I stop walking and looking around. I’m afraid of others, of myself. Then I recall Edward Prendick, the protagonist in the The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896 – H. G. Wells), when he eventually had been rescued from the human-like beasts of the island. People
call him mad as he recounts an unbelievable story. They harass him and he loses his instinct to distinguish between human and nonhuman, wondering if he really is rescued or not! As like him, I’m thinking who really we are! And where we are aiming for in this life. I remind myself that Art is not for distraction, it’s for reflecting our issues and showing us the way. So I should start searching within my own mind right from where I’m standing; in the middle of New South Wales Art Gallery amongst Francis Bacon’s paintings. Where should I start from?
In a rumpled corner of a room, on a loose towel left on a chair, a frozen naked woman is drying her feet. There is nothing glamorous or attractive in her pose. In other pictures, with a similar approach towards immobilising time, a woman cleans her small bath tub or drys her nape. Reluctant to be called Impressionist, Edgar Degas (1834-1917) who created these everlasting paintings, can not be called otherwise; he was able to capture the impression of a moment, picture Time in a timeless manner and surprise the audience who used to see the human body in its godlike perfection. A new concept found its way in our conscious mind: movement and the way it turns our familiar world to something unfamiliar.
Around the same time, years after his acquittal on the grounds of “justifiable homicide” of his wife’s lover, the British photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), inventively used multiple cameras to capture the motion. The cameras in a line across the mobile subject took photos in fractions of seconds, one after the another, and then Muybridge represented them beside each other. This way he successfully provided serial photos of a horse at gallop which was revolutionary in recording every single position of a moving subject but also revealed deformed configuration of the body in movement. The embodiment of time and its impact on the spatial aspect of versatile animal or human in his photos was mesmerising. And so, his compelling achievement caught many artists’ eyes which among them Francis Bacon (1909-1992) can not be missed.
Francis had a hectic childhood. He was one of the five children of a British captain who unfortunately had a passion for racehorse training and as a result poor Francis had to struggle with breathing all the time due to what later on turned to be severe allergic asthma toward horses. It’s not hard to imagine that his alienated body which was not transparent as we naturally feel, very soon made him think about the true essence of the body. Years after he saw paintings of the Great Picasso and decided to be a painter, the serial photos of Muybridge and also the new breakthrough of X-rays films came quite handy for him. They were presenting an estranging aspect of life; the same aspect that was reflected in Picasso’s images. Francis proposed that a head and neck were only space-occupying Things just like a vase on the table or a chair in the room. It was like saying that we are nothing more than a bizarre combination of organs that stupidly has been assumed perfect or just a moving mass with the most eccentric of figures. In the warm hand of one’s lover there is nothing except a bunch of bones and muscles, nerves and blood vessels. And the sparkling eyes of a beloved darling are merely a set of lenses and wires of nerves. Soaked in the warmness of the gallery that was packed with huge frames of Francis Bacon’s imaginative paintings, visitors often find that they can’t look into a mirror in the same way as before anymore.
But it’s not all about the body. In fact, this deformity forms another yet strange element in Bacon’s paintings. They are abandoning the corporal consistency in favor of depicting the essence of the humankind and through that Bacon affirms not only the man’s disturbed appearance but also his tortured soul. In his pictures, people are screaming, sometimes through their monstrous mouths, and there is nothing to promise hope as the nightmare looks eternal. But why?
Francis Bacon was openly gay. He was a huge admirer of men’s bodies and loved to paint his male partners. He was extremely selfish, arrogant and talented. But life didn’t take it so easy on him; homosexuality was not welcomed at the time, and many including one of his major lovers, Peter Lacy who was an veteran army pilot, went to Tangier, Morocco, where the matter was quite accepted. Francis himself had been traveling back and forth to there too. To make it more tolerable, he was a loyal member of underground clubs, heavily drinking, recklessly gambling and of course passionately painting. Peter Lacy lost the game to death due to alcoholism and George Dyer another famous partner of Francis who was drinking like a fish, eventually committed suicide in a climax of depression. The small studio of Francis was always packed with piles of paint, rubbish, old photos, dirty cloths, broken mirrors, scattered books and lots of pieces of papers. Engulfed by the devious animal side of human nature, he would often sit in front a huge canvas and then suddenly would started painting without a draft while he was trying to be as open as possible to his instinct with no intention to excite anyone but himself. Having a continuous battle inside, seeing the emptiness of judgmental crowd and witnessing the craziness of people in two world wars, he questioned if there was any relief and liberation in life.
In the dark time of Middle Age, “Faust” in Alexander Sokurov’s version (2011- Russia) was a scientist with a major concern; it does’t make sense to talk about the liberation of soul if we can’t find one inside the frame of our body. So he started to search for soul objectively through “unearthing corpses and rummaging in their guts just to localize the home of the soul”. Of course there was nothing to find but right at the pinnacle of disappointment, he fell in love with the only beautiful girl in town. He proposes that if there is any hope it might be hidden in “Beauty” and running the risk, he made a deal with Satan on having the girl just for one day at the cost of his life. Shortly after, he regretted that, because he could not hurt the girl in order to prove his assumption but by then it was too late. Years before that, Kris in Solaris (1972 – Andrej Tarkovsky) for the first time in the space st
d himself alone while the ocean-made replica of his ex-wife, Hari, who innately couldn’t be separated from him, was not around. Searching all over, he finally noticed that the soul-less Hari had been silently sitting in the library bemused in front of a painting of Pieter Bruegel. For me the search is over. Now I know the secret of Bacon’s survival; Art and Beauty are not merely a way toward salvation and piety, they are “The Salvation” themselves.