Critical and Theoretical Perspectives
Edited By Rina Arya
Rina Arya The Existential Dimensions of Bacon’s Art
A popular motif in Bacon’s art is the lone figure in a desolate interior. These numerous instances of single figures, which are enclosed in ‘window- less spaces’ (Russell, 1993: 35), or in cage-like structures, such as Head VI (1949), invite comparisons with motifs from literary existentialism, such as Camus’s L’Étranger (1942) and Sartre’s Huis Clos (1944). The similarity of iconography between Bacon’s art and existentialist literature – the single figure who contemplates his/her destiny in unfamiliar surroundings and with no escape route – has prompted critics, such as John Russell, Neville Wallis, Robert Melville and Sam Hunter, to think about his work in rela- tion to existentialism.1 Indeed literary existentialism became popularized in European milieus, especially Paris, at around the time that Bacon had established himself as a painter, a fact that further encourages the paral- lel. This paper investigates to what extent Bacon’s art can be considered existentialist. Bacon established his place in the art world with Three Studies for Figures at a Base of a Crucifixion, which was painted circa 1944, and then exhibited a year later at the Lefevre Gallery, London. The painting fea- tures snarling, ravening figures that cry out in pain. Russell summarizes the ghastliness of the image: ‘common to all three figures was a mindless 1 Wallis establishes a connection between Bacon’s art and existentialist thinking, particularly in relation to Sartre’s literature, especially Huis Clos (1944). See Neville Wallis, ‘Nightmare’, Observer, 20 November 1949, 14. Robert Melville comments on how ‘every activity in these paintings...
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