Over the last few months, my colleague Dr Wendy Morrison and I have been organising a conference to be held at the University of Oxford’s Department of Continuing Education on the 14th November 2015. The name of our day conference is Barbaric splendour: the use of image before and after Rome. As the title indicates, we want to take a comparative approach to how archaeologists explore the visual cultures of peoples referred to by the classical world as ‘barbarians’. Appropriately, therefore, our conference is all about bringing together scholars and students of the Late Iron Age and Early Medieval Periods. This is a subject that has been of some interest to me for a long time. Similarities between the artistic styles, subjects and contexts of the two periods are considerable and though they have often been casually observed, as far as I am aware, they have not been previously explored in depth. We are not so much interested in drawing lines of continuity between these periods (this isn’t about a transcendent barbarian spirit or culture), but exploring how archaeologists of different period-specific traditions have treated this material, and what we can learn from each other.
We’re thrilled by our lineup of speakers made up of experts from both Iron Age and Early Medieval Archaeology, including Charlotte Behr, Chris Fern, Anna Gannon, Melanie Giles, Chris Gosden, Jody Joy, Siv Kristoffersen, Laurent Olivier and Leslie Webster.
Registration is now open, and you can sign up on our website, where you can also find plenty of other details: https://barbaricsplendour.wordpress.com.
Here’s the transcript for an interview I recently gave for Boydell and Brewer’s Medieval Herald XXII (2015, the original is published here)
Can you tell us about your career in archaeology to date and what lead you to focus on the early middle ages?
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to study archaeology as one of my A‐levels at Cirencester College, a town very much steeped in Roman archaeology. Even by that point I think I was hooked and went on to study for a BA in Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Oxford. After finishing my degree I worked for an archaeological field unit, whilst also supervising excavations in Romania and Belarus. Following that I studied for my PhD at the University of Sheffield, and now I’m back at the University of Oxford on a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship. The early middle ages have always fascinated me because of the special place they play in our European past. The power of Rome fades and we are left with a lot of unanswered questions about how we get from there to the Norman Conquest. That period was longer than the Roman occupation of Britain, but it is still often glossed over as the ‘Dark Ages’.
For anyone still wondering, describe a cruciform brooch for us.
Cruciform brooches were used by women in the 5th and 6th centuries AD to fasten their clothing. They were quite bulky items of jewellery, often ornamented with intriguing animal and human forms. They start out as these small and simple safety pin‐like objects, but within the space of about a century they develop into enormous gilded plates. Quite why this happened is essentially what the book is about. Not to give too much away, but I think it suggests their meaning adapted dramatically during that period, perhaps due to changes in how communities were constructing their identities using material culture.
And the shape has no link to Christianity, is that right?
No. The name ‘cruciform brooch’ is misleading. Like most archaeology terminology, it’s actually quite a prosaic description of their overall shape, which is formed by the three decorative knobs that protrude from the headplate, and the long foot that extends beneath them. This period, in northwest Europe at least, was pre‐Christian, and some have argued that the kinds of iconography we encounter on jewellery like cruciform brooches may in fact reference pre‐Christian cosmologies involving the animal and human worlds.
Is it possible to trace a single point time or place from which the form originated?
Cruciform brooches emerged at some point in the early part of the 5th century AD. Their geographical origin is important because cruciform brooches appear on our shores around about the time of the documented Anglo‐Saxon migrations. I think we can now be fairly sure that the prototypes of cruciform brooches lie among a group of rather unprepossessing items from northern Germany and southern Jutland known as Nydam brooches. Whether or not that indicates the extent of the migrations to lowland Britain from this part of Europe is another question, but it does indicate the connectedness of these societies around the North Sea.
Why focus on brooches as opposed to other surviving artefacts and jewellery?
During the 5th and 6th centuries AD, brooches start to be worn exclusively worn by women, and they also become larger and more elaborate. Crucially, they also start to be deposited in graves, fastening funerary garments. As such, brooches seem to take on a special role in this period, and it makes them a very useful entry point into thinking about the nature of the societies that produced them. Quite why such value was placed on ostentation using skilfully crafted metalwork is something I am very interested in.
Your book takes a very broad approach and links brooches with identity, specifically Anglian identity. Tell us more about that and what it was in the brooches you examined that led you to this conclusion.
Cruciform brooches have always been fundamental in debates about Anglian identity, precisely because their distribution matches the region in which the Angles from northern Germany settled according to Bede. As such, it’s pretty difficult to study these objects without getting involved in a debate that contributes significantly to present‐day notions of English identity. The very name of our country has its roots among the Angles, whoever they might have been. I wanted to tackle this head on and show how material culture can be intimately involved in how regional identities evolve, rather than just seeing objects as a passive reflection of those identities.
And it’s true that you examined over 2000 brooches in your research?
For artefact specialists, encountering the material first‐hand is an important part of our research. It’s also the most enjoyable part. The experience of holding a possession of someone that lived and was buried with it a millennia and a half ago is a privilege that does not diminish. I went on a tour of most of the local museums in eastern England to document more than 500 brooches. A large portion of my study sample was also taken from the online catalogue of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, an initiative that’s been running since 1997 with the aim of recording objects unearthed by metal detectors and kept in personal collections. There’s a lot you can take from the photos and commentary freely available online, but it will never replace the unique value of first‐hand experience.
Where are most of them and where might our readers view the best examples?
Cruciform brooches are generally found in eastern England, from Kent, East Anglia, the East Midlands, Lincolnshire and the Northeast. Because of their prominence in these regions, local archaeology museums in these places will usually have a few on display. A particularly good place to see a few very fine examples is the recently revamped early medieval gallery at the British Museum, where you’ll also be able to compare them to more exotic related items from all over Europe. It’s a trip I’d highly recommend!
What does your new typology and chronology bring to the study of these brooches? Are you confident they will be accepted?
Typology and chronology are most accurately seen as not so much replacing outmoded models, but rather as building and refining the work that has gone before. Nils Åberg, for instance, built a serviceable typology as long ago as 1926 which is still in use. And it’s still in use for a reason: it offers a very simple but highly practical method of classification into just 5 types. My typology, thanks to the number of new brooches that have been discovered since, features more than 40 types, and the chronology is correspondingly more refined. The level of detail it offers is therefore going to be more useful for some purposes. While I would certainly hope that other researchers found my typology useful, I should emphasise that the scheme itself was conceived around the research questions I wanted to answer. The typology is all about the structure of design, because I was interested in how these objects were conceived in the minds of those who made them. That may or may not be interesting to future researchers, but I’d still very much hope that my model offers a practical solution to a problem of classification that has been around for a while.
What’s next for you now? Have you seen enough brooches or do they still have more to tell us?
Never! Material culture, like historical literature, can always be revisited. There’s an occasional misplaced sense that once a type has been ‘done’ we can move on to the next. Cruciform brooches provide a good example of why that is precisely not the case: they’ve been repeatedly studied since the early 20th century, always with new questions that produce new interpretations. However, once I’d finished writing this book I took a step back and started thinking about the wider context. Eastern England looks terribly small when you start to think that related brooch types were being worn throughout Scandinavia and Continental Europe all the way across to the Crimea. I’m currently working on a project funded by the British Academy to investigate this phenomenon from a more global perspective. Why was it that women in the 5th and 6th centuries AD throughout Europe were wearing such large personal ornaments? To what extent does this show the connectedness of all these places in Europe?
The 5th and 6th centuries AD have quite different meanings around present-day Europe. The fact that we have multiple names for the period is telling. In the Mediterranean East, for instance, this is the Byzantine era. In the West it’s Late Antique. Around the North Sea it’s often called the Migration Period. In Scandinavia it’s also the Iron Age (albeit the post-Roman one). The romanticised connotations of these names are diverse and important. It’s a time of faded glory (Late Antique); wandering tribes (Migration Period); a convoluted and tired Empire, tinged with an oriental mysticism (Byzantine); or a slow accumulation of processes begun halfway through the first millennium BC (Iron Age). The 5th and 6th centuries, though their shadows are sometimes cast by broadly comparable evidence, project themselves variously onto the screen of our imagination.
I’ve written before about the striking continuity Norwegian archaeology displays through the long Iron Age. For instance, some small barrow cemeteries continued to be used through the pre-Roman and Roman Iron Ages and into the Migration Period, many even lingering into the Viking Age. This scale of continuity puts the Norwegian Migration Period in a somewhat different light to that of much of southern and western Europe, which experienced a starkly different series of transitions with the coming and going of Empire. Furthermore, these cemeteries have always played a prominent role in the landscape, many of them containing monumental barrows, some even marked by standing stones. They capture the imagination in a manner that the (for the most part) invisible cemeteries of Anglo-Saxon England and Merovingian Gaul do not.
These prehistoric mounds and megaliths did not escape the attentions of the 19th-century re-inventors of the Norwegian landscape: painters. Norway, at the beginning of the 19th century, had a growing sense of identity and an impetus to establish a distinct cultural footprint. Formerly under Danish control then Swedish, the Norwegian constitution was drawn up in 1814. Twenty-two years later the national museum of art was founded in Oslo (then Christiana). A key figure among its founders was the painter Johan Christian Dahl, who gave the purpose of the new museum as not only for providing model examples for art students in the capital, but also for the refinement of public taste. The foundation was to grow a sense of worth, not just among its citizens, but also to establish the Norwegian landscape itself as a worthy subject of romantic landscape painting (Lødrup Bang 1987, 125–6). Most accounts make Dahl out to be a man working for the common good, setting out to open Europe’s eyes to the potential of Norway as an artistic subject, a landscape inhabited and worked by farmers following ancient traditions, fighting a millennia-old battle against an unforgiving landscape with an heroic past of its own.
Dahl himself was a painter of considerable talent and ambition. Indeed, he is generally credited as the father of Norwegian landscape painting. Furthermore it was Dahl, followed by his two most famous students Thomas Fearnley and Peder Balke, who championed this subject. A number of Dahl’s paintings feature Scandinavian (Norwegian or Danish) prehistoric remains. Consequently prehistoric Norway, which includes the Migration Period, was present at the quite intentional moulding of modern Norwegian identity.
Flicking through Dahl’s complete works (Lødrup Bang 1987), I came across the following 17 paintings that contained obvious examples of Scandinavian prehistoric monuments:
- Dolmen near Vordingbord in Moonlight (1816) [Denmark]
- Dolmen near Vordingbord in Winter (1825, 1829) [Denmark]
- Menhir in Sognefjord in Winter (1827) [Norway]
- Fjord Landscape with a Menhir (1833, 1837, 1839) [Norway]
- Birch Tree at Slinde in Winter (1835, 1838) [Norway]
- Grave by the Sea with a Menhir (1838)
- Menhir by the Sea (1838)
- Danish Winter Landscape with Dolmen (1838) [Denmark]
- Haymaking between Menhirs at Nornes (1839) [Norway]
- Landscape from Voss with Grave Mound and Menhir (1840) [Norway]
- Mountain Farm in the Tessungdal (1840, 1841, ?1842) [Norway]
All of these paintings sit quite comfortably alongside his equally numerous renderings of castle and church ruins, variously from Norway and Germany. The thing about Dahl’s paintings of prehistoric remains though, is that the barrows and megaliths tend to sit integrally with the landscape; they become part of the natural environment. Dahl’s aim was to paint nature and his human subjects were very few. Because he often made human figures diminutive, their presence lends a sense of imposing scale to the landscape. People are not the subjects of the painting, and they usually have their backs to us. Their engulfment in the landscape stands in for our own. Because of Dahl’s emphasis on nature the barrows and megaliths become an inseparable part of the landscape, lending it chronological depth and a sense of the romanticised mythological past.
Symbols abound in Dahl’s paintings. Dead trees and rainbows are so ubiquitous they verge on cliché. He was also known to have observed and drafted landscapes in the summer, and then painted snow over them, to achieve a sense of melancholy and perhaps the hope of renewal. Prehistoric monuments fulfilled similar roles. In the painting “Vordingbord in moonlight” (in Denmark, above), the moonlight, winter and stones all stand for death and the past. In “Menhir at Sognefjord in Winter” (also above) the megalith symbolises the antiquity of the winter landscape, as well as disconsolation and death (being a grave marker). Nevertheless, the ray of light that peeps over the mountains and strikes the apex of the standing stone is perhaps our symbol of rejuvenation in this otherwise sombre painting (Lødrup Bang 1987).
Modern human settlements also feature in Dahl’s paintings, sometimes placed in juxtaposition with ancient remains. They reference the deep legacy of Norwegian farmers. They connect the apparent mundanity of the present with an heroic past. This is true for the various versions of “Birch Tree at Slinde” (below), but more obviously for “Mountain Farm in the Tessungdal” (also below), where the barrow and its megalith impose themselves upon the little farmstead, their nearby tree finding some kind of life-force in the ancient tumulus, while the tree in the foreground withers.
None of this is to say that Dahl knew an awful lot about Norwegian prehistory, or that he particularly cared to learn. Here we are not dealing with an archaeological understanding of the past, but an artistic one. During his time in Dresden Dahl would have been in touch with antiquarian circles, but this was long before the academic discipline of archaeology was formed. As such, scientific understandings of the ancient past were less separable from popular understandings informed by the visual arts, poetry and literature. Dahl’s paintings must have struck a pre-existing chord with their audience (Caspar David Friedrich, a colleague of Dahl’s, was using similar devices in Germany at the time), but they also reinforced a particular understanding of prehistory, as one that was seamless with the natural landscape, and continuous with the present. In doing so, Dahl pulled the past and the present together, affecting both with a sense of the other, whilst simultaneously diminishing four uncomfortable centuries of external rule.
As explored in a recent article by Mari Lending, Johan Christian Dahl had some intriguing opinions on the preservation of ancient barrows, which is where we arrive some of the more familiar subjects of this blog: grave goods and jewellery. While Dahl was beginning to explore ancient monuments with his palette and brush, his antiquarian contemporaries commenced theirs with spades and pick axes. Dahl was resolutely against these excavations, declaiming museums of finds from these monuments as a force for destruction, and championing the barrows as “museums” in their own right, intact and set in their landscape context. The removal of artefacts from these tombs to the Oldsaksamlingen (Collection of Anquities) in Christiana he saw as profoundly destructive. Rather than the preservation of grave goods as purely material objects, Dahl focused on the preservation of the landscape, integral to the barrows, and integral to them their hidden and buried treasures. Though unseen, artefacts like elaborate brooches were nevertheless inseparable from the landscape for Dahl. Like a building indicates an inhabited landscape through the knowledge rather than the explicit depiction of its human inhabitants, a barrow could only really be a barrow if it contained its material assemblage. With that removed, the barrow was a mere reconstruction or imitation.
Though Dahl’s opinions now seem antiquated and perhaps even a little naive, I think we’ve all felt a bit like this after visiting excavated sites. For instance, similar feelings might be expressed upon viewing the burial mounds of Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, where we know that the sunken barrows are at least partly reconstructed and have been pillaged variously by treasure hunters of centuries gone by as well as 20th-century archaeologists. Their neatly mown grass and roped fences add further layers of alienation and artificiality to the modern visitor. Obviously both excavation and conservation are fundamental to both our knowledge of the past and its material preservation but that doesn’t mean it isn’t self-contradictory as Dahl himself observed more than a century and a half ago, and it doesn’t mean that these inevitabilities are trivial in how we create knowledge about the past. The choice is paradoxical, but would we rather envisage a Migration Period as a continuous, tangible presence in the world we inhabit, or as a roped-off reconstruction?
Lending, M. 2009. ‘Landscape versus museum: J. C. Dahl and the preservation of Norwegian burial mounds’, Future Anterior 6(1), xi-17 [available online from http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/future_anterior/v006/6.1.lending.html, accessed July 2015].
Lødrup Bang, M. 1987. Johan Christian Dahl 1788-1857: Life and Works. Vols 1-3. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
A few months ago a paper of mine came out in print called ‘(Ad)Dressing the Anglo-Saxon body: corporeal meanings and artefacts in early England’. It was published among a collection of papers edited by Paul Blinkhorn and Chris Cumberpatch called The Chiming of Crack’d Bells: Recent Approaches to the Study of Artefacts in Archaeology (see here). The paper was the result of a presentation I gave during a session at the 2012 Theoretical Archaeology Group conference run by Lisa Brundle, called Archaeologies of Bodily Gesture: Exploring Representation and Performance. That paper was all about early Anglo-Saxon women’s bodies and dress, but in the published form I also wanted to explore some ideas about masculine bodies.
As far as I know, this is the first explicit application of body theory to the dress and jewellery of 5th- and 6th-century Anglo-Saxon England, which I find quite surprising given the prominence of actual bodies and their accoutrements in the archaeology of the period. My approach was largely social anthropological, the starting point being Marcel Mauss’ classic 1934 essay ‘Les techniques du corps’. I also wanted to explore some of Rodney Needham’s ideas about left and right from his edited (1973) volume Left and Right: Essays on Dual Symbolic Classification. I readily admit that neither of these sources of inspiration is particularly cutting edge, but in my opinion both still have a lot to offer.
The paper itself was an offshoot of my work on Anglo-Saxon cruciform brooches. I realised that there were quite a few under-explored aspects of how these objects were actually worn, and how dress assemblages taken as a whole can help to reconstruct aspects of the dressed body, its shapes and sizes, its possible movements and its habits. Brooches in the archaeology of this period are often treated in quite a dry and technical manner. It’s my ongoing objective to try and put these items back into their lived context, in this case as intimate and formative elements of women’s bodies.
I explored a few different areas in the paper, the major topic being how dress and its accessories shape, conceal and expose areas of the body. Dress is a means of not only making bodies culturally intelligible, but garments also create the actual, physical bodily form as it appears on an everyday basis. There is something almost theatrical about this performance of what is hidden, what is exposed, when and where. The ‘why’, of course, is the crucial question. As you might imagine, what we can know about this from the evidence is pretty minimal, but the little we do know is pretty valuable. It may well be a cliché, but for me these kinds of questions are crucial to bringing these rusty old items back to life.
I was also interested in the position of glittering items on women’s bodies, and how these positions on the shoulders, throat, breast, wrists and occasionally the waist create constellations of signified body parts which were not only gender-specific, but also seem to have varied with age. I also considered the depiction of gendered bodies in contemporary iconography of the period, which is almost entirely masculine, and quite explicitly so, and far more focused on heads (resplendent with curled moustaches) than it is on either male or female bodies. Movement is the final aspect that I explored, looking at the kinds of movements that may or may not have been possible in different costumes, and the noises that some items of jewellery would have created during movement.
Of course, a lot of this kind of research is relatively (and necessarily) speculative, but I think it’s important that when we think about dress and jewellery, we envision it as both dynamic and interdependent on the various bodies that it shapes and creates.
Martin, T.F. 2014. ‘(Ad)Dressing the Anglo-Saxon body: corporeal meanings and artefacts in early England’, in Blinkhorn, P. and Cumberpatch, C. (eds.) The Chiming of Crack’d Bells: Recent Approaches to the Study of Artefacts in Archaeology, 27-38. British Archaeological Reports (International Series) 2677. Oxford: Archaeopress.
To archaeologists and anthropologists ‘materialisation’ is the embedding of an abstract meaning into a solid, physical thing (see DeMarrais et al 1996). A wedding ring might be seen as the materialisation of romantic sentiment or legal binding. A gift materialises a social relationship of obligation between people. Thinking about materialisation questions the artifice that sets mind against matter. But materialisation isn’t just for philosophical introspection. It arises from a very human yearning to cast an otherwise unstable, uncertain and ambiguous world into a real, tangible and supposedly enduring physicality. The small things we carry around with us daily provide little anchors that keep us from drifting off to sea. However, as I was discussing in my last blog, this is all a bit of a conceit, objects crumble and the world we live through isn’t very stable at all. Materialisation helps, but it cannot hold back the tide.
Baron von Schrenck-Notzing’s Phenomena of Materialisation is a book I came across when I was exploring Francis Bacon’s methods for my last blog. One of his three furies at the base of a crucifixion was based on a photograph in the book of one of von Schrenck-Notzing’s psychic mediums, Eva Carrière, exuding ectoplasm bearing a human face.
Phenomena of Materialisation is a fascinating book, a product of early 20th-century spiritualism and the flux of the interwar period. The book is a collection of scientifically-described seances during which ectoplasm was produced by mediums from unknown, otherworldly sources. Spiritual forces became physical; projections of the mind became bodily; matter appeared from nothing.
Materialization was a surprisingly prevalent belief and subject of scientific research in the later 19th and early 20th century. People would attend seances as a form of dubious entertainment or scientific investigation, which could be at once transcendental as well as pornographic. During the seances, mediums who could achieve modest fame for their abilities (like Eva Carrière, Helen Duncan or Jack Webber), would enter trance states, and communicate with particular deceased individuals, who would make themselves manifest through ectoplasmic extrusions depicting faces, hands, genitals, other body parts, whole bodies, or just semi-fluid forms.
Poor old Schrenck-Notzing, who seemingly believed his investigations to be scientific, was duped by Eva Carrière’s hoaxes. Her ectoplasm was in fact made from nothing more supernatural than paper and textile. Following the publication of Phenomena of Materialization the hoax was revealed and the baron became a laughing stock.
Schrenck-Notzing obviously wanted to believe in materialisation. He was aware that not all of Carrière’s mediumship was entirely honest, yet he still held onto a faith in some of her abilities through tenuous concessions. He had that human yearning to believe that the powers of the abstracted mind could create permanent physical objects, perhaps in a similar way that the anthropological understanding of materialisation reveals a desire to project the mind onto a material world.
The fact that it was all ultimately a hoax relates to anthropological beliefs in materialisation. The wedding ring does not actually contain a materialisation of love and fidelity, it’s merely comforting to think it does. The gift does not really contain a relationship between partners, but it’s a symbol of that bond, and a highly effective one. It’s nice to fetishize the material world, believe in some tangible but incomprehensible, super-human power in materials, but perhaps ultimately it reveals something of human desperation in the face of a psyche capable of abstract thought.
DeMarrais, E., Castillo, L.J. and Earle, T. 1996. ‘Ideology, materialization and power strategies’. Current Anthropology 37(1), 15-31.
Edwards, H. 1941. The Mediumship of Jack Webber. New York: E.P. Dutton. Full text available here.
Schrenck-Notzing, A. von 1920. Phenomena of materialisation: a contribution to the investigation of mediumistic teleplastics. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & co. Full text available here.
Francis Bacon was a frequent visitor to the British Museum where he repeatedly went to see the Parthenon Marbles. Bacon said that they “were always very important” to him, but he wondered if that was because of their delapidated state, “whether if one had seen the whole images they would seem as poignant as they seem as fragments” (Harrison comments on this in “Bacon and Sculpture”, p.34, the original quotation is from David Sylvester’s Interviews with Francis Bacon, see below for full references).
Fragmentation imparts both meaning and emotion to objects. It represents the inexorable forces of decay and collapse in a literal sense, as well as figuratively in terms of human lives and relationships. The inevitability of fragmentation pokes fun at the permanence material culture is often supposed to represent, showing it to be a vain pretence.
There is also a sadness and a sense of loss among the broken and forgotten. Objects once lovingly crafted and jealously curated ultimately become lost, unremembered, and uncared for. This process of forgetting is ultimately linked to the vicissitudes of human life: the innocence of childhood is lost along with its material trappings, gifts given in love become painful reminders before they are cast out, death, either as an individual event or as a gradual accrual of loss in whole communities, inevitably contributes to the discarding and at least partial destruction of objects. Most frequently, something is simply broken by accident and rendered valueless. The archaeological recovery of these neglected, forgotten and fragmented objects invites us to imagine their orphaned time out in the cold, after their ancient ownership and before their adoption by our museums. Fragmentation implies an anonymous, meaningless, and timeless period.
Francis Bacon’s paintings do something similar to their human subjects. To a greater or lesser extent they alienate the composed and comprehensible body into an ambiguous mass of fleshy clay. The psychological root of fragmentation and alienation most often cited in accounts of Bacon’s work are the horrors of the Second World War he lived through and his own turbulent life (e.g. see Hammer 2012). Tom Lubbock wrote that Bacon takes us “into strange regions of flesh and matter and flux” (Lubbock 2010). He also commented that Sand Dune (above) represents the transformation of flesh into undulating topography. In terms of genre, the picture is half nude, half landscape. It evokes the return of human clay into the geological clay from which it climbed, like the entropy that drives fragmenting or composting objects backwards into their raw, unworked states. There are fragments of body in the painting: perhaps a knee, a shoulder, a buttock, in approximate anatomical order. But they are all de-composing, they are dissociating, becoming lost and on the verge of meaninglessness. Perhaps that’s where the strange melancholy of Bacon’s paintings comes from, and perhaps there is some connection here with his fascination with ancient relics and the dissipating, dissolving processes of decay they embody.
Although ancient fragments are steeped in the melancholy of loss, there is beauty in the way they inspire creative thought. They force us to build a partial, selective, and edited story; partly edited by us (the narrators) and partly edited by the random ravages of time. We don’t have to deal with the whole ugly mess of human life, the enormity and ambiguity of which makes little sense even at the best of times, to the sharpest of minds. The partial nature of fragmented objects will only ever allow us to construct a partial, reimagined version of the past. The past is lost forever, and that’s why it fascinates us. In our scramble to recover it we wrestle with our own mortality, the fragmentation of our own bodies, possessions and relationships.
Fragmented archaeological objects are fetishised. They are set on podiums in museums, designated identities with labels, ordered carefully and obsessively in filing cabinets, databases and catalogues. Bacon’s subjects are often similarly laid out like specimens for our inspection: lonely figures against chromatic backgrounds. The soft, blending textures of his subjects risks their complete dissipation, and perhaps that’s why he sometimes gave them a cuboid frame to restrain them (his so-called ‘space frames’), like in Sand Dune (above). Martin Hammer (2013, 11) suggests that these frames, as well as the gilded literal frames in which Bacon often mounted his paintings imply a kind of pseudo-formalism – an at least partly sincere link between Bacon’s creations and works of the old masters. The frame provides an exhibition space, like a glass case in a museum.
But there’s a tension in this. Just as Bacon places his strikingly modern paintings in a restraining, traditional context, fragmented objects are placed on pedestals behind glass as if they were treasured works of art, rather than the often quite banal, everyday objects that most of them are. Bacon’s subjects are forced and restrained by similar contextualisations, just like the object in the museum is captured by its curator, no longer out in the cold and devoid of meaning, but guided or even forced into a particular set of meanings. Francis Bacon rejected the suggestion that his paintings had any specific intended meaning. But that cannot quite be true, the symbolism in his work is rampant, whether he was aware of it or not (and I suspect he probably was). Just as Bacon’s framing restrains the potential chaos of his subjects, the fragmentation of the object in the museum case is arrested, giving a false impression of timelessness. It is false because fragmentation has only been temporarily paused: things, inevitably, fall apart.
Hammer, R. 2012. Francis Bacon and Nazi Propaganda. London: Tate.
Hammer, R. 2013. Francis Bacon: Phaidon Focus. London: Phaidon.
Harrison, M. 2013. ‘Bacon and sculpture’, in Bacon/Moore, 31-47. Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.
Lubbock, T. 2010. ‘Sand Dune’, in The Independent, 30th April 2010, read the article in full here.
Sylvester, D. 1987. Interviews with Francis Bacon: the Brutality of Fact. London: Thames and Hudson.