Hiding in Plain Sight
Francis Bacon: Couplings
06.06.19 – 03.08.19
Judging the past through the values of the present happens a lot right now. The art of past decades is re-evaluated according to the changing morals and ethics of our moment. Arguments rage over whether we should continue to look at artworks after what we have discovered about their authors – about their private lives, their personal behaviour – things that were often known, but which no one dared to express in public. We question whether we should forbid ourselves to look. The opposite is also true. We forget what it was to look when a particular way of looking was forbidden.
Within a painting, the forms of what might be two men lie naked in a field of grass. One, face down, dark hair slicked back, is more visible, an accumulation of painted sweeps and smudges of grey-black and pink brushstrokes. We make out an elbow raised, shoulders leading to buttocks and an outstretched thigh, calf and heel. The other figure is little more than the blurred suggestion of an upturned head lying beneath the first body, cohered only by the highlight of an ear and a hinted eye socket and cheekbone, beside which the other figure hides his face. They’re in a field of grass – unkempt long grass, arcing stems of paint that leap and dance rhythmically. But this scene isn’t outdoors. This grass is constrained to a square of turf, contained in a volume of space that is more like a room, curtained in black.
This is Francis Bacon’s painting Two Figures in the Grass ( 1954 ). It is hanging in a show at Gagosian titled Couplings, which brings together paintings by Bacon ranging from the early 1950s to the mid-1970s. There are four works that picture single figures, while the others present two or more figures. The show has been organised to coincide with this year’s Pride month, and Couplings frames the paintings in the historical context of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK. Like other gay men, Bacon lived under the shadow of a law that punished ‘gross indecency’ with imprisonment. With the passing of the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, ‘homosexual acts’ were partially decriminalised – exempt if they took place between two consenting men, above the age of twenty-one, in private. Nine paintings here date from before 1967, four were painted after.
Couplings offers a historical perspective on an artist’s work through the lens of current social attitudes. In so doing, however, it provokes unlooked-for critical questions, not least because it encourages us to consider Bacon’s strange, yet by now widely known and celebrated, approach to figuration in unhabitual terms: in terms of what an artist could and could not reveal of bodies and of sex and desire, at a time when admitting such desire was to admit a crime, and when public images were subject, in Britain, to stringent laws on obscenity and moral transgression.
Bacon’s paintings of naked male bodies play a game of concealment and revelation. They veil and offer glimpses. They are not pornography. They are public paintings, but ones made for a public for whom some things cannot be spoken about openly, painted on the verge of what can be said and seen. In a room to itself, the famous Two Figures ( 1953 ) transforms a photographic image of two grappling male wrestlers into that of two men in violent embrace on the white sheets of a bed. The wan light that falls on these figures seems to dissolve their faces, obscuring them in a vertical blur – a weird, clandestine anonymity. It is a sort of visual innuendo, which provokes the viewer’s recognition of something that can’t quite be made visible, but which is still happening in plain sight. Innuendo is what you know, without it being said. ( That innuendo was still too strong for Bacon’s dealer, Erica Brausen, who sold it privately. One of what Brausen would call Bacon’s ‘filthy paintings’, it disappeared into the possession of Lucian Freud, remaining unseen for many years. )
Yet, today, in a culture in which sexuality is no longer so policed, it is hard to look at these paintings and experience the tension of their original context: a time when to show such a painting was to take a genuine risk, if one believes the account of two visitors to Bacon’s 1955 show at the ICA who reported Two Figures in the Grass to the police.
The year that Bacon was painting Two Figures in the Grass, the pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing committed suicide. The man who had cracked the Nazis’ Enigma code during the war had been convicted, in 1952, of gross indecency, having admitted sexual relations with another man – a consenting act, in the privacy of Turing’s own house. Rather than go to prison, Turing submitted to the alternative, a course of chemical castration. Under the law of the time, a verbal admission was sufficient evidence for conviction.
Turing’s ‘crime’ was one committed in private, unseen behind closed doors, but admitted in word. The world of Bacon’s paintings is one of a constant ambiguity about the exterior and the interior, a continuous transgression of the line between the public and the private realm, the inside and the outside. In the oldest painting here ( Painting, 1950 ), two bands of black on either side frame a view of a naked standing figure, its arm raised and folded over its head, as if it were scrubbing the back of its neck. Beyond it is a rectangle of vertical coloured stripes, within which ( or behind which ) a silhouette of a dome-headed male figure looms. It is a dandyish play on then-current painterly questions – about depth and flatness, transparency and opacity, with wry allusions to older modernist painters, from Matisse to Mondrian – which serves to dissimulate a spectacle of receding, recursive moments of eroticised voyeurism.
These three paintings are rare instances in which bodies are found as couples in Bacon’s work. But following decriminalisation, a different tone takes hold of the paintings of the following years. In 1967, Bacon painted Two Figures on a Couch. That painting is a vortex of swirling flesh-toned gestures, in which the two bodies might not be distinguishable if it weren’t for the two evident human heads, pressed tightly together. From Two Figures on a Couch the show moves, chronologically, to Two Men Working in a Field ( 1972 ). Its two almost-identical figures, crouched over the border of a field of earth, till it with long rakes. As they lean against each other, under a sky-blue background, it’s impossible not to note the handles of the rakes they wield, nor the attention Bacon gives to their hands, which grip these phallic shafts. It’s a comic moment, a conspiratorial wink of a barely dissimulated meaning to the viewer.
In the same year, Bacon painted the extraordinary triptych Three Studies of Figures on Beds ( 1972 ). Here, three striped mattresses are the pedestals on which fleshy bodies writhe and contort. These figures are set up in a peculiarly exposed outdoor – or perhaps they are indoors behind windows, looking out towards what might be buildings on a street, or a beach, set against a dull bluish sky. Here, the sex has become close to explicit: an erect penis is painted unambiguously between the convulsing, intermingling figures of the central panel, humping on the bare mattress. Above, electric light bulbs burn inexplicably in daylight. And, reprising a gesture he had used in Two Figures on a Couch, Bacon has flicked a streak of white paint across the lower area of the canvas – a caricature of ejaculation. In the left panel, a mass of fleshy form, which might be one or two bodies, is wrapped up in its own introspective convulsions. In the opposite panel, the figure is of a male torso and head: cut off below the eyes by the circle Bacon has superimposed on it, it is turned towards what is happening in the central panel, as if watching, its own act of looking concealed.
The law, of course, had not changed that much. The Act of 1967 stipulates that a homosexual act was still a crime ‘when more than two persons take part or are present’. Two, three – numbers matter; and Three Studies of Figures on Beds might be seen as a mischievous reflection, on Bacon’s part, of the question of what the law still prohibited. Here, it’s not two people in private, but three ( or more ), in a space that oscillates continuously between the outside and the inside, between open air and interior, and between intimacy and surveillance.
Decades later, Bacon’s paintings remain disconcerting, consummate games with what is visible and what can be revealed, with the nature of publicness and privacy, underpinned by the social repression of individual desire. Couplings, a view of Bacon’s work meant to celebrate our progress as a society, provokes a more complex reflection about how an artwork bears the stigma of the culture in which it was first seen; a culture in which the law circumscribed what could be shown and what could be said – and written – about it. After all, of all Bacon’s supportive critics during the 1950s and 60s, it is hard to find one who dared write the truth of what they saw in front of them.
Outlasting that silence, Bacon’s paintings bear witness to the violence of admitting desire in visual form, in the shadow of censorship and punishment, to create images in which disavowal and recognition flicker and merge.
译 / 梁霄
这是弗朗西斯客培根的画作《草地上的两个人》（Two Figures in the Grass，1954）。这幅画出现在高古轩画廊的展览“交合”（Couplings）上，此次展览展出了培根从20世纪50年代初到70年代中期的画作，其中有四幅作品描绘的是单个人物，其他的作品则描绘了两个甚至更多的人物。展览为配合今年的“骄傲月”而举办，并且将展出的画作置于英国同性恋合法化的历史背景之下。与其他同性恋男子一样，弗朗西斯客培根生活在法律的阴影下，培根其时的法律规定，被判以“有伤风化罪”的人应当被执行监禁。伴随着1967年《性犯罪法案》的通过，“同性恋行为”在英国开始得到部分合法化——如果发生在两名年龄在21岁以上的男子之间，当事人彼此自愿且在私下的场合里进行，那么这种行为就能得到豁免。展览中有九幅画创作于1967年以前，有四幅画创作于1967年以后。
培根绘画中的裸体男性代表了一种隐藏与揭示的游戏。他们遮掩又提供几瞥目光。他们不是色情作品。他们是公共绘画，但又为那些不能公开谈论某些事情的公众而创作，他们停留在可看可说的界限边缘。培根的《两个人》（Two Figures，1953）被展示在一个单独的房间里，这件著名的作品将两位男性摔跤选手比赛的摄影图像转化成了两名男子在白床单上激烈拥抱的绘画场景。落在两人身上的苍白的光，似乎把他们的脸庞消解了，使他们在垂直的光晕里变得模糊——一种怪异而隐秘的匿名性。这是某类“视觉影射”，它唤起了观众对于某些事物的认知，这些事物不太容易被捕捉到，但仍然存在于我们的视线范围内。“影射”正如你所理解的那样：知道，但不必说出来。（可这样的“影射”对培根的艺术经纪人艾丽卡客布豪森［Erica Brausen］来说还是有点过头，她私下里出售了这幅画，称其为培根“肮脏绘画”当中的一件，它消失在卢西安客弗洛伊德［Lucian Freud］的手中，多年未见踪迹。）
这三幅绘画里出现了培根作品中罕见的以伴侣出现的形象。但“合法化”之后，艺术家接下来几年的画作则呈现出了不同的基调。1967年，培根完成了《沙发上的两个人》（Two Figures on a Couch）。这幅绘画的中心是肉体飞转的旋涡，如果不是两名男子的头紧紧地贴在一起，我们可能无法分辨出这两具身体。从《沙发上的两个人》，展览继续按照时间线索延伸至《在田地里工作的两个男人》（Two Men Working in a Field，1972）。画中是两个几乎一模一样的形象，他们蜷缩在田地的边缘，手持长耙。在天蓝色的背景下，他们互相靠着，我们不可能不注意到他们挥舞长耙的姿势，或者艺术家在他们手上的着墨：他们抓着像阴茎一样的耙杆。这是一个喜剧性的时刻，对观众而言则更像是一个几乎掩饰不了内涵的阴谋。
同年，培根创作了著名的三联画《床上人物的三幅习作》（Three Studies of Figures on Beds，1972）。三张条纹床垫是三个基座，承载着三具翻滚而扭动的肉体。这三个人物被安排在暴露的室外——又或者他们可能是在室内的窗户前面，向外看去，画家也许描绘了街道上的建筑物、海滩、映衬着暗淡的灰蓝色天空。性爱在这套三联画中变得近乎露骨：中幅作品上，一根勃起的阴茎被毫不含糊地安排进抽动交合的肉体之间，两个人物在光秃秃的床垫上做爱。而画面上方的电灯，在白天莫名其妙地亮着。培根还重复了他在创作《沙发上的两个人》时曾经刻画的细节，于画布下方涂抹了几丝白色——一幅“射精”的讽刺画。左幅作品里，一团无法分辨数量（可能是一个或者两个）的肉体被包裹在自身的痉挛中；而右幅作品里的形象则变成一个男性的躯干和头部：自眼睛下方的位置开始，他的脸被培根叠加在画面上的圆圈切断，而其面孔则转向中央的那张床垫，仿佛观看着那里正在发生的事情，可他自身的行为又是被隐藏的。