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.