Francis Bacon and Nazi Propaganda
London: Tate, 2012
Hardcover. 224 p. ISBN 978-1849760737. £19.99
Reviewed by Grant Pooke
University of Kent
Francis Bacon’s personal engagement with the photographic remained, like many aspects of his life and tastes, profoundly ambivalent and complex. As Michael Peppiatt recalled in his account of the artist’s life, Francis Bacon : Anatomy of an Enigma, when approached by Vogue on account of his increasing prominence for a special magazine feature, Bacon was the only one of ten artists who “refused adamantly to be photographed”.(1) By turns a sociable presence but frequently a reclusive studio artist, Bacon’s life has seemingly been mediated as much by his iconic paintings as by a prescient and profoundly expressive sense of the post war zeitgeist. In parallel, the artist’s carefully cultivated and choreographed personae have played a central part in what is now an expansive and detailed historiography.
Professor Martin Hammer's extensively researched monograph provides an expansive and incisive contextualisation of Francis Bacon's aesthetic, evidencing his subject's use and appropriation of pre-war Nazi propaganda photography, films and other mass culture newspaper and magazine sources. As its author indicates, the book's central premise is that "a substantial proportion of Bacon's known paintings made between the early 1940s and the mid-1950s” in addition to some iconic, later works, mediated the influence, among others, of this "very particular type of photography" .
From one perspective, Bacon's life and biography have been extensively chronicled already by critics, friends and admirers, including Daniel Farson, Michel Leiris, Michael Peppiatt, John Russell and David Sylvester. Academic, and arguably more objective evaluations of Bacon’s work, ideas and legacy have been essayed most prominently by, among others, Dawn Ades and Andrew Forge as well as Gilles Deleuze whose monograph, Francis Bacon : Logique de la sensation (Paris, 1984) remains among the most iconic and profound interventions concerning the artist. In particular, the interviews with Sylvester have provided generations of Bacon scholars and readers with particular points of orientation on both the life and the oeuvre. The interviews often seem to project Bacon's extreme variability of mood and apparent exteriority. The modernist artist comprehended, if at all, as through a glass darkly; a persona concerned with self-revelation and concealment, forensic detachment and visceral critique – tropes which perhaps explain the high regard in which the British Vorticist artist, Wyndham Lewis, held Bacon’s aesthetic.
But as Hammer reasonably notes in his book’s preface, much of this broadly sympathetic interview material, especially that of Sylvester, presents Bacon on his own terms and with his own "agenda" which although profoundly illuminating in one regard, has had the consequence of otherwise constraining and delimiting more detailed art historical analysis of the subject’s actual practice, its drivers and appropriations. In consequence, the appreciable methodological strength of this monograph is the close, evaluative and descriptive specificity which is applied throughout to Bacon’s extant work and material practice. Although Hammer is modest enough concerning the monograph’s hypotheses, the argument and corroborative evidence which the carefully integrated chapter structure unfolds and iterates is compelling – supported by ample visual illustration of Nazi iconography, sanctioned press photographs of rallies, symbolic architectural interiors, National Socialist propaganda images and Picture Post cover features from the period. As Hammer concedes, speculative and earlier lines of critical enquiry had already noted the artist’s interest and engagement with Nazi iconography, and it is much to the author’s credit that such are fully acknowledged and recognised as meaningful and suggestive points of departure for his own more detailed and systematic engagement with the broader area of interest, influence and appropriation.
This book conveys a persuasive and well supported thesis, offering a reflexive and timely contribution to Bacon scholarship. In doing so, it provides the general interested reader as well as the wider academic community with important points of orientation in situating the iconography and iconology of both germinal and lesser known works by the artist. Hammer is not alone is recognising the opacity of much of his subject’s aesthetic and sensitively avoids overly determined readings of specific works or reductive conjecture around this or that motivation. But as Sontag and others have noted, much Nazi iconography and ritual suggests at the very least, elements of the masochistic and the homo-erotic. Hammer usefully notes, albeit briefly, the linkage here with Bacon’s “exotic and uninhibited sexuality” with additional references to Bataille, Bellmer and Genet .
However, it remains at least moot whether it is correct to contend that such a motivation was “minor and subordinate” to other considerations and readings . Hammer is right to recognise Bacon’s standing as a history painter, albeit mediating an age of horrors, but this does not obviate the importance of trying to understand and perhaps more clearly situate and speculate as to the drives and pre-dispositions of individual or collective pathology of which National Socialism surely stands as an extreme example. As commentators like Janine Chasseguet Smirgel have argued from a more clinical perspective, Sadean personalities might be understood as manifesting aspects of an aberrant, perverse and solipsistic narcissism which nevertheless mediates creative practice of a particular register and intent.(2) This is not to reduce a figure as famously resistant as Bacon to transparent and simplified reading or to replicate a caricature of the artist as mere provocateur, but it is at least to recognise that practitioners of the craft, as eloquent, accomplished and insightful as Bacon undoubtedly was, are rarely the most open, honest and reliable interlocutors of their own practice and motivation. For this reader, Bacon’s iconography materialised an apprehension of the body as disposable sensorium devoid of transcendental proposition. If such attributes characterised the ideologically-driven mass violence of the 1930s and 1940s, they were no less registers of Bacon’s own complex etiology and fundamental sense of being.
(1) Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon : Anatomy of an Enigma. Reprinted by Phoenix/Orion Books, 1999 : 145.
(2) See for example Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel’s Creativity and Perversion. Free Association Books, 1985.
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