The retrospective for the twentieth century figurative painter Francis Bacon on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art shows Bacon’s belaboring exploration of the grotesque. He is fixated on both religious iconography such as in his paintings inspired by Velazquez, and malformed depictions of enigmatic carcasses.
Though Bacon seems to recycle the same sort of grotesque in his oeuvre to an extent that becomes exhausting there is something still powerful in his poetics of the grotesque. He reminds us of bygone times before the age of the laboratory and medicalization of illness when the temple was a site of ritual killings and sacrifice. As Yve Alain Bois remarks in his essay, “Base Materialism,” on Bataille and the photographer Eli Lotar: We live in an age where the slaughterhouse, just like the madman, is quarantined from everyday life. In his triptych series titled after the T.S. Eliot poem Sweeney Agonistes, Bacon depicts enigmatic fragmented lumps of life matter. The extreme upward tilt of the paintings draws the viewer into the painting, while having the contradictory effect of flattening the picture plane. In portraying such liminal figures that hover between life and death and inserting them between flat and deep space, one confronts the return of the repressed. That which is repressed and sublimated inevitably intrudes as the signified momentarily catches up to and disrupts the signifier. The horror in these works is in their representing the repression of violence. As Bois argues: “To show violence purely and simply would be a way of incorporating it; it is more effective to underscore how it is evacuated.”
Bacon’s painting Blood on Pavement similarly hovers between deep and flat space. The obscure blood stain is a trace of a violence and trauma that remains absent. The horror of Bacon’s imagery lies not in its portrayal of violence, but rather in its undefinability that places the viewer between the sublimation and intrusion of the trauma. It is a horror that remains truly other and resists incorporation and resolution in the quotidian. He reminds us that the comforting sanctity of our daily latte and other objects of commercial consumption is continually haunted by wars, sweatshops, and environmental devastation. Bacon does not naively revel in the violence of the status quo, but rather exposes the ways in which we sublimate and expunge the traces of violence in presenting objects which remain liminal and resist foreclosure.