The Grotesque in Bacon's Instinctive Paintings

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Posted by Luis Mariano Akerman on May 24, 19100 at 09:22:14:

"Bacon's paintings are both mysterious and suggestive. They are ambiguous and constitute symbols of multi-levelled significance, which is conveyed through the artist's manipulation of the grotesque. [...] As configurations of the ambiguous, Bacon's instinctive paintings engender both curiosity and perplexity, and often also attraction and repulsion at the same time. Because a well-balanced yet disquieting interplay between fear and desire, vulnerability and cruelty, suffering and apathy is characteristic if Bacon's instinctive paintings.
Tension and intensity, the combination of incompatible elements, and suggestions of the monstrous or the inhuman abound in the artist's imagery. [...] Bacon uses the grotesque as a means of self-expression which enables him to ambiguously communicate not only his fascination with power and violence, but also his haunted condition. The grotesque is used as both a means of purgation and trascendence.
Despite their grotesque appearance, Bacon's instinctive paintings are far from being ornaments [i.e., Renaissance grottesche]. On the contrary, they are inalienable personal reports encapsulating a private truth, namely, the artist's contradictory feelings and sensations, which are neither decorative nor entirely evasive. Through his instinctive paintings, Bacon willingly walks along the border of an emotional precipice, suggesting his obssession with sex and death, his apathy in matters of vulnerability and suffering, and his total fascination with power and aggressiveness. The [...] suggestiveness of Bacon's imagery simultaneously reveals and conceals the artist's ultimate intentions in such a blurred way that identity itself becomes problematic. Moreover, by depicting the ambiguously combined and the equivocally suggestive Bacon disorients the viewer, who cannot establish precise meaning in his ever-changing images. Various readings are thus possible and they seem all equally valid. Considering that instinct implies the abolishment of morals, at the time of contemplating Bacon's imagery, we are to arrive at our own moral conclusions--certainly irrelevant to the artist and his calculated lack of concern. At this point everything melts under our feet, because in Bacon's grotesque realm the only safe given is insecurity.
His instinctive paintings, on the other hand, are certainly not the product of accident or chance, as the artist claimed. They constitute carefully planned compositions which are [...] related to the artist's own life and function as mysterious, anti-illustrational traps suggesting the monstrously cruel.
In this context, we realize Bacon's manipulation of the grotesque and the artist's fundamental intervention in turning it into a useful vehicle for self-expression. Bacon's instinctive images thus prove to be profound but problematic--a New Grand Manner of Painting merging the defiantly powerful, the disquietingly extraordinary, the suggestively monstrous, the sarcastically allusive, the theatrically manipulative, and the extremely personal.
As a species of confusion par excellence, the grotesque suspends belief and invites a search for meaning. Pushing us to consider alternative possibilities, the grotesque paralyses language and challenges categories. Grotesque art is essentially thought-enlarging art. This is true in Bacon's case, whose grotesque art conveys immediacy and suggests multilayered ideas, granting us an active role as both spectators and interpreters. This is possibly the ultimate meaning of the artist's pictorial freedom, which he has achieved through a singular manipulation of the grotesque. Indeed, the entirely personal element that inhabits Bacon's instinctive paintings has an immense capacity to open the valves of feeling. It is this expressive, ever-changing element of Bacon's suggestive art which I find extraordinarily rich: pictorial freedom is a provocative, grotesque element which coherently unites Bacon's truth and our freedom." Source: Luis Mariano Akerman, The Grotesque in Francis Bacon's Instinctive Paintings, M.A. Thesis, Jerusalem: The Hebrew University, July 1999, pp. 101-103 (copyright 1999, by the author).

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