Francis Bacon: “Exhilarated Despair”, Sexuality and Violence

When Bacon attained major public recognition at the end of World War II, despair was in fashion. Art critics and editors announced at the time that the modern movement’s struggle happened “between men, betrayed by science, bereft of religion, deserted by the pleasant imaginings of humanism against the blind fate. It was closing time in the gardens of the West and an artist would be judged only by the resonance of his solitude or the quality of his despair.”

Bacon’s early paintings have been seen as reflecting the war itself and in particular the images of concentration camps that emerged as the Allies liberated Europe in the latter part of 1944. Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion was one of his works completed in 1944 before the pictures of the camps were released. This painting was supposedly one of the resources for Bacon’s visual articulation of a culture of pessimism, but in fact it formed the context and not the pre-text of his rhetoric of despair. Bacon himself confirmed in an interview that his paintings were concerned with his own kind of psyche, which he described as “exhilarated despair.”

It is natural for people to take Bacon’s personal history into account when looking at his work. Bacon was born in Dublin in 1909 to English parents at the time when Ireland was in the violent process of becoming a state independent from Britain, and during his childhood his family was under threat of attack. This experience is described as crucial to the reception of Bacon’s paintings, linked both to his masochistic homosexuality and to the violence and pessimism attributed to his work. The fact that in the late 1920s Bacon lived briefly in Berlin, a city that accepted his sexuality, might well have provided him courage in asserting his particular form of sexuality, which he made the core of his paintings. We might agree with critics that Bacon seeks to “come immediately onto the nervous system,” to “unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently,” and that his works are convulsive and physiological.

Text taken from Contemporary Aesthetics.

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