On Friday my wife and I took advantage of the Ashmolean’s late-night opening for the final week of the Francis Bacon / Henry Moore exhibition. The evening slot allowed us to miss the daytime crowds and enjoy dinner in the restaurant afterwards (giving some much-needed time to digest what we’d just seen). The exhibition itself was excellent.
Aged 17 I once spent two hours in front of Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) in the Tate. Although I’ve seen the later reprise Second Version of Triptych 1944 (1988) in books over the years, Friday was the first time I’d seen it in the flesh (so to speak). The difference in scale is overwhelming. The juxtaposition with Moore also brought out the sculptural aspects of the later painting. For all that his subject matter has entered the cultural bloodstream (Eumenides, hotel-room couplings, screaming popes) Bacon is ultimately about the medium – the how not the what – and in this he can also teach us a lot about poetry.
In David Sylvester’s wonderful Interviews with Francis Bacon (1993), Bacon repeatedly resists the pull of “illustration” as opposed to art that truly inhabits its own medium. Early in the book we find this:
Can you analyse the difference, in fact, between paint which conveys directly and paint which conveys through illustration? This is a very, very difficult problem to put into words. It is something to do with instinct. It’s a very, very close and difficult thing to know why some paint comes across directly onto the nervous system and other paint tells you the story in a long diatribe through the brain.
If we substitute “writing” for “paint”, this could be describing the problem with much contemporary poetry. Later on we find Bacon wanting
to make portraits which were portraits but came out of things which really had nothing to do with what is called the illustrational facts of the image; they would be made differently, and yet they would give the appearance. To me, the mystery of painting today is how can appearance be made. I know it can be illustrated, I know it can be photographed. But how can this thing be made so that you catch the mystery of appearance within the mystery of the making?
It’s hard to overstate how disruptive this apparently-simple distinction can be. It would be easy to interpret a painting like Two Studies from the Human Body (1975) in the Ashmolean exhibition as an isolated and despairing sexual encounter, or else to see a blurred photographic movement in the smudge around the foreground figure’s arm and midriff (something of which Bacon – that most photographically-literate of painters – would no doubt have been aware). But it would be sloppy to say that Bacon had painted these things, because that would be equivalent to saying he’d illustrated them. Instead these things emerge out of the medium – the very physicality – of the paint.
The distinction may seem esoteric but is profoundly important (not least when considering how it applies to poetry). It’s relatively un-contentious to say that although a painting (or any other work of art) can be paraphrased, the paraphrase is not the painting. In declaring war on illustration, Bacon forces us to go one step further and acknowledge what ought to be obvious all along: that the painting comes before the paraphrase; that Bacon doesn’t take a subject and then illustrate it in paint, but finds his subject within the paint (“within the mystery of the making”).
Walking round the Ashmolean exhibition I found myself longing for a contemporary poetry that uses language the way Bacon used paint. As Bacon says in the extract above, this is a difficult thing to put into words. But it put me in mind of Basil Bunting’s assertion that we should approach poems without getting distracted by their surface meaning; or Geoffrey Hill’s quip that public toilets have a duty to be accessible but poems do not. Rather than defences of wilful obscurity, these are surely defences of a poem’s right – or obligation – to exist in its own medium instead of as mere illustration.
Although the exhibition has now finished, the catalogue is excellent, with high-quality images and a wealth of critical material (both commentaries on individual works and longer essays – including a wonderful piece by Francis Warner at the end that brings the whole thing together). A fitting memento and onward-exploration of a superb exhibition.