Primal Emotion – in Abstract or Concrete Form

Two exhibitions show how much Francis Bacon and Mark Rothko had in common, despite their different approaches

Michael Prodger

According to Francis Bacon, “some paint comes across directly on to the nervous system, and other paint tells you the story in a long diatribe through the brain”. A perfect opportunity to test the truth of this aphorism is offered by two major retro­spec­tives opening this month at London’s two Tate Galleries: Francis Bacon himself at Tate Britain (from the 11th) and Mark Rothko at Tate Modern (from the 26th).

Although Rothko was a Latvian Jew who emigrated to America, and Bacon was a peripatetic Irish-born Englishman, the two men had much in common. They were born within six years of each other – Rothko in 1903 and Bacon in 1909 – and both were artists who worked their way through the era’s prevailing artistic eddies to find out just what paint and painting in the 20th century could do.

For all their shared concerns the two men followed different artistic routes: Rothko towards isolating powerful emotion in abstraction, and Bacon towards depicting a bleak vision of human existence through figurative painting. Bacon, indeed, was no fan of abstraction; he saw it as merely decorative and believed that “the obsession with something in life .?.?. gives a much greater tension”. What this exhibition shows is what it was in life that obsessed him.

Although most of his work resists a literal interpretation – there is no straightforward unpicking of motifs to be done – cumulatively it adds up to a consistent and frequently terrifying personal outlook. It is no coincidence that Bacon came to prominence in 1944–45 with his Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. It was the war that made Bacon’s particular form of nihilism comprehensible.

At the heart of his work lies atheism and a belief that human existence is brief, animalistic and often painful. This perception came out of both his objective interpretation of the world and his own experiences, in particular his homosexuality and an attraction to violence. This may have been literally beaten into him in adolescence when his father instructed his Irish groom to horsewhip the boy in an effort to thrash him into normality. No wonder he saw mankind as “nothing but meat”.

The second major strand in his art is aesthetic: what should the painter’s response be not just to the great artists of history but to photography, which had, in many ways, superseded them? Bacon’s answer was to co-opt both paintings and photographs. Lurking in his pictures are images inspired by photographs of Hitler and Himmler getting out of cars, Eadweard Muybridge’s pioneering scene-by-scene stills of the body in motion and the influence of, among others, Goya, El Greco, Titian, Daumier and, of course, Velázquez.

The motif of the screaming mouth – such a potent symbol of pain – most obvious in his interpretations of Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X, had its origins in Bacon’s own sinus problems and an oral operation he underwent in the 1930s. Its form, however, can be traced to a hand-­coloured book of diseases of the mouth he found in Paris.

Bacon’s status as an artist lies in the complicated and entirely individual way he found to express his complicated psychology. And the Tate show, with pictures from every stage of his career, will confirm his reputation as the pre-­eminent figurative painter of the 20th century – even though his figures teeter on the verge of abstraction. It is revealing of our worried times, perhaps, that his difficult, always uncomfortable and often distressing pictures resonate with so many people.

If Bacon’s art is a scream then Rothko’s emits a more mellifluous note. His blurred, throbbing blocks of colour have a life of their own and envelop the viewer with an effect most akin to music. Rothko himself claimed that he was “not an abstract painter. I am not interested in the relationship between form and colour. The only thing I care about is the expression of man’s basic emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, destiny” – a Baconian trilogy, in fact.

The exhibition comprises some 50 pictures – on paper and canvas – from the last 12 years of his life. It is based on a suite of 15 murals (out of 30) he painted to decorate the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram building in Manhattan. The paintings, of which the Tate owns nine, were commissioned in 1958 but never put in place because Rothko felt the ostentation of the restaurant to be antipathetical. His choice was to paint “something that will ruin the appetite of every sonofabitch who ever eats in that room” or to hand the fee back: he chose the latter.

The decision was not untypical of him: despite the seemingly spontaneous appearance of his painting, he was particular in his aims, even insisting that the viewer should stand exactly 46 centimetres from the canvases. But then Rothko knew what he wanted his paintings to do. He used the colours of his “multiforms” – the late ones are predominantly maroon, dark red, black, brown and grey – to purge his pictures of subject and meaning. For him they were not about colour relationships but “unknown adventures in an unknown space” and he meant them to demonstrate his insistence on “the equal existence of the world engendered in the mind and the world engendered by God outside of it”.

Rothko claimed that painting was a religious experience and that when people wept in front of his pictures they were experiencing the same religious impulse that he did. In their spirituality, or at least in their revelation of primal emotions, they perfectly complement Bacon’s. Here then are two views of the human condition from which viewers can select according to the state of their own.

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