On The Art Of Francis Bacon

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In many ways, the art of Francis Bacon was merely the technical side of a far deeper movement, probably in development ever since the first human beings decide to ‘create’ something — anything, really — and wondered of their own compulsion. This is the idea (from the 1800s onward) that art is not there to simply ‘look good,’ or to edify didactically, or to praise God, reject God, be social, be political, or any other singular thing that would get so often demanded of it. Instead, the idea was that art is here to communicate, which is really the most expansive definition of all, incorporating many of the old, bias-ridden requirements all the while forging wholly new ones. Van Gogh was already doing this in his landscapes, given, as they were, to colors and techniques that were less beautiful than evocative; Walt Whitman was busy opening up poetry in the same direction, being full of seemingly ‘rough’ declaratives that must have sounded quite alarming to classically-trained ears; and Pablo Picasso hyper-developed the idea well into the 20th century, to the point that it became abused by AbEx painters who’d confuse ‘communication’ with literally an infinity (as opposed to a multiplicity) of meanings. Yet if Picasso’s a little too tough for beginners to always get, the art of Francis Bacon is still here, sans much of the depth that can otherwise occlude Piccaso’s meanings. This is not so much a knock on either, as it is an admission of the fact that, great or not, not every truly great painter is instructive; and, of course, not ever instructive artist will be great.

One of Bacon’s most famous paintings is Study After Velazquez’s Portrait Of Pope Innocent X (1953), part of the so-called ‘Screaming Popes’ series (of which there are close to 50 paintings). It takes Diego Velazquez’s portrait of the arch-conservative Pope — in fact, one of the most famous portraits in history, replete with light refracting off of his chest, the determined look, the curious stifling the almost small-‘A’ abstract backdrop — and gives it an entirely new context. In it, the figure is being closed in (by the outer portion of a skeletal chair?) with Innocent’s once-refracting chest moved about a foot down, all the way to the waist, so that mere coloration has the effect of making this personage seem disembodied. On top, Innocent’s calm — simmering, in Velazquez — is changed into a scream, with the rain-like colors either intensifying or recapitulating its effect.

Art Of Francis Bacon Study Velazquez Portrait Pope Innocent X

No, it’s not a great painting, for like most of Francis Bacon’s art, it points to little but its own self. Yet one must take note of what it does well. There is, for instance, the way it plays with its own influences, for Bacon did not arbitrarily choose Diego Velazquez as his model: he saw (or thought he saw) what might have been underneath Innocent X’s glance, and deduced from this a number of routes that it might go. … Continue reading →

On Caravaggio’s “Amor Vincit Omnia” (“Love Conquers Everything”)

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In my article on Hieronymus Bosch, I posit Bosch as a proto-Modern, or even a pure Modern if one considers his work from a purely conceptual standpoint. This is because despite some of his technical lacks (he pretty much worked as a ‘flat’ medieval painter), he was the first to turn these shortcomings into a strength. Bosch took the expected allegories, the almost child-like didacticism of earlier religious painters and deepened them, made these stories richer and fresh. In short, he ripped medieval art outside of its own context, thus sidestepping its worst qualities by focusing on new ones, revealing how even seemingly primitive techniques can be rehabilitated into something worthwhile, a fact that no amount of Renaissance-level realism could have equaled. This was an important move, historically, since it showed that technical ability at the exclusion of all else is NOT the end-all of art — an idea that has still be argued, most notably by Nabokov — but that novel combinations of techniques and ideas can lead to something greater than these individual parts.

Thus, modern painting does not really stem from the innovations of the Renaissance (which were more or less predictable — scientific, even) but the decision to use these innovations for a higher purpose. Sure, Bosch seemed to ignore these innovations altogether, taking a short-cut to this higher purpose while obviating what was superficially new, but it’s the conceptions, the far deeper story-telling that mattered in a way that mere, dull realism could not. Yet just as Bosch eclipsed the Renaissance painters, he, too, would eventually be surpassed when these technical innovations could be married to genuine depth. And this confluence of things would first enter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1572-1610), quite possibly the first true Modern, and the greatest artist of any form, medium, or genre, in the West, up until that time. Interestingly, his date of birth coincides with the birth of John Donne, who (excepting the Chinese writers) was probably the greatest writer until that point, while his death parallels the publication of Cervantes’s Don Quixote, which — even more than Shakespeare’s plays — helped usher in artistic modernism.

To see how Caravaggio accomplished all this, I’m going to use just one painting: Amor Vincit Omnia (“Love Conquers All,” or a number of other titles), not because it’s the best or most representative of the above points, but because it is my own personal favorite, and the first painting that really taught me about visual art.Cupid is put into a physical position — almost a contortion, really — that painters before and after Caravaggio have used. Indeed, lots of painters, such as Delacroix and some of the pre-Raphaelites, have erred in thinking that ‘action’ in a painting is best, and that novelty for novelty’s sake (especially in terms of human positioning) might get you somewhere artistically. Yet Caravaggio’s Cupid is anything but novelty, for he’s just crashed through a window, door, or some other opening, landed on some … Continue reading →

On Bruegel’s “Icarus,” W.H. Auden, William Carlos Williams, And “Painting” Poetry

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As I’ve written elsewhere, Bruegel the Elder was, at his best, a great painter. No, he was not a technical master, like Caravaggio, nor diverse as some later artists, but he still had one disadvantage that later painters did not: he started at the bottom. And I don’t mean this in the typical socioeconomic sense, just that, excepting Hieronymous Bosch, who died a few years before the artist’s birth, and served as a kind of model, there was remarkably little depth in the art world, as a whole. Yes, the Renaissance Masters have some argument for greatness, in their very best work, but conceptually, the Renaissance was exactly what the term means: a “re-birth,” but of older ideas, decidedly un-modern except in a few details (Christianity, for instance, replaced Roman religion), and were, therefore, stuck in the past, even as one part attuned itself to the future. So, Bruegel had to depend upon himself – at least ideationally – in the same way that later artists would grow to depend upon Bruegel, showing, as he did, new ways to interpret ancient myths, and a subtler, less didactic means of treating religion.

One of Bruegel’s most famous paintings, Landscape With The Fall Of Icarus, illustrates the above quite well. No, it is not, on a purely technical level, on par with later, better paintings by others — just consider its flat, almost medieval-like quality — but on the plus side, while it could have been handicapped by its almost clichéd mythological subject, it subverts not only its own topic, but the very genre of landscape painting as a whole. Note, for instance, the simple pastoral scene, a shepherd casually looking up (a forgettable gesture, that), a fisherman, a ship, the indifferent backdrop, by the mountains… Yet the painting purports to be of Icarus, a subject that, in virtually every interpretation of the myth, from writing to visual art, would put HIS misfortune to the front. In fact, it takes a long time to even notice the boy’s legs (the only part of him that’s visible), which, once seen, really change’s the nature of the painting. The indifference of the farmer with his horse, or the fisherman’s complete lack of notice reveals how utterly small this event must be to everyone else involved — for even the shepherd, the lone person to even glance up, will, most likely, second-guess himself in the end, turn his face back to his sheep, and move along. The subject, then, is not REALLY Icarus (although the viewer expects him to be), but patterns of human interaction, and the loneliness such events usually engender. One can’t say too much for the technical depths, within, yet the medieval style works MUCH better for the subject, anyway, and the ideational depths — really, Bosch’s and Bruegel’s primary strength — would come to define artistic modernism at a time when few seemed to really care for such.

And this is how art works, folks. You take … Continue reading →

On Brueghel The Younger’s “Crucifixion” (1617)

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In some ways, Brueghel the Younger was a lesser imitator of his father (Bruegel, sans the ‘h’) who was responsible for classic paintings like “The Fall Of Icarus” — an early landscape that subverted what the term meant — and “Two Monkeys.” He’d take his father’s trademarks of symbolism, disfigurement, and religious cynicism and pat them down into a formula, until everything that was good and fresh about the paintings had been cooked down, bottled, and shelved away into something more serviceable than technically innovative, or ideationally deep. Yet, as “Crucifixion” shows, even a formula repeated often enough can lead to something of value, if only by accident.

Yes, the conceit is clearly his father’s. There is Jesus, on the cross, almost made anonymous by three other figures crucified around him, and a huge crowd below that wishes to swallow up the action of the painting. It doesn’t, for Christ is in the center of the painting, and, more importantly, seems to be the center of the action, too, despite the fact that he takes up so little space. Yet there are some original additions, as well. The buildings are grayed-out, as if they’d been destroyed — or would be destroyed in the future — in some cataclysm, and are now covered by wind and clouds. An odd streak of reddish-brown runs across the sky, following the horizontal portion of the cross, as if something ‘resists’ Christ’s death, while the other men are still in the midst of being hoisted up with ladders and ropes.

Christ, then, is the only dignitary here, an effect achieved practically by not magnifying him, not giving him much movement or verve, while kindling all the rest. At the same time, one can’t help wonder whether the effect is demeaning or honorary, for one does not see the suffering, nor the holiness – only a dead man, or soon to be dead, barely dressed with only the smallest hint of divinity, occluded by the other crucified men.

It’s an interesting painting because much of the technique is so rudimentary, yet it nonetheless works. The figures are reminiscent of medieval “art,” which was often little more than an excuse for chronology or religious comment, and don’t have the startling detail of a Caravaggio or even a Bosch. Yet it still does much with very little: the placement of the figures, the streak of red, the mere discoloration of landscape. In many ways, art is not about being “pretty” or ham-fisted, but is about the organization of things like color, figure, perspective, ugliness, prettiness, and the like, to a higher purpose. “Crucifixion” accomplishes this, at turns commenting on its own subject, even as the painting seems to turn away from the conventional representations of such. This is in fact a good thing, for one does not merely ‘get’ Brueghel’s viewpoint — whatever it may be — but re-creates and otherwise rote and typical scene anew, with just a few alterations.

A few days ago … Continue reading →

Review Of “Scenes From A Marriage,” via The New York Theatre Workshop

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Yesterday afternoon, I was at the New York Theatre Workshop’s performance of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage (trans. Emily Mann), which boasts a run-time similar to the original film’s. This makes sense, as Scenes is a film that naturally lends itself to theater: it mostly takes place in simple interiors, focuses on long, involved scenes — often involving just 2 characters — and draws much of its power from the gestures, expressions, body language, and intonations that, alongside the great writing, really drives the narrative forward. No, it is not superficially dependent upon its visuals (like many purportedly ‘visual’ films are), but there was as much in Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson’s expressiveness as in, say, an Antonioni landscape, that gave Scenes From A Marriage a depth that lesser actors would have merely occluded.

Ivo van Hove‘s play, however, is not the film, and judging the play for what it’s NOT would be a critical faux pas from which there is simply no return. So, what is it, exactly, and what is its relationship with Bergman? Well, it takes many of the film’s key scenes — the discovery of Johan’s infidelity, the dinner with Peter and Katarina, Marianne’s pregnancy, and a few others — and splits them out of order, into an arbitrary sequence played by a revolving door of actors. For the first 2 hours, these scenes play out simultaneously to smaller groups, which are separated by a couple of thin walls through which the music, shouting, and action of earlier/later scenes is still audible. The viewers witness whichever scene they happened to have sat down to, and move every 30-40 minutes to a new scene while the others re-play for new audience members. This goes on until the intermission, after which all the lead actors come together, as 3 Johan/Marianne duos, to act out the next part simultaneously, first taking turns with lines before climaxing into a rumble (as per the film’s divorce scene) that has everyone merely shouting at one another in an odd, anomic scene that left at least a few audience members frustrated and aghast.

Some of this works because, instead of merely aping Bergman, it clarifies, in its own way, a central posit of the original film: that Johan and Marianne are not merely a unique couple going through unique problems, but despite being very real and ‘particular,’ themselves, are representative of many similar relationships, which thrive and die according to the same patterns — details be damned! The play does this by using different actors and actresses for each scene, making the viewer viscerally feel that these are ALL different couples, with the verbiage and action coming from next door almost like similar fights that might be going on elsewhere, and perpetually. The scenes, too, are split in a way that — despite the re-use of the leads’ fictive names — there is little real continuity from one scene to the next, as the play takes the film title quite … Continue reading →