Throughout his career Francis Bacon painted figures surrounded by a ghostly cage or structures that reference stages or arenas. Now Tate Liverpool has brought together more than 30 of Bacon’s paintings for Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms, the first exhibition to explore this mysterious aspect of his work. Although they are subtle, these cages hold the key to unravelling the painter’s most complex themes, as the curator Francesco Manacorda explains.
Didn’t the Tate hold a wonderfully comprehensive Francis Bacon exhibition only relatively recently in London?
Francesco Manacorda: When you go to a typical retrospective you’re thrown into themes and technique at the same time. At Tate Britain’s 2008-09 show, for example, people might have seen these cages, but it’s unlikely that they would have noticed what changes about them, and what they come to mean in different periods.
Why focus on something so subtle?
It’s a discreet part of the composition, but it can change the dynamic of the painting. For example, looking into a vitrine is a voyeuristic act.
Did the cages mean different things to Bacon at different times in his career?
In the 1950s it’s the shattering element that’s important. So he’ll paint a figure through a curtain-like screen. It’s a very interesting device when you think of theatre, or you think of psychoanalysis and the idea of what is taboo and what you show and don’t show — the idea of fetish and how you want to hide and reveal at the same time.
Those are things that are not present in the 1970s or 1980s. Colour becomes more important and the arena or stage is like a fourth element in a more complex space, where you have the background, the podium or stage, the figure and the structure.
The boxing ring-like space is an interesting one. It’s a fixed structure, a containment of a force or animal-like struggle, and also pertains to people looking at it, so again there’s an element of voyeurism.
Why is it important to highlight these differences in his work?
Bacon’s paintings might seem, on a superficial level, to express bleakness and angst. In fact, as soon as you start reading them on a deeper level, they’re always expressing a tension or an unresolved feeling, such as sexual desire and guilt. Or the conflict within us as a both a social and a wild animal, which is what he’s trying to stage with the screams. It is this element of two forces in opposition that this exhibition helps to reveal more clearly.
Francis Bacon (1909-1992), Figure with Arms Swung Out, c. 1957-61. Oil paint on paper. 340 x 265 mm. © Estate of Francis Bacon. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2016. Image courtesy of Tate
Bacon tries in his drawing to see how a blobby figure might look in this particular vitrine or frame. It’s interesting because his sketches are like the preliminary workings of a theatre designer. They investigate how to incorporate movement, and how a scene can develop and unravel in a space, and in front of the public.
Bacon was not interested in abstract painting. Do you think that by including this sculptural structural device he was separating himself from a tendency in painting to proclaim the flatness of the canvas?
I think his research is absolutely unique. He was not interested in abstraction, but he wasn’t interested in figurative painting either. He abhors the idea of narrative in painting — being able to describe something taking place. Even when I talk about theatricality, there’s this tension of theatricality without resolution. There’s never a dramatic development. His works are almost like a stop-frame image from a film — a teaser — that doesn’t let you see what’s going on.
Do you think there’s something about the ambiguity of the structure, the ghostliness of the outline, which makes the figure seem more real and more present?
That contrast is definitely what he was looking for. The more ghostly and unreal the architectural structure is, the more vivid it makes the opponent. That element of dualism, of two things working against one another, is there in all his work.
‘These paintings are particularly rich because they enable us to perceive this sense of being’
If Bacon had depicted proper rooms, the reality and the dynamism that he managed to achieve through the blurriness of the moving figure would not be there.
He seems to use a dry brush sometimes — to convey the cage in a thin, scratchy way?
Yes, and by contrast he would add sand to his impasto so that it becomes fleshier.
What have been the main surprises for you in your research, taking in the drawings and the source material as well as all these paintings?
It’s helped me to understand that these paintings are not necessarily staging one existential feeling, but a variety of them. They are particularly rich because they enable us to perceive this sense of being. Looking at the drawings and in particular his unfinished painting, you can really feel that journey — that’s he’s struggling to resolve a problem. It’s really a great thing.
Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms runs until 18 September 2016 at Tate Liverpool