Post-WWII Figural Art: Dubuffet-Bacon

"I believe, and in this I am in agreement with reputedly primitive civilizations, that painting, which is more concrete than the written word, is the richest instrument we have for communicating and elaborating thoughts." Dubuffet

Jean Dubuffet, Will to Power (Volonté de puissance), 1946. Oil with pebbles, sand, glass, and rope on canvas, 116.2 x 88.9 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Dubufet showed interest in Dr. Prinzhorn's collection of the art of the mentally ill, in children's art, in primitive art, and other forms of untutored art, such as "Art Brut" (Raw Art). Dubuffet had his own collection of raw art. He considered that art should communicate through the materials as much as the images. According to Dubuffet, the materials shape the object in the artwork and they are inseparable from its identity. Dubuffet's interest is in the moment when a thought begins to take shape, rather than the completed, unchanging thought; something similar to a dream state, when one experiences imagery and affect without translating them into specific meaning. He deliberately attacked on Western canons of beauty and held that art should not strive to please the eye but to address the soul, it thus doesn't need to be beautiful to do this. In fact, it shouldn't be beautiful.

Two women: one in academic style (Bouguereau, Baigneuse, 1890); the other conceived as "Art Brut" (Dubuffet, La Coiffeuse, 1950).

Dubuffet's earlier paintings are derived from daily or ordinary life events, rendered in a crudely childlike style and suggestive of the uncultivated person as well as of graffiti. Such paintings are characterized by a lack of perspective, distortion of forms, use of primary colors or conversely, the technique of scratching through a black surface to find something underneath.
One then begins to see his ongoing interest in the transformation of materials, such that textures in his paintings begin to become the painting, as figures seem to explode into the background field, even as the outline of the body remains intact. Many of Dubuffet's works of this type use a paste-like ground for the painting, which he made from sand, earth, fixatives, and pigment. Then he scratched into the surface to create the suggestion of drawing. Much later this becomes an obsessive interest in the interlocking and repetitive forms which eventually grow into sculpture and outdoor environments.

In 1959 the exhibition "New Images of Man," curated by Peter Selz, was entirely devoted to figural art. While European artists had begun to address the figure well before the date of this show, Selz claimed that the art in this show was united by an attitude toward life which he called "existential essentialism."
Existential essentialism focuses on the subjectivity of human beings and the sense that, in the end, people are not in control of their destiny. It thus carries an element of pessimism.
Common to the works exhibited was the rejection of abstraction. Their authors believed in a new expression of the human figure and were influenced by surrealist writer Georges Bataille and his notion of the unshaped. "The part of the thought which interests me is not the moment when the thought is crystallized into a formal idea but the stages which precede that crystallization" (Dubuffet).
If anything united the artists who participated in this show, it was the commitment to finding a "new image" of mankind, retaining the human figure in their art work but depicting a human figure which was not the descriptive representation of a person. The artworks were disturbing through the choice and treatment of materials, and also because they entailed "non-descriptive" representations of the human figure.
After decades of evasive abstraction, the rough and grotesque "new images of man" expressed a remarkable return of the repressed.

Francis Bacon, Study after Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953, oil on canvas, 153 x 118 cm, Des Moines Art Center

Bacon was also included in this show although he appears to have little in common with an artist like Dubuffet. He should be seen as part of a context which is similar to that of Karel Appel, an artist associated with the CoBrA group (artists from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam), generally strongly influenced by Dubuffet's attitude toward materials and children's art. What the CoBrA artists shared was a search for a union of order and disorder, of horror and its rejection, of the redirection of modernism away from the assertion of utopia and toward the recognition of horror. Appel was committed to the figure although not all of the CoBrA artists were figurative. Unlike Appel, who quickly moved from painting to sculpture, Bacon remained entirely committed to a painterly tradition of art history. Unlike CoBrA, Bacon does not appear to have been influenced by a belief in the use of childhood "primitivism" as a model or inspiration. Bacon more deliberately turns to artists like Velazquez and Van Gogh, as well as movies by Russian filmmaker Eisenstein. He captures images from all periods of art and uses them to make his own paintings, paintings which often are heavily eroticized and violent in terms of their subject matter but not in terms of an unspoken contract with an artistic tradition. Bacon rejects abstraction because in his eyes, it communicates nothing but an aesthetic of the artist. His dominant and consistent subject is the human face and body, but generally shown in a large, non-environment space, often suggested by a glass or tubular box.

Bacon, Study of a Nude, 1953. Oil on canvas, 61 x 51 cm. Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, University of East Anglia, Norwich

Bacon may be the best representative of the idea of "existential essentialism" because of his goal of expressing the inner reality of the human being. He draws freely on references to art history, to photography, to film, using all of these as equal sources of knowledge about human nature, about the behaviors which people express toward one another, and using them as a type of image library which he feels free to adopt and derange. In that sense, he is like some of the abstract expressionists--de Kooning, in particular, who may be the closest artist to him in terms of his painterly and philosophical goals. But making that comparison does not help to explain the prevailing sense of Bacon's paintings of a human figure screaming into the void. In this sense, Bacon seems very different from de Kooning.

Bacon, Study for a Portrait, 1952. Oil and sand on canvas, 88 x 77 cm. Tate Gallery, London

Despite the many references which can be found in his paintings to other art, and despite some of the anguish his figures share with those of Picasso or Egon Schiele or Chaim Soutine, other artists who were committed to depicting extreme responses of the human body to psychological pain, those artists give us a more subjective and particular instance of human anguish than Bacon does. Bacon couples the psychological sordidness of his figures with a cold, objective glance that perversely acts to eliminate the artist’s subjective presence from these paintings and replaces it with the sense that these are bodies which are so consumed by the existential battle between terror and will that they dispassionately or neutrally proclaim the indivisibility or inseparability of psychic terror from physical existence and they proclaim that this is not the condition of a select few but of the entire human race.

Bacon, Lying Figure in a Mirror, 1971. Oil on canvas, 198.5 x 147.5 cm. Museo de Bellas Artes, Bilbao

In Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self (1992), Ernst van Alphen raises the question about narrative in Bacon’s paintings: Why do we think we see a narrative in Bacon’s paintings? Most of them are triptychs, a format which almost immediately suggests temporal continuity and the development of a story; they have human figures in them, generally in an environment which suggests a space of some sort, so we imagine some interaction between the people in the paintings and the space containing them; and the shapeless forms suggest a cinematic type of movement which once again implies that something has been happening and is changing. Yet, much of what Bacon does contradicts the existence of narrative.
If we begin with the issue of space, the figures are rendered in a coarse application of paint whereas the background is generally quite smooth and finished. The disparity of treatment works against reading the background as anything other than a field of color which generally locks the figure in place, either through the illusion of a cage or cell or through the bright colors which prevent recession. Bacon’s use of the triptych also denies the sense of spatial continuity; unlike traditional triptychs, each panel is generally framed separately, resulting in the suggestion that these are three separate paintings, joined for formal reasons, rather than narrative. Finally, the figures themselves never really assume an identity. We are not given recognizable bodies or faces, and even when two figures ore more are located in the space together, it is difficult to imagine that they are interacting, as opposed to sharing paint.

Bacon, Crucifixion, 1965. Oil on canvas, each panel 198 x 147.5 cm, Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst, Munich

Bacon has said that he was interested in the narrative as a process, the act of telling the story, rather than the narrative as product: the completed story which has already been told. But Bacon’s bodies seem particularly non-existential as they refuse to engage in any interaction with the viewer. They are too incompletely rendered to be an “other” person; they are fragmented in a way that does not imply taking shape so much as losing identity and losing a sense of wholeness. Alphen suggests that these bodies are the interior mass of sensations, and if they are inner human spaces, then perhaps Bacon’s decision to render the background in a hard, flat surface which contrasts with the figures is a decision which enhances the sense that we are not looking at a person but an interior. This is a figure which is confined and isolated within its interiority; there is no exterior for us to engage. As viewers, then, we are faced with a figure but the figure has no coherent structure to it. Bacon’s figures and environment become one through the suggestion that the figure will absorb the space into itself. But it can only do this by giving up its boundaries and losing its selfhood. Alphen goes on to suggest that this loss of self is not, in the end, a frightening and despairing act because the loss of self implies a reconstruction of self. Since Bacon does not want to represent the story as a finished object, he can only represent this frightening sense of losing definition as a body. But if we follow Bacon’s logic, we can see the loss of boundaries as the beginning step in the creation of new ones.

Bacon, Study from the Human Body, 1981. Oil on canvas, 198 x 147.5 cm. Private collection

The retrospective for the twentieth century figurative painter Francis Bacon on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art shows Bacon’s belaboring exploration of the grotesque. He is fixated on both religious iconography such as in his paintings inspired by Velazquez, and malformed depictions of enigmatic carcasses.
Though Bacon seems to recycle the same sort of grotesque in his oeuvre to an extent that becomes exhausting there is something still powerful in his poetics of the grotesque. He reminds us of bygone times before the age of the laboratory and medicalization of illness when the temple was a site of ritual killings and sacrifice. As Yve Alain Bois remarks in his essay, “Base Materialism,” on Bataille and the photographer Eli Lotar: We live in an age where the slaughterhouse, just like the madman, is quarantined from everyday life. In his triptych series titled after the T.S. Eliot poem Sweeney Agonistes, Bacon depicts enigmatic fragmented lumps of life matter. The extreme upward tilt of the paintings draws the viewer into the painting, while having the contradictory effect of flattening the picture plane. In portraying such liminal figures that hover between life and death and inserting them between flat and deep space, one confronts the return of the repressed. That which is repressed and sublimated inevitably intrudes as the signified momentarily catches up to and disrupts the signifier. The horror in these works is in their representing the repression of violence. As Bois argues: “To show violence purely and simply would be a way of incorporating it; it is more effective to underscore how it is evacuated.”
Bacon’s painting Blood on Pavement similarly hovers between deep and flat space. The obscure blood stain is a trace of a violence and trauma that remains absent. The horror of Bacon’s imagery lies not in its portrayal of violence, but rather in its undefinability that places the viewer between the sublimation and intrusion of the trauma. It is a horror that remains truly other and resists incorporation and resolution in the quotidian. He reminds us that the comforting sanctity of our daily latte and other objects of commercial consumption is continually haunted by wars, sweatshops, and environmental devastation. Bacon does not naively revel in the violence of the status quo, but rather exposes the ways in which we sublimate and expunge the traces of violence in presenting objects which remain liminal and resist foreclosure. Scott S. Jackson

Jean Dubuffet
Francis Bacon
The Return of the Repressed
The Uncanny
Lo familiar vuelto inquietante

1 comment:

Mónica Ottino said...

Una maravilla. ¡Qué pintores! Gracias. Abrazo, Mónica