David Sylvester : “since you talk about recording different levels of feeling in one image…. you may be expressing at one and the same time a love of the person and a hostility towards them… both a caress and an assault?”

Francis Bacon: “that is too logical.  I don’t think thats the way things work. I think it goes to a deeper thing: how do I feel I can make this image more immediately real to myself?  Thats all.”


We should be careful of given to much power to bacon’s words. as with most artists he is often contradictory and there s nothing to say we should trust his thoughts and judgements on his own work ahead of any other. All we can trust are the images. it is Bacon’s existence as an informed viewer on his own work rather than as the maker we should trust, Bacon the reader of his painters rather than bacon the author.

What is interesting and accurate here, however, is Bacon’s desire to counter the desire of a critic to logically format an understanding of a painting through crass generalisations and the limitations of linguistic categorisations.

This to me represents a strength of Bacon, to know what is required for a painting and specifically for a painting.  it is a particular danger for the visual artist to fall into the trap of listening to that side of them which attempts to form understanding into words. this has become particularly prevalent through the growth in influence of post-structuralist theory, which at its conception is a linguistic critique. It is in the last statement that Sylvester goes to far- the reduction  into binary terms of Bacon’s approach to the individual in an image. What is interesting and accurate is the sense that Bacon’s approach to a subject, an individual and a figure is not singular. And of course how can it be, for if you are working up a figure for a prolonged period of time (real or imaginary) you can’t possibly have a singular emotional response. If we were to observe an individual and try and capture that moment and that engagement in text we might be able to, however falsely, summarise that as a singular experience. We might compute through observation and language that the experience was one thing or another one thing. Yet when you spend a prolonged time with a subject, which happens with the labour intense approach of painting them, then the dialogue (even if we are just talking in visual terms) and the relationship is likely to be nuanced and complicated and to encompass a wide range of engagements. There may be the caress and the assault, but there are more importantly likely to a broader and more subtle array of gradations which exist between and to the side of these oppositions. It is this emotional complexity, visual and painterly variety that lies at the heart of Bacon’s best depictions of individual characters. Again it goes back to exploring and celebrating the very strengths specific to the medium of paint. In this case that strength is the ability of the final image to capture the variety, in every sense, of our relationship to the depicted character.

The reason logic and language fails here is because it is not a case of intention of linguistics. It is not a case of setting out to record these complexities. Nor is it true that the final image will be an exact transcription of the makers experience which can be translated and understood in direct linear comparison to the experience we have as a viewer. Rather it is a case that the maker (who is also importantly an active viewer) has a rich and varied dialogue with the image and character over a prolonged period of time and that this leads to an image which is filled with a set of equally complex, but engagements for the viewer of the final image. Except for the viewer these experiences are changed in two simple ways. Firstly they have been compressed from existing over a prolonged time frame to existing within one space and one moment. Secondly, the relationship between the experiences of the maker and the viewer are related, but in a non linear non logical way- as if the ingredients have been filtered through an algarhythm or a kaleidoscope.