The Shock of the Scene….Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms at Tate Liverpool

There’s an instinctive revulsion and primal discomfort that many experience when first meeting Francis Bacon’s  animalistic creatures in their invisible rooms and cages. Tate Liverpool’s show ‘Francis Bacon – Invisible Rooms’ takes a strong curatorial line exploring the spatial workings of Bacon’s work and how his paintings generate these disturbing effects on the viewer.

Usually his shocking dehumanized figures command our attention and we don’t always – if ever – think about the spaces they inhabit. In the paintings from the 1940s and 1950s space is delineated without detail in block colour with no shading. It’s just enough to situate the figures in some kind of reality but it remains strange, unknowable – a concession to realism, rather than realistic. Study for Portrait 1949, is one of first works to deploy a transparent cubic space-frame around one of Bacon’s signature screaming figures.

The cages define space to an extent but are also abstract lines painted over the surface of the canvas to ‘ground the figures.’ This is intended to act at the same time as being a ‘purely pictorial device.’ This sounds paradoxical, but it serves to interrupt our rational processing. Our brains can’t resolve the different picture planes going in and out of one another. It’s freaky. In Study for a Portrait 1952 the cage is a device to “concentrate the image down” reflecting Bacon’s ambition to “trap the image” on canvas. It is suitably oppressive.

The screaming mouth could be our own. Imagining the paintings without their cages, there’s less of a sense of suffocating claustrophobia. The figures seem stranded, alone in their own weirdness, less threatening: statues rather than active agents. It’s interesting then to compare these cages (and other more abstract spatial delineations) with the ‘armature’ of the dais and throne in the ‘screaming pope’ paintings.

These daises are solid, more recognizable and representational than the cages, but also obeying a non-realistic logic. Look at Figure Sittng 1955. If you tried to build these armatures you wouldn’t be able to sit in them. In the sixties the addition of circular rails can make it look like the figures are perched on coffee tables like awkward bowls of twiglets. The effect in After Muybridge – Woman Emptying a Bowl of Water and Paralytic Child on All Fours 1965 is carnivalesque.

In the 1980s Bacon extended this visual language so the figures were staged on plinths and vitrines. Bacon said these and other ‘illustrational elements’ were intended to serve for “nailing the image more strongly into reality or appearance.” From the 1980s he added voids, mirrors, lenses and references from his own paintings, as in Three Figures and Portrait 1975, and even, in the extraordinary case of Study of the Human Body 1982, a pair of cricket pads. The visual contradictions are magnified but this complexity has a different effect to that of works from earlier decades, less shockingly direct and more plainly weird and cluttered.

The cages are still there but they contradict the spatial scene even more than in the 1950s works. The rails are solid even if they’re impossible, and the cages are more abstract than before, carving up the surface level of the painting rather than deepening the visual plane – now they have a more flattening effect, part of Bacon’s drive toward the “insistent division of the picture plane.”

Another intervention is the addition of flecks of scattered paint. A splash of white sits on top of the Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne Standing In A Street in Soho 1967 outside of the world of the figure but in the world of the painting, unsettlling both. In Study For Portrait on Folding Bed 1963 the paint flecks sit on top of the canvas but seem to be emanating from the figure too, like blood spraying out.

It’s a vivid effect at once abstract and visceral. In Bacon’s landmark triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion c.1944 the nightmarish figures dominate a bright orange flatness that couldn’t exist in nature. Triptych 1967 reveals different priorities at work. The cages, daises and frames have overcome the figures, which seem to have deliquesced into fleshy puddles. We look between the paintings and try to work out what’s going on, which is exactly what Bacon, in isolating the images from each other, professed to be trying to avoid: storytelling.

Storytelling is inevitable. Our pattern-making imaginations instinctively make up stories. We try to imagine what the continuities are between the static scenes of the triptychs. The paintings both encourage this and work against us. The tensions between the different planes of the paintings upset our spatial sense. The simultaneous encouragement and disruption of our storytelling impulse renders the images more strange and terrifying. Isolated from rational sense, trapped in elusive invisible rooms, these creatures rise from the canvas and creep into the dark and fearful chambers of our imagination, where terror lies, and horror endures.

Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms is at Tate Liverpool until September 18th.

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