School of Francis Bacon
Study for Head of Lucian Freud 1967 Francis Bacon
Dedicated to the Memory of Mark Cousins (1947Ė2020)
Ontological-Slime Self Portrait 2000 Alexander Verney-Elliott
Alexander Verney-Elliott listening to Mark Cousins at the Architectural Association, Bedford Square, London WC1
I canít remember now whether it was in the catalogue of the current exhibition of Bacon or whether on it was on one of those panels but at some point there was a quotation from Bacon saying ďI suppose in the end weíre just meatĒ and I wanted to try and start off, as it were, some thoughts about both texture and also materiality by considering some of the problems, what we might call the aesthetic problems, of meat especially in that difficult area that we call ugliness or which other people call ugliness, I want to try and suggest this evening this is not how itís normally portrayed and if properly handled is an extremely powerful and valuable artistic and architectural instrument.
Let me invite you first to engage in a thought experiment. You look at some ones face as we scan some ones face we look, as it were, for signs of expression, in some sense for the way in which the face is thought to be able to represent emotions or states of mind or whatever. As we do it invariably we have a fantasy that this expression does not simply belong to the surface but it has a depth and we frequently actually experience that as a depth but of course it has this peculiarity because the depth is not remotely localised.
If we say he looked sad we donít say it looked about two centimetres deep in the sadness of it. Now nowhere I think is it more remarkable than if you add in to this picture of a face which you experience partly through the dimension of the depth of its expression then imagine suddenly in some process, the face suddenly manifests a wound and you suddenly see that underneath the infinitesimally thin layer of skin thereís blood and thereís flesh and thereís bone; normally people have a kind of visceral turning away from this experience. Now if you try to follow through this action of turning away, we might wonder: what is it that weíre turning away from?
The appearance of the wound indicates suddenly the collapse Ė a collapse of what; I mean, Iím going to say representation but I donít mean it in a representational way. Itís as if I canít continue having a fantasy about the depth of your sadness or the extent of your pleasure; I canít do it any longer because, as it were, it is disrupted by the appearance of a wound. Essentially unless your medically knowledgeable, what youíre seeing, and I think Bacon was correct to use it in a general sense, is what he calls meat. Letís kind of make a formula in some sense as saying: what meat is at a kind of level of experience, is almost the collapse of representation or of signification.
This collapse of representation is I think part of what we might call the experience of ugliness, the turning away, at which point we might begin to hypothesise that this is not what I think it is, it is what I think people experience it as; an experience of the ugly in that sense is this: it is without signification it is without being a part of the a space of representation, it is stuff, it is meat. Peopleís experience of the ugly Ė again Iím not saying thatís what it is - is a defence against this moment - a moment which is too raw and is too, almost, unnerving; we might say that the popular experience of the ugly is: itís that which is there but at the same time, is perceived as it shouldnít be there - or sometimes itís the same but the other way round: itís that which is not there but should be.
In Lerouxís novel The Phantom of the Opera thereís a wonderful moment when the scene shifter describes to the girls of the corps de ballet that he has seen the ghost in box five; he describes the ghost to the girls and he says, in a way in which logic itself canít tolerate, but clearly we know exactly what he means, he says: and the ghost has no nose and that no nose is a horrible thing to look at. Itís something that isnít there but should be. I want to suggest that one dimension of the achievement of Bacon is in a sense to take this problem on board directly and, in a way that it is very difficult to describe in his achievement, but has the achievement of as it were, bringing back meat into our understanding, bringing back meat into a kind of poetics, that which is always, as it were, normally excluded; I was at the exhibition on Sunday and itís not just a question obviously of meat, it is those strange puddles of existence which you see so clearly in the three triptychs in homage to George Dyer Ė it is, indeed, a sublime moment.
Now in a sense all Iíve said is an attempt to say that what people describe as being ugly we should consider it a defence and if you can undo this defence, if, like Bacon, you can propel the spectator into the midst of meat and find it not only human but essentially human, then, as it were, you remove some of the defences which so often kind of disable, I donít mind putting it bluntly, disable public taste. It is a struggle. Now if something like this is the case, that Iím more than aware that I havenít said directly anything about architecture and texture, then one of the ways we might consider the issues this evening is to think within the scope of Baconís adult career what also happens within architecture to be able to do that: at the level of a certain materiality and at the level of texture, that is to say, to undermine the public defence against the ugly and actually to propel it towards something new and powerful and human not in a humanistic way but human almost in a somewhat unnerving way. Thank you very much.
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