100 Works of Art: (Visual) Head Surrounded by Sides of Beef, Francis Bacon

For an explanation as to what my purpose is with this series, please see the first post.

8. Head Surrounded by Sides of Beef (Study After Velázquez), Francis Bacon (1954)

My views on Bacon are coloured both positively and negatively by sources other than his art: positively in that I watched Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon when I was still living at home, and found that the future James Bond smacking Cadfael in the butt with a belt was pretty good, and negatively in that I found out some time later that Francis Bacon is Britain’s most popular painter or something and therefore that if I wish to retain some sort of mythical hipster cred I cannot possibly like him.

The tipping point external to his actual art was seeing recreations of his studio and discovering that there was someone even less tidy than I was who was perfectly capable of producing wonderful paintings (and that therefore my art teacher could go fuck herself when it came to complaining about my workspace).

Head Surrounded With Sides of Beef (Study after Velazquez), Francis Bacon
Head Surrounded by Sides of Beef (Study after Velázquez) by Francis Bacon

It is interesting, incidentally, that this portrait is titled in part “after Velázquez” as one of the paintings I am still considering including as part of this series is Christ after the flagellation, contemplated by the Christian Soul by … Diego Velázquez.

The appeal of Bacon’s work in general for me is the feeling of underlying violence. The blurred, smeared streaks and twisted forms characteristic of his work, set against block backgrounds, speak of private tortures enacted in sterile rooms. Often there is, to my mind, the suggestion of screaming in the indistinct faces, of dislocation from each other and intense loneliness.

In this and the other studies after Velázquez, Bacon’s work becomes a very literal interpretation of a term I’ve used to delineate some of my preferences in both visual and written art before, which is “abattoir chic”. It is both the partner to and the flip of the passion for anatomical textbook illustration art; the latter, as described while I was discussing the memento mori qualities of X-Ray by Matthew Woodson, is a clinical reminder of mortality while the former has it fingers in Black Virtue. Despite the presence of a potential Pope and the black background inducing deathlike claustrophobia, even in spite of the deathshead face of the sitter and the funereal colour scheme, Head Surrounded… squarely positions itself in carnality with the sides of beef.

They rise like indistinct, gruesome wings to frame the unnamed sitter’s head. Despite the suggestive rather than explicit nature of Bacon’s paintings, they are clearly defined in bars of white ribs and deep red flesh. It is the flesh – already dead, parted almost obscenely and almost certainly in a conscious imitation of parted legs – that rescues the image from almost acute darkness. It is the flesh, the physical evidence of life (and life’s ending), that keeps out the shadows from blocking all evidence of life still living.

This, too, is memento mori. The scream on the face of the sitter defines it and defies it: his mouth is open either in agony or to eat. The one is the horror of the knowledge of mortality, the other is the defiance of it, to take death into one’s own body in order to remain alive. Either way, the curt, brutal style and the unavoidable discomfort of the image make it a favourite of mine.


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