representational view, and now a material view of the painting. With material and representation distinguished in our perception, and neither subordinated to the other, in what does a view of the painting as a whole consist?

Two patterns present themselves as points of contact between these two aspects of the painting.

(1) Materially, paint is at one moment on top of the canvas, and at another, sunk in the valleys of the canvas grain and scraped from its peaks such that the canvas appears to rest on top of the paint. Representationally, a disemboweled pig has had its insides turned out, and a man eating ribs takes those insides which are now outsides and, digesting them, turns them to insides again. A structural pattern thus appears in both: what is substructure, or “inside,” in one instance appears as superstructure, or “outside,” in another, and vice versa. What appears, to a representational view of the painting, as the leg of the carcass, its skin—the superstructure of the animal—reveals itself, when we get closer to the painting, to be the bare ground of the canvas—the substructure of the material. Inversely, we find bones (bodily substructure) depicted by paint (material superstructure). The following analogy between the material and depicted subject-matter of the painting emerges from this pattern: canvas is to paint as bone is to skin.

(2) At various points in time, we see the same part of the canvas as a table with a man sitting to dinner, as a butcher’s block with ribs to be carved, and as a cattle chute that opens into a pasture. The same carcass is, at one moment, a hog, and at another, a crucified human figure. Despite knowing it to be both, when we see Christ we do not see a pig, and when we see an animal we do not see Christ. This switch of gestalt follows, not our physical relation to the painting, as in the case of material and representational views, but our mental relation to it, so to speak: without psychologizing this phenomenon, suffice it to say we switch our view as we apprehend differently the material we are presented with. Drafted like a man, splayed like a butchered animal, and without hands, hooves, or a head to suggest it is one and not the other, the carcass—as in all instances of this dual-gestalt pattern—is definitely ambiguous. That is, we don’t see just anything in the depiction; rather, our apprehension follows relations defined by the painting; and while we activate one or another depiction when we look at it, on the whole we say that it, the painting, is ambiguous, embodying the potential of both views equally.

In attempting to relate these two patterns, we notice that both relate the material of the painting to a depicted subject-matter, namely, to meat, to the bodies of humans and animals. If we were to assume the painting had as its foundation the first of our isolated patterns, the structural analogy of bodies to paint, and tried to explain the rest of the painting in terms of this without introducing some other cause, we’d be incapable of accounting for the second pattern: why, given that analogy, the painting is so pointedly ambiguous in what it depicts. But if the nature of the painting centered, rather, around an analogy between the second pattern of ambiguous depiction and the subject-matter it so depicts, between the capacity of paint to depict multiple views of the same material on the one hand, and the various thoughts present to one eating meat on the other—thoughts of whence the meat came, and of one’s bodily relation to his supper—the first of our patterns, the structural analogy of body to paint, would appear as an amplification of this initial analogy. In the analogy between the capacities of paint and the thoughts of one eating meat, we see the potential analogy between the material of painting and the material of bodies, waiting to be actualized.

From where we stand, the particular patterns and relations we perceive in the painting seem to be the outgrowths of a single analogy, one between a capacity of paint as a means of depiction and a subject-matter to be depicted, which informed and determined the rest of the painting as its latent significances were revealed. From this understanding of the painting we infer a process on behalf of the painter: of realizing that development, of discovering, as it were, the painterly consequents of his initial analogy.

Painting, for Bacon, begins with a particular painterly idea—an analogy between the nature of painting and a subject-matter to be depicted. The process of painting is the process of amplifying that analogy, of working out its implications, undertaken in order to discover its full painterly significance. The nucleus around which Painting, 1946 crystallizes is specifically an analogy between the capacity of paint to depict multiple things by the same material and the various thoughts present to one sitting to a carnivorous dinner. Its specific means of depiction and what is to be depicted follow. By the first half of this analogy, the painter is led to include contrary signifiers in what he depicts, so that his depiction suggests two views, and to exclude any signifier that would substantiate one and not the other view. By the second half—the thoughts of one eating meat—the various views to be depicted are determined: bodies as eating and being eaten, as slaughtered and martyred, &c. It is as a further amplification of these thoughts that an analogy arises between the material of paint and the depicted material of bodies.

The material and representational aspects of painting that make up Bacon’s understanding of its nature, to be treated at once in the same painting, must be left intact, neither surrendered to the other. A merely representational painting, in which material is simply a means to the end of a depiction, and a merely material painting, in which representation is avoided in order to emphasize the material, would equally fall short of the painter’s project. The solution he comes to in Painting, 1946 is to separate the two physically: to leave material relations intact by painting in highly saturated, thick strokes of a consistent palette that reveal the way they were mixed and applied when viewed up close; and to depict bodies and their structural elements—things every human viewer, possessing a body, recognizes—on a scale large enough to require one to step back to apprehend them.1

Of these two physical views, only one is the view of the painter as he paints, no more than an arm’s length away from the canvas. The other, the representational view, belongs to one standing back—to one who is, in that moment, viewing, and not painting. The painter, anticipating this distant view, steps back at times to take it, and what he sees here informs his work at the canvas; and the viewer, wondering what it is that stands before her, steps up and then back, taking in as many views of it as possible, each informing her understanding of the other. In one sense, the painter’s view is opposed to the viewer’s—one is close, one is distant; one sees material, the other representation—in another sense, both seeing both views, painter and viewer are the same.

All of Painting, 1946 can be formulated in this way. A man is sitting to dinner, or perhaps standing in a slaughterhouse; in a sense, both are true. In a sense, depicted is a protruding, hexagonal space, or a receding hallway; in a sense, it is both. Is it Christ hung behind the figure or a hog? In a sense, it’s both. Even the title raises a question of this same sort: is it A Painting Made in 1946 or An Act of Painting in 1946 ? The same term, and the same painted thing, possess two meanings—one in which one thing is opposed to something else, and one in which they are equated. It is, to one view, Painting, a noun, and to another, Painting, a verb; and to still another view, it is both at once—it is The Art of Painting As Such, Realized in 1946.

There is a view of the painting to which these pairs appear as contradictions, and one which is capable of holding onto them as simultaneously true. The material as well as the representational views of the painting are instantaneous; no two can be had in one moment. The viewer is either standing Here or Not-Here; seeing a dinner, a cattle chute or mere paint; a receding or a protruding space, or the flat space of the canvas. The comprehensive view, the view that sees two exclusive and contradictory gestalts at once—that is informed by material and representational impressions, but capable of synthesizing them into one single view—must be had in one’s mind. In a word, it is an imaginative view, by which term I mean to suggest the function of mind to see not merely what is sensorially present at a given instant, but to hold in mind what has been seen previously; to form a dynamic view of the work from a multitude of static views. Seen materially, as strokes of variously mixed paint, and representationally, as two spaces, a cattle chute and a dinner table, two aspects of one painted moment are divided; but as seen, not instantaneously by one’s eyes merely, but imaginatively by one’s mind, it can be viewed as one coherent, complex moment, unified with its various parts. Materially, as the one who lays the paint and the one who views it, and representationally, as two bodies like those depicted, the painter and the viewer are distinct; but imaginatively, as minds apprehending one thing, they are identical.

On the one hand, a painting, for Francis Bacon, begins with its materials; on the other hand, the canvas, for the painter, is never blank—something in him has made him stretch it, something is to be worked out. The viewer too is not without previous experiences, anticipations and notions she brings with her when viewing a painting, which she utilizes to the end of seeing it better. If the painter does not begin with a problem, he quickly meets them—problems in the shape of materials reacting in unforeseeable ways to his idea, and his idea reacting to the material he forms. As he works them out, relations present themselves to his mind as opportunities unforeseen, which he seizes on in pursuit of a final systematization of his initial idea. The viewer also begins with a problem, namely, how to adequate her view to the thing before her. This cannot be a simple seeing, a static view of materials or depictions, but must be capable of holding in mind multiple gestalts and patterns, putting them together in pursuit of cohesion until the joints are found by which to divide and the relations surface by which to unite them. This comprehensive view is the product of an attempt on behalf of the mind to systematize its physical impressions and their representational gestalts—it is a working out of the painting before it, a striving to discover, out of many views, the view which is the whole work.

Such a process of thinking or painting I call a dialectic.

I borrow the term from Plato, for whom it is a method of systematizing terms and discovering relations through discussion. It concerns itself with bringing two contrary positions to a head, and from these synthesizing a third and total position. As a result, one often finds apparent contradictions in thinkers of this sort—the same term having opposite meanings and opposite terms having an identical meaning—and an architectonic distinction according to which the dialectic organizes all of its terms. From Plato to Cavell, dialecticians have worked out their ideas verbally, through speech and writing. But for Bacon, painterly ideas—ideas concerning and consisting in paint’s capacities as such—are to be worked out by painting. Bacon’s dialectic is not organized by a distinction between Being and Becoming, nor between Divine and Earthly, nor Inner and Outer, nor any terms which do not inhere strictly in the nature of painting. Rather, Bacon’s dialectic discovers as it paints, and organizes its terms—painted terms—around a distinction between painting as imaginative, and painting as material and representational. It is a painterly dialectic, and not merely a dialectical treatment of painting, for the relations explored are not merely those of the material medium as something that can be discussed, but include the maker, the making, the viewer and the viewing in their scope. The painter is present, not just as the figure to dine in Painting, 1946, but qua painter in having made relations the viewer is now attempting to apprehend. And the viewer is present, not just as she sees her reflection in the figure, 2 but anticipated by the painter as a human being, with an imaginative faculty of mind.

Owing to the dual senses of its terms, it is characteristic of a dialectical method, however crushing,3 that its interlocutors, readers and viewers are able to misapprehend the nature of its product. Those who do, fail to resolve its apparent contradictions by discovering the comprehensive view that accounts for them. Plato’s seemingly infinite yield of mistaken readers appear doomed to make the same mistakes he himself accounts for, to sum them up, mistaking for the whole truth what is merely a part of it. So too has Bacon accounted for his viewership. If there is any “darkness” in Bacon—as his interpreters love to say—it is in this: that for the few who will pursue the total view of one of his paintings, many will treat it inadequately as mere material or mere representation. This is a fact, not simply ratified hundredfold by one’s experience at the museum, but anticipated by the painting.

Painting, 1946 is material—it is a formed object hung on a wall—and insofar as it is seen in this capacity, it will be treated as decoration, as another ornament to fill a home or gallery. Painting, 1946 is of something—relations are made within its represented subject matter—and insofar as it is seen as this, it will be understood as a statement or an argument, saying something along the lines of, “Humans and animals are equal, being ultimately merely bodies.” The exclusively material view misses the decorations depicted in the painting which, while decorative, are also mutilated body parts—the ornaments which are also entrails, the rug which is also spattered guts—this view treats the painting as lifeless matter, and hangs it like the Christian carcass it depicts, devoid of its complex significance. The exclusively representational view misses the mind suggested by the material, that something more than a body was required to form it, that its very formedness implies the animating hand of a living painter. What both of these views miss is something further, something transcendent of material and representation, which cannot be embodied in them, but must be supplied by a human being—for pigs do not make paintings—and that something is what I’ve been calling the imaginative faculty of mind. The painting qua material and representation is a lifeless thing, a carcass, until it be enlivened by an apprehending mind, just as the materials were nothing more than the possibility of a painting before being formed by the painter.4 It is in relating the two, material and representation, that we come across the method of cognizing the painting that it suggests for itself—just as it was in relating the two that the painter discovered the way to paint it—and that dialectical method leads us to the only kind of view we can call a view of Painting as a whole: an imaginative view.

[1] To enhance these views, the work is framed behind glass, which occasions an effect like painting in glazes, flattening the material of the painting and adding depth to the depiction when seen from a distance; but unlike painting in glazes, the glass of the frame does not sacrifice the high saturation of the paint, and keeps intact a closer view of the material which reveals, far from flatness, depth of a wholly material sort—of layers of paint and their textures—to which material view the depicted space flattens down to the plane of the canvas.

[2] Literally: the glass of the frame and an even black coat of paint produce a mirror where the face of the dining man ought to be, in which the centered viewer, at any more than two feet’s distance, sees herself.

[3] See Arnold Klein’s essay on locheic irony elsewhere in this issue.

[4] Perhaps the only way to represent this, to depict the fact that the work is the product of, and must be perceived by, a living person, is to leave out of the depiction the two bodily instruments by which one makes and perceives works in paint—the hands and the eyes—which, absent in the material and representation of Painting, 1946, are supplied by its painter and viewer.