Francis Bacon’s ectoplasmic shadow

Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne, Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin

Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne, Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin

Bacon’s regard originates outside of time. His paintings are like superimposed transparencies, containing and revealing time’s layers, including the ones which exist only in the realm of possibility. This agglomeration of temporalities always refers to a single, human time – the skeletal time of decay.

There is no Bacon figure which does not also contain the figure of its own death (and perhaps also birth – the foetal pink of unready flesh creeping into every body). Time extends and collapses not only linearly, but dimensionally as well: the occult, the photographic, the unscientific.

In these Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorn, her warped body throws a perfectly-formed shadow behind her, and one is tempted to consider this projection as either the ectoplasmic being which is the birth of body, or the substance-less shadow left behind after total decay (like the shadows of Hiroshima, the images remembering a presence which left no atom behind).

Hiroshima, Shadows of beings burned in after the atom bomb

Hiroshima, Shadows of beings burned in after the atom bomb

On deeper inspection, however, the shadow reveals itself to be the true figure, and the bodies which spring forth from this distilled color of self are the imitations, entirely human, entirely tainted. There is no face which does not contain the empty black orbits of its own skull, no face which does not contain its double, no face which does not contain other faces – that of the painter and of the viewer, when his regard is honest to see its own undoing.

The shadow is solid whereas the flesh weak and inform. Bodies emerge from floors, drip from walls and slide between doorways, but ectoplasm asserts its supremacy. The selves splay and splatter in multiple, contradictory directions, and each regard-filled visage is revealed to be the visage of many, the visage of one. As these faces bubble, blister, grow, stretch, shrink and die, Bacon records this motion in paintstrokes, laying layer-upon-layer plane-upon-plane, painting not the motion itself, but its manifestation in color and facet, forcing the portrait to abandon its mimetic origins, and become servant only to the idea.



  1. Bacon’s paintings about an idea? The ectoplasmic “shadow” more significant than the physical form? I’m not sure I agree with the interpretation. In the painting “Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne”, the ashtray casts a similar, albeit smaller, shadow than the figure. Should we interpret that shadow in the same way, as being an ectoplasmic form? I’m not sure at all that the shadows aren’t just pictorial devices. We might defer to Bacon’s own stance on his own work.

    • Good thought. However why should not objects also have their own true forms, ectoplasmic, primordial that exist beyond real time and space, to manifest themselves in their primary painterly forms?

      I’m not sure what stance of Bacon you are referring to, but I anyhow would consider the text I’ve written more as a reflective essay than an interpretation, and would add that I don’t necessarily believe that the artist’s interpretation illuminates the significance of the artwork any more than another’s.

      • I wonder if you familiar with Bacon’s statements about his own work? He was quite an existentialist. I would be very surprised if he believed in anything like an ectoplasm, a primordial form, or anything beyond time and space at all. He talked about the “brutality of fact” and wanted his imagery to impact directly on the nervous system, bypassing the intellect entirely. This is why I think it’s a stretch to suggest his work was trying to convey an idea. He did NOT want to tell a story or illustrate an idea. That’s the exact opposite of his stated purpose. Bacon: “Some paint comes across directly onto the nervous system and other paint tells you the story in a long diatribe through the brain. (Francis Bacon)”

        I think an artist’s take on their own work is infinitely more valuable than most other people’s. I give the artist credit for being an intelligent and articulate human being who knows what he or she is trying to do, and is a lot more familiar with his or her own objectives, personal history, and beliefs than outsiders.

        However, I enjoyed your piece and my personal beliefs are perhaps more along the lines of what you’ve shared. Bacon’s, on the other hand – and he was extremely articulate about this in lots of interviews – was anything but mystical.

        I could be wrong though, because I am relying mostly on my memory of books I read over a decade ago. At the time I was quite an existentialist, and it’s possible that I might have taken particular note of that strain in his work and missed other aspects altogether.

      • I am sure you are right in terms of what Bacon has written about his own work (which I am unfamiliar with), and is probably far more illuminating about his own act of creation than a mystical point of view, and I don’t presume to call Bacon a mystic.

        However, a mystical approach will see a mystery in places where a rationalist can only see logic or a materialist matter. And in my readings of the criticism of art and literature, I have always shared the strongest of affinities with writers like Baudelaire or Benjamin whose thought contained so much will, or a specific world vision that their writings overwhelm or perhaps even obliterate the original artwork. It is a matter of approach, and although I feel that an art historian such as Daniel Arasse who has an approach to art which is (at least superficially) that of submission to the object itself, its time and history is brilliantly enlightening, I personally have more affinities with those who strongarm the artwork that has touched them profoundly and personally into their own thought/vision about the world, even if (because?) their digestion of it deforms into unrecognizable forms.

      • I like some of your arguments. Who can fault someone for finding meaning or spiritual sustenance in a misunderstood work of art? For example, I enjoyed your take on that Bacon painting, especially in connection with the “shadows” following the nuclear blast of Hiroshima. They do in fact look a lot like the photos you included. There is also, on the other hand, the very strong possibility of people trivializing art through overwrought and simplistic interpretations or readings of their work. Freudianism did a lot to destroy literature. Sophocles became a writer of the stages of sexual development, as did everyone else. Feminism did in another batch or writers and artists. Everything became a phallic symbol or emblem of the male gaze. The complex truths, feelings, and experiences artists wished to share became evidence of “man’s” under-development.

        Bacon is a somewhat rare painter in that he paints, as best he can, his philosophy. Because of his stress on the meaning of his art – that it be physical and have an immediate physical impact on the viewer – it becomes more important to understand his intent. Similarly, while it may be wonderful for someone to change their life because of the uplifting spiritual messages they find in Sartre, they may be doing the philosopher an injustice if they’ve completely misunderstood his meaning (for example, if they say that Sartre made them feel the presence of Jesus). If reading the Buddha’s eight-fold path leads someone to crime, they haven’t read it correctly.

        As an artist, sometimes I have to face people misreading my work. If it’s a piece where I’ve to great lengths to communicate something significant, and they take away the opposite meaning, I will be disappointed. For example, this piece is about crossing the threshold of death, and being immersed in the void.,%20Dissolution,%20and%20the%20Void.html It is meant to show an experience that is in part terrifying, because one’s identity is ripped away and obliterated. However, many people just see it as calm, perhaps because they believe that anything “spiritual” is calm and soothing, whereas I believe that a greater reality can be overpowering, and to think otherwise is to not see it. It’s not a comforting new-age piece. It’s meant to be disarming.

        So, while I agree that what the audience takes away from a piece can be valuable, even if it’s not what the artist intended, I think it’s worth seeking out what the artist really intended, and trying to see the work in that light. Perhaps more could be gained by seeing what they actually intended, rather than, at worst, superimposing our own preconceptions onto their work, which might stifle it.

      • For the Bacon and Hiroshima photos, let us say that rather than concerning myself with the intention of the creates of either image (the Enola Gay? the US government), the images themselves speak with their own intelligence (that not of their meaning but of their form), and to privilege analysis over syncretism, synthesis, ekphrasis, etc. as an approach is a choice.

        The problem of criticism (or analysis) is I believe not of “misinterpretation” because there can be no such thing. The art of exigesis allows for all interpretations, and in fact the less sensical the interpretation, the closer it approaches a spiritual truth (this is true of all exegesis, religious, artistic, literary).

        The problem arises, as you have pointed out, and I think as Benjamin has clarified better than anyone else, that of analysis – of cutting up that which must be understood as whole (it’s poetic) – leading us to reductive thought which sees only a single point of view. It is not so much the point of view that is at fault (for certainly every work can be understood through every school of thought: feminism, queer thought, semiology, and so on), but rather that of reducing the work to ONLY one of its (often less significant) aspects.

        On one point I would entirely disagree however – and that is on the idea that the artist has a better understanding of his own work than another. The tools and talents necessary for creation are entirely different for those necessary for criticism, not to forget that the artist needs to lie, manipulate, pretend, hide their own reasons, sources, methods and techniques, and the artist’s intention is a tangential text of little significance to the work itself (although admittedly very fascinating for historical criticism and personal interest).

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