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Portrait of George Dyer Crouching (1966)

Passage from Francis Bacon by John Russell

Nobody gets knocked about in this painting; there are no armbands or hypodermic syringes; yet the image is immensely arresting and even its constituent parts have the poetic ambiguity which Bacon desiderates. That strange and apparently circular construction must, for instance, be a sofa of modish design - salvaged, conceivably, from one of Bacon's forays into the furniture-shops. But as treated by him it turns into a blocked-up well: a well-upholstered point of no return. George Dyer is crouching on what must be a coffee-table; but, once again, that table is metamorphosed into an indoor diving board, tailored for the diver who had nowhere to go. As for the figure itself, it reminds us that Bacon has been a lifelong student of the wild-animal image. He has stalked the revealing photograph as persistently as the hunter in the jungle stalks the living prey. The figure is distinctively human, on one level; but another it exemplifies the patience and the immobility of the jungle-creature for whom time has dimensions irrelevant to those of human life. The figure in the painting has nothing to do and nowhere to go. The evident coiled power within him has no outlet: his activity, such as it is, is dissociated from any imaginable rational end. He is Expectancy betrayed, and Vigilance made mock of, and Vitality gone to rot. Yet he is completely compelling.

Why should this be so? For two reasons. First, Bacon has invented for him a set of circumstances which leaves us for ever uncertain as to what is going on. Is he really going to crouch there for all eternity, as a caged animal wastes away in the zoo? Or is that solid-seeming floor a trap, delicately sprung, through which he will presently disappear? Is he there of his own free will, or is there somewhere behind him an overseer, out of sight? It is as impossible to know as it is impossible not to speculate.

The second reason for this painting's particular fascination is that in the painting of the head Bacon brought off one of the most complex of his achievements. Perhaps this is the first time in more than fifty years that someone invented an entirely new way of portraying the human head. When people say that Picasso's cubist portraits of Uhde and Kahnweiler now look more 'like' than many a formal photograph, this is in part a fact about our powers of assimilation: what they overlook is that those portraits incorporate a great deal of naturalistic detail and are a compromise between cubism and a purely traditional sign-language. Juggling with the elements of representation is one thing; reinventing the human head, quite another.

For what Bacon does here is not simply to rearrange the map of the head. That knotted handkerchief bestrides what is two things in one: a likeness of an individual man and a likeness of a compound, metaphoric creature. To that metaphoric creature, jungle and veldt, butcher's shop and Large Mammal House, have all contributed. And, as happens in Kafka's Metamorphosis, the changes which the individual man has undergone make us see more poignantly into his nature, and into our own. That eye, for instance, islanded in a head the size of a leg of lamb: it speaks for a nervous system that goes on functioning, no matter how strange and terrible the pressures upon it. That nose, out front with a huge promontory of flesh behind it: for what sniffings was it fashioned? And that ear, pinned like a diminutive ear-ring just above the mountainous shoulder: what message can it be intended to receive?

This apparition could be no more than a far-fetched freak, a Grand Guignol figure from an out-of-date movie. It could be too explicit: the phrase 'to be and not to be' would then be shorn of its last four words. If it is none of these things, and if on the contrary it carries total conviction, it is because 'to be and not to be' really works, in this context. The image is nowhere fixed, finite, descriptive; and yet it tells us more fully and more truthfully than any conventional portrait what it is like to be a human being. It suggests to us that earlier images have been unwarrantedly bland in their presentation of human nature; and it also suggests that this particular new kind of presentation is something that only painting can do. Painting here reclaims its rights.