Recently, I was fortunate enough to visit the huge blockbuster retrospective Francis Bacon at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Lamenting with Francis Bacon
Most astonishing to me, as I moved from room to room, was how the images appear as 20th century illustrations of the psalms of lament. They made me aware of the power of images to bring timeless resonance to Scripture. The visual arts can provide a marvellous platform to explore faith and our human experience, as it can lend new outlooks, raise questions and provoke strong emotional and sensory reactions.
Psalm 38 – Study for Self Portrait
Oh Lord, all my longing is known to you; my sighing is not hidden from you.
My heart throbs, my strength fails me; as for the light of my eyes – it also has
gone from me. My friends and companions stand aloof from my affliction,
and my neighbours stand far off… But I am like the deaf, I do not hear;
like the mute, who cannot speak. Truly, I am like one who does not hear,
and in whose mouth is no retort. (Ps 38:9-11, 13-14)
Francis Bacon's Study for Self Portrait (1963) presents us with a figure described in the psalm. Alone, surrounded by the trappings of middle-class interior decorating, is a portrait of Bacon. Despite the nonchalant posture with feet on the coffee table, he is in complete turmoil. His face, disfigured, twisted and turned inside out, has almost no discernible features with which to hear or speak. Bacon, who spent his whole adult life as an outsider, presents the full weight of his self-loathing and voicelessness. Twisted, anxious and isolated, he writhes on a blue couch, but facing us. We are locked into the conversation and confronted by his pain.
Psalm 38, with its deeply visceral imagery, reflects a similar cry:
My wounds grow foul and fester because of my foolishness; I am utterly bowed
down and prostrate; all day long I go around mourning. For my loins are filled
with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh. I am utterly spent and
crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart. (Ps 38:5-8)
The psalms of lament, both personal and communal, unsettle us, just as Bacon’s paintings do. Both demand an out of comfort-zone audience.
“…There is no reason looking should be easy, because pictures are not just
decoration… who among us is so superficial that we don't want art to affect us?
What exactly would paintings be, if they didn't have the power to hit us where we live?
The experience of looking can be, should be, hard to manage."
(Elkins, 2001, p. 54)
In both word and paint our physical selves, our humanity, is peeled back and exposed. To the psalmist, one is exposed to the ever-present ear of God; to Bacon, there is the ever present dialogue with the viewer. Redemption comes from the awareness of someone to share the pain with. Psalm 38 finishes with “Do not forsake me, O Lord; O my God, do not be far from me; make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation.” (v 21-22)
This cry is sure of a listening ear, and something that is ugly and disfigured in the middle becomes full of faith and certain by the end. Similarly, Bacon is engaged in dialogue with someone at the receiving end. Yes, his figure is alone, but he faces us, and we are filled with both recognition and pity.
Psalm 42 – Half Length Figure in Sea
Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and billows
have gone over me. By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at
night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life. I say to God, my rock,
“Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the
enemy oppresses me?” As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries
taunt me, while they say to me continually, “Where is your God?” (Ps 42:7-10)
Untitled (Half Length Figure in Sea) (1953-1954) is also of a figure alone. Faceless, in the dark, and up to his waist in the tumult of the night Atlantic Sea, we are confronted with an image of despair. Remnants in the background (a pier? a shipwreck?), shredded and obscured, reflect the anguish of the figure. The viewer is drawn into a private moment, possibly a last moment, where we can imagine a feeling of being forsaken. In this way the work is strangely intimate, as all dark nights can be. Indeed, there is a weight on this figure with his stooped back as he "walks about mournfully". Once again, the outcast, the loner, the outsider, is trapped in a world that is cold and dangerous.
Psalm 42, a song of exile, of the Israelites’ feeling distant from the place where God is made known to them, is a startling set of poetic images. In both the painting and the psalm we can bear witness to the anguish of all those who feel distanced and alone. We can also learn from their truth-telling. Do we always say how it is for us? Do we present our whole selves to God? The psalmist embraces all the facts of his existence, not just the "good" ones. Similarly, Bacon embodies the shadows, speaking of the unspoken things. We as listeners or viewers are in turn invited to feel all our humanity.
Psalm 22 – Crucifixion
Crucifixion (1933) is a small painting with enormous impact. In it we can hardly see the cross as it is obscured by the Christ figure. Partly diaphanous shroud, already dead, partly bone and rib, we are not presented with the glory, but rather the brutality. Bacon's Christ is sacrificial, almost carcass like. It is man being slain. For this reason, the psalm of Good Friday, Psalm 22, is rung out loud and clear:
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue
sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death. For dogs are all around me;
a company of evildoers encircles me. My hands and feet have shrivelled;
I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me; they divide my clothes
among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots. (Ps 22:14-18)
There is nothing left as the figure of Christ is reduced to almost a stick-figure beneath the movement of the ghostly dry paint. No man is left, he is poured out, melted, shrivelled. Bacon, who lived in Berlin during the rise of the National Socialists, has painted this image during the horror of World War II. Christ is all victims, all suffering, all pain. It is frank and challenging, because as Christians it also takes us back to the facts of Good Friday. It was an execution. Bacon, though himself not a believer, hints at something transitory. The figure glows white and shimmering, slowly disappearing. It is powerfully incomplete.
All art communicates. The psalms of lament are full of powerful, physical imagery that embrace human fragility and offers it to a God who listens. They can move us to examine our own shadows and pray them. When we look at artworks through the lens of faith and shared experience, it not only enriches our understanding of the painting in front of us, but can shed new light on Scripture. Bacon’s work is not traditionally religious in its subject, but is full of naked humanity. In his paintings, as in the psalms, we recognise a truth about ourselves, and this can lead us to recognise a truth about God – that we are always in the presence of one who bears witness to our suffering. Redemption lies in the willingness to open oneself up, and the sure knowledge that one is being heard, or seen.
Francis Bacon’s paintings
Bacon, F. 1963, Study for Self Portrait. British Council Australia, viewed 28 February 2013. http://www.britishcouncil.org.au/events/francis-bacon-five-decades
Bacon, F. 1953-1954, Untitled (Half Length Figure in Sea). Artnet, viewed 28 February 2013. http://www.artnet.com/artwork/129356/972/francis-bacon-untitled-half-length-figure-in-sea.html
Bacon, F. 1933, Crucifixion. View from the Mirror, viewed 28 February 2013. http://blackcablondon.wordpress.com/2012/10/29/disturbing-daubs-francis-bacons-london/
Elkins, James. (2001). Pictures & Tears: A History of people who have cried in front of paintings. London: Routledge.
Glavich, Mary K. (2008). The Catholic companion to the Psalms, Illinois: ACTA Publications.
Hawley, Janet. (2012).“Dark Night of the Soul”. The Age, 3 November, viewed 28 February 2013. http://www.theage.com.au/lifestyle/dark-night-of-the-soul-20121029-28e7l.html