Painting | Head VI

Francis Bacon | Manchester Art Gallery

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. 

Exhibition | Artists in the Frame

Manchester Art Gallery | 21 May – 31 August 2015

How many times do you look at yourself a day? For some, a perfunctory glance in the mirror first thing in the morning is enough, and they’re usually later found with toothpaste on their chins. For the selfie generation (and here I raise my hand), we see our faces copious times a day, pouting at our reflection either on our phone screens or in a Facebook status.

If you really want to get to know your face, and yourself, do a self-portrait. I tried it a few years ago, and by the end of the process I can honestly say if you’d held up a picture of me next to one of Quasimodo I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference. Raising your face up to that much scrutiny, first from yourself, and then anyone else looking at the finished article, is an anxiety-inducing process. 

But it is exactly this ‘bare-faced’ nature of the self-portrait that has made it so appealing to generations of artists, and also allows us as viewers a privileged insight into not only how the artist sees themselves, but also how they want to be seen by the world.

Due to open next week at Manchester Art Gallery, the exhibition ‘Artists in the Frame: Self-portraits by Van Dyck and Others’ centres around Sir Anthony van Dyck’s self-portrait which was recently acquired by the National Portrait Gallery and is on its way through a three-year national tour. There will be 20 other artist self-portraits alongside it, covering the themes of self-expression, self-analysis, social status, and artistic identity.

Van Dyck’s piece is heralded by the art world as one of the most remarkable self-portraits ever painted in Britain. While many wax lyrical about the poise and finesse of Van Dyck’s style, it is more the artist’s position as Charles I’s court painter and his role in raising the status of art in polite society that makes him significant. 

This portrait will be the ‘headline act’ within the exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery this summer, but I confess that it’s the ‘and others’ that I’m particularly excited about seeing. The ‘supporting acts’ list is impressive and spans centuries of British portraiture, including William Hogarth, Angelica Kauffman, Wyndham Lewis, Chris Ofili, Sarah Lucas, Julian Opie and Grayson Perry. While the ornate golden frame surrounding Van Dyck’s work is touted as impressive, I suspect the traditional painted portrait will show its age when seen alongside more modern mediums such as photography, digital and graphic works. 

The press preview is next Wednesday and I’ve wrangled my way in. Will the contemporary offering herald a new era for self-portraiture? Or despite their best efforts, will Lucas, Perry and Opie languish in the long shadows cast by Van Dyck? Stay tuned…