In my earlier blog on Grayson Perry’s wonderful ‘Jane Austen in E17’, I mentioned the artist’s particular skill at creating a work that catches the eye of a viewer, even in a crowded gallery, even when the visitor is moving through at speed, as I often am.
Even more powerful than a piece which stands out while the visitor is in situ, is one which leaves a lingering impression long after it has been left behind. With fingers itching to write and the frustration of being trapped on a train for eight hours – I’m off to St Ives, the artists’ Mecca, so the pay off will be worth it – I find myself wandering through my mind-gallery of such artworks to find a worthy subject to satisfy my creative urge.
(I’m well aware that the fact that I have this list of favourites that I can recall at will, while on a train when most sane people would be napping, is the mark of a true obsessive. What can I say… everyone needs a hobby.)
From Rubens to Rembrandt, Klimt to Klein, via Picasso and, of course, Perry, I’ve amassed quite a collection over the years. But to keep it close to home, until my inevitable post on the wonders of Tate St Ives, there is one piece that stands out; ethereal, dramatic, frankly quite scary, it’s Francis Bacon’s Head VI from 1949, on display in Manchester Art Gallery.
The first of a series of paintings based on Spanish artist Diego Valazquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X, with imagery drawn from medical textbooks on mouth and facial diseases, the result is a jarring clash between formal, traditional composition and ghostly, nightmarish delivery.
The blurred but obviously still papal form screams out of its frame, the remnants of a manic wide-eyed stare just visible before the top part of the face is wiped into obscurity. Not usually one to be drawn to images that are so obviously pained, Head VI catches me off-guard every time I am near it, it is so arresting, yet a visual embodiment of something inherently disturbed, and disturbing.
It’s not a huge leap of the imagination to suggest that this tortured figure echoes the mental state of its creator. Passionate and impulsive, a heavy drinker and gambler, gay at a time when it was illegal to be so and involved in a series of doomed relationships with emotionally unstable younger men, Bacon’s life was certainly not an easy one. Aside from his own, Bacon also witnessed the impact of others’ demons, including lover George Dyer’s six-year demise and ultimate suicide. One can expect an unhappy artist to make unhappy art, and Head VI is no children’s party.
The rough, sketch-like quality of the painting adds to the impression of a sudden, emotional release. A thinly drawn white cube cages the figure, in a weak attempt to contain the sheer strength of feeling. This is not the kind of face that is meant to be shown to the outer world, and perhaps Bacon acknowledges this as he blurs the figure into the background of the canvas.
It’s hard to look at Head VI for long without feeling some of its darkness creep over you; the fact that Bacon lived into his 80s working on such spectres every day is testament to his strength if character. There is no happy ending with Bacon, all of his art is bold and brutal, he turned bodies into carcasses and faces into deformities. But the appeal of his work is that it was brave; as if he had lifted the veil on humanity’s fear of its own mortality and, instead of running, he stared it in the face.
And then he decided to paint it.