Francis Bacon and ‘Narrative’, the Natural Enemy of Vision

“I do not want to avoid telling a story, but I want very, very much to do the thing that Valery said – to give the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance. And the moment the story enters, the boredom comes upon you.”
– Francis Bacon

By Ernst Van Alphen, brief excerpts from Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self, 1992.

Francis Bacon is deeply suspicious of narrative. For him, narrative seems to be the natural enemy of vision; it blinds. Narrative is boring because it precludes the direct actualization of a painting via the viewer’s perception. Story-tellers are seducers, diverting the audience’s attention from what there is to see.

Bacon seems to propose an opposition between narrative as a product that can be endlessly reproduced, as re-presentation – the ‘boredom’ is inspired by the deja vu of repetition – and narrative as process, as sensation. Conveying a story implies that a pre-existing story, fictional or not, is transferred to an addressee. Narrative is then reduced to a kind of transferable message. Opposed to this ‘conveying of story’, ‘telling a story’ focuses on the activity or process of narrative. This process is not repeatable; it cannot be iterative because it takes place, it happens, whenever ‘story’ happens… Bacon’s hostility toward narrative is directed against narrative as product, as re-presentation, not against narrative as process.

 

(Bacon) does not paint characters, but figures. Figures, unlike characters, do not imply a relationship between an object outside the painting and the figure in the painting that supposedly illustrates that object. The figure is, and refers only to itself.

 

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(Bacon) does not paint characters, but figures. Figures, unlike characters, do not imply a relationship between an object outside the painting and the figure in the painting that supposedly illustrates that object. The figure is, and refers only to itself.

Many recurrent aspects of Bacon’s works are explained by his interest in the figural and his resistance against the figurative.

 

Painting, 1946

 

Although Bacon’s paintings display many signs which traditionally signify narrativity, by the same token any attempt to postulate narratives based on the paintings is countered.

 

First, the figure’s in Bacon’s paintings are often locked in by means of circles… or frames within the canvas. The inner frames isolate the figures from one another.

Second, in the case of Bacon’s triptychs the outer frames of the three panels isolate the figures from each other. They cut off the story that is predicated upon the relationship between them. Of course this is not how the panels of triptychs traditionally function. But Bacon avoids the expected, conventional, temporal or spatial continuities between the panels by depicting isolated figures or figural events on the panels.

Bacon explains the use of the triptych as follows: ‘It helps to avoid storytelling if the figures are painted on three different canvases’.

Third… there is never a clear interaction between figures in Bacon’s triptychs. Although the figures are felt to be involved in some sort of event, this event resists the connecting links of narrative.

Fourth, the figures are isolated in their space by the fact that they have been painted differently.

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Because of these aspects of Bacon’s works, the figures never fully become characters, while the figural events are never explained by being embedded in a sequence of events. The figures interact neither with each other nor with their environment. Although Bacon’s paintings display many signs which traditionally signify narrativity, by the same token any attempt to postulate narratives based on the paintings is countered.

 

 

ASX CHANNEL: FRANCIS BACON

(All rights reserved. Text @ Ernst Van Alphen, 1992.)

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