Francis Bacon: The Visual Existentialist

According to Gilles Deleuze, painting is hysteria (45-6). Painting in the throes of hysterics attempts to go “beyond representation,” morphing “cerebral pessimism into nervous optimism,” and Bacon is an extemporary case of a hysteric painter because he clings neither to organic representation or complete abstraction, instead occupying a grey area between the two (Deleuze 45). Bacon exemplifies hysteria and is thus masterful at capturing a presence beneath appearances. This hysteria is being channeled by anxieties linked to the human condition not only in the sense of dealing with one’s inner self (see the vast quantity of fleshy imagery in Bacon’s works, such as Figure With Meat (1954), below), but one’s relation to the world. Freeland sees Bacon as an example of the cognitive theory — art as a language, blurring boundaries between representation and abstraction (154).

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In this essay, I will argue that art can indeed convey philosophical messages by viewing the paintings of Francis Bacon through an existentialist lens. By “existentialist” I am referring to the system of thought that came into being in 20th century Europe stressing the actions of the individual (as a being-in-the-world who is distinguished by the fact they make an issue of their own being) as being the central means by which to interpret life’s significance. Existentialism stressed the tension between the individual and the society which he inhabited, as well recognition of the bountiful absurdity ruling the universe. Moreover, existentialists rebutted an essentialist viewpoint by asserting that existence preceded essence, or, that individuals weren’t defined by inherent properties, but instead their actions, which framed the way they were related to the external world. Bacon expresses his existential concerns using the ‘language’ of painting through a number of ways: emphasizing figure-ground relations, individual identity loss, confinement, and man as a physical organism. Moreover, Bacon’s art is of the category of non-mimetic realism, with surrealist influences, thus countering Plato’s idea of art as mimetic and unable to express philosophical thought because Bacon is able to convey such potent — if sometimes ambiguous — messages through his grotesque imagery. Continue reading