A Footnote to "Francis Bacon's Nervous System"

Updated: May 19, 2019

Some ten years ago I was sifting through the piles of new art history titles in Tschann bookshop in Montparnasse when I came across two books on Francis Bacon (an exhibition catalogue and a collective volume) both of which were edited by someone I’d never heard of. I brought them home, curious to see what was happening in the Bacon world since when as an undergraduate I’d submitted my senior honor’s essay on his painting (clumsily drawing out affinities with Bataille and Artaud through a crude use of Freud and anthropology), but also because the editor’s name, Martin Harrison, meant nothing to me—not too surprising as I’d been somewhat out of touch with Bacon since the 1996 retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, which I’d visited on a research trip from New York. Essays in both books revived my earlier thoughts and provoked new questions on the painter whose studio, after his death in 1992, was transferred from his final London address at 7 Reece Mews to the Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, whence the discovery of unknown or poorly documented sources as to Bacon’s working methods, existential preoccupations, and preparatory material uncovered by Martin Harrison and his colleagues. An indispensable resource soon followed the initial findings, Harrison’s prodigious Bacon catalogue raisonné in 2016.

Anyone interested in Francis Bacon turns to The Brutality of Fact, that exceptional series of interviews he gave to David Sylvester over forty years. Much there was familiar to me but I was struck upon rereading them again by something I had the impression I’d overlooked and whose significance I hadn’t so recognized: “…the greatest art always returns you to the vulnerability of the human situation,” from the last interview in the 1980s. While Bacon was talking about Aeschylus’s Oresteia, Cimabue’s Crucifixion, Poussin’s Massacre of the Innocents, and Eisenstein’s Potemkin, among other moments of cruelty, horror, and violence—scenes we do not necessarily wish to see but somehow cannot avoid—, he was mainly making use of his own experience of the human situation, which produced a singular body of paintings of devastating poignancy. In other words, he was talking about the outstanding art of others but it was impossible not to see that he was referring to his own paintings and to how they came to be composed.

What did Francis Bacon mean when he spoke of “the vulnerability of the human situation”? My thoughts inevitably turned to individuals with physical or mental disorders, or both, and who are among the most vulnerable; those, in fact, with whom I work daily in a hospital setting and privately and who embody an essential vulnerability for which they seek relief. And so while I did not in any explicit way refer in my essay to my clinical practice as a psychoanalyst, it could not have been written without it: psychoanalysis makes it possible, to quote Bacon talking about his painting, not only “to clear away one or two of the veils or screens” but further to offer therapeutic action in the form of treatment.

Studying Francis Bacon’s painting deepens our understanding of the nature of this complex work with those who bear mental wounds and scars and who suffer from psychic pain, or who otherwise seek to take advantage of what life has to offer but are somehow impeded from doing so. Since Bacon often spoke about how he tried to use his nervous system in creating an image and how that image could affect the viewer’s nervous system, and since much of what he painted expresses anxiety and further what Freud called the traumatic situation, I called my essay “Francis Bacon’s Nervous System.”

Bacon and the Mind: Art, Neuroscience and Psychology edited by Martin Harrison saw the light of day at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. When Harrison introduced the volume to those attending, he referenced C.P. Snow’s 1959 Rede lecture on the two cultures—broadly speaking, scientific and literary—that somehow never overlap or communicate with each other. At the time Snow gave his lecture, there existed, he believed, “a cultural divide” which prevented a “clashing point of two subjects, two disciplines, two cultures—of two galaxies, as far as that goes” and which thereby inhibited creativity. We have in many ways moved on from Snow’s assessment (even at the time he may have been overstating his argument) and it is not uncommon for writers and researchers to draw on other disciplines for their own work and sometimes cross over into other fields.

When working on my essay, at the fore of my mind was (and so remains) “the vulnerability of the human situation” I am continuously confronted with when listening to patients expose their inner worlds. Bacon’s use of medical and scientific imagery and details such as hypodermic needles and bandages saturated with blood, his depiction of contorted figures with their distorted, cleaved faces (the face being what is most distinct in an individual’s appearance) and backsides inclined on beds or seated in chairs, do not in any primary mimetic way illustrate the conditions in which I see my patients, though similar ones are often nearby. These images do however approximate or at least recall what occurs when, as a psychoanalyst, I open myself up to the intricacy of the patient’s somato-psychic history; when, that is, I ask myself how I might possibly interpret it within the analytic setting with the aim of helping the patient move forward.

Francis Bacon, 1909-1992. Photo Getty

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