"On great occasions human life is concentrated bestially in the mouth, anger makes one clench one's teeth, terror and atrocious suffering make the mouth the organ of tearing cries." (Georges Bataille, reproduced in Documents, no. 5, Paris 1930, pp. 299-300).
Bacon often claimed that his paintings, which to many seemed macabre distortions of reality, were purely the result of his "trying to make images as accurately of my nervous system as I can". Study for a Portrait (Man Screaming) clearly illustrates that Bacon was evidently a more sensitive and responsive to the raw end of his 'nervous system' than most. In a remarkable piece of understatement, Bacon once explained that Study for a Portrait (Man Screaming) was part of a series, "done of somebody who was always in a state of unease," and that, "in attempting to trap this image, as this man was very neurotic and almost hysterical, this may possibly have come across in the paintings."(Francis Bacon, reproduced in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1990, p. 82).
"I've always hoped to put over things as directly and rawly as I possibly can,' Bacon told David Sylvester, "and perhaps, if a thing comes across directly people feel that that is horrific. Because, if you say something very directly to somebody, they're sometimes offended, although it is a fact. Because people tend to be offended by facts, or what used to be called the truth." (ibid. p. 82).
The present work is one of the most powerful examples from an important series of portrait heads that Bacon painted in the early 1950s. A dramatic and intense depiction of a tormented and almost bestial man screaming into the face of the viewer, it is a remarkable painting that conjures a unique vision of a man at his most primal and, Bacon would probably have argued, at his most real.
With its paint smeared, scrawled, smudged and pasted into a striking and surprising unity, this work is also a haunting expression of the 'heart of darkness' that lay at the centre of Bacon's own psyche. For as well as being an evocative and powerful portrait, Study for a Portrait (Man Screaming) also coordinates many of the artist's key obsessions into one concentrated image.
Chief among these obsessions is the image of an almost autonomous screaming mouth, which here forms an eerie kind of vortex at the centre of the painting. For Bacon, the screaming mouth was an image of peculiar and disturbingly sensual beauty. "I've always been very moved by the movements of the mouth," he recalled. "People say that these have all sorts of sexual implications, and I was always very obsessed by the actual appearance of the mouth and teeth, and perhaps I have lost that obsession now, but it was very strong at one time. I like, you may say, the glitter and the colour that comes from the mouth, and I've always hoped in a sense to be able to paint the mouth like Monet painted a sunset." (ibid. pp. 48-50).
As a young man he had been mesmerized by a book on diseases of the mouth in which there were a number of detailed hand-coloured illustrations. These obsessed him for many years. Similarly, he also became fixated on the mouth of the screaming nurse shot through the face in Sergei Eisenstein's epic film Battleship Potemkin. This particular image was, for Bacon, the ultimate expression of the human scream and one that in the early 1950s, along with Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X, he directly sought to emulate by using as source for his own work.
Begun in 1951, his famous series of screaming Popes were an attempt at combining these two obsessions into one united and 'true' expression of humanity. In Study for a Portrait (Man Screaming), the figure of a Pope has been transplanted by that of a suited businessman. For Bacon, the two figures were interchangeable; each an impressive symbol of authority, power and worldly distinction who in Bacon's hands was brutally reduced to a raw and base animality. At the heart of all these works is the scream, which in the present work is evoked so powerfully that it seems almost audible. With the shimmering grey veil of the painting's curtain-like background acting as a visual echo, the piercing resonance of this man's silent scream seems to vibrate everything around it, save the cold, impersonal and solid metal armature of his papal-like throne.
The radiating flicker of this grey vibrating enclosure creates a sense of transience and motion reminiscent of ghosting effects found in photographs and X-rays - both of which were another obsession and important source in Bacon's art. Photography, had a shadow-like quality that for Bacon, often revealed the essence of an image - a trace of the subject's 'aliveness' that struck at the true reality of his sitter far more closely than any outward feature. "I think it is (photography's) slight remove from fact which returns me onto the fact more violently", Bacon once observed.
Working indirectly from photographs of his subjects, rather than from directly within their presence was normal practice for Bacon. His aim in portraiture was to capture the enigma of the raw and violent essence that he saw resonating at the heart of his subjects. "I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them like a snail," he told David Sylvester, "leaving a trail of the human presence and memory trace of past events, as the snail leaves its slime...When I look at you across the table I don't only see you but I see a whole emanation which has to do with personality and everything else. And to put that over in a painting, as I would like to be able to do in a portrait, means that it would appear violent in paint. We nearly always live through screens - a screened existence. And I sometimes think, when people say my work looks violent, that perhaps I have from time to time been able to clear away one or two screens." (op. cit, p. 82).
The ambiguous curtain-like enclosure which seems to flicker and resonate from the scream of the tormented man in Study for a Portrait (Man Screaming) is like a literal realisation of the screens that Bacon mentions "clearing away". Yet in this work, as in many of his portraits of screaming Popes, these transparent screens which may originate with Titian's Portrait of Archbishop Filippo Archinto seem to enclose and imprison the figure at the very same time that they reveal him in his true state of being. Like hospital curtains from some Orwellian isolation chamber they are the sterile and impersonal apparatus of a terrifying mental landscape of fear and anguish.
Using thick strokes of black paint that pass both in front of and behind the figure whose features also seem blurred by the shimmering motion of this veil-like curtain, Bacon stresses the spatial ambiguity of the scene and adds to the psychological power of the painting. For, while the tormented animation and quivering flesh of the man are deliberately contrasted with the inanimate stillness and cold impersonal emptiness of his surroundings, as a whole, the surface of the painting seems to have been activated by the scream into a corrugated wave that threatens to penetrate even the viewer's space.
Huddled and shaken on his golden throne, seemingly trapped within the painting and sealed off from all possibility of communication, this authoritarian figure crouches in a dark alienatory space emitting a terrifyingly primal scream. In one of his most unforgettable images Bacon captures a full range of human emotions that combine a sense of anger, fear, violence, and erotic intensity into a single haunting portrayal of a human scream which through the magic of Bacon's artistry seems to have actually burned itself onto the canvas to reveal the tormented essence of one human life.
Study for a Portrait (Man Screaming)
Oil on canvas
London, Beaux Arts Gallery, New Paintings by Francis Bacon, November-December 1953.
New York, Martha Jackson Gallery, Hepworth, Scott, Bacon, October-November 1954, no. 20 (titled and dated 'Man Screaming 1953'). Chicago, Richard Feigen Gallery, Francis Bacon, 12 Paintings 1947-1958, July-August 1959, no. 5 (dated '1953').
Los Angeles, Art Galleries of the University of California at Los Angeles, Francis Bacon - Hyman Bloom, October-December 1960, no. 2.
24 x 20in. (61 x 51cm.)
Architectural Review, CXV, February 1954 (detail illustrated p. 133).
The Sphere, 27 February 1954, p. 299.
R. Alley, Francis Bacon, catalogue raisonné, London 1964, no. 52, p. 65.
Beaux Arts Gallery, London.
Martha Jackson Gallery, New York.
Richard Feigen Gallery, Chicago (405-B).
Mr & Mrs Edwin E. Hokin, Chicago.
Galerie Krugier, Geneva.