Journal Article

Varying the Self: Bacon's Versions of van Gogh

Brendan Prendeville

in Oxford Art Journal

Volume 27, issue 1, pages 23-42
Published in print January 2004 | ISSN: 0142-6540
Published online January 2004 | e-ISSN: 1741-7287 | DOI:
Varying the Self: Bacon's Versions of van Gogh

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In 1957, Francis Bacon rapidly painted a series of five numbered paintings after van Gogh's Self-Portrait on the Road to Tarason, to fill an exhibition. They are exceptional in his work, both as to subject and in the way they are painted. A painter who regularly took reproduced images as his sources, he chose in this unique case the self-portrait of another artist, and used – also uniquely – methods evidently akin to those of ‘action painting’. so selfhood and the practice of painting come into unusual conjuction in these works. Paul Ricoeur's attempt, in Oneself as Another, to overcome the perennial self-other oppostion, and his account of a constitutionally unstable self, lacking a ‘core’, are suggestive for discussion of the relationship between viewer and painting, specifically with reference to portraiture. He presents an alternative to the antinomial theories of the self which have long dominated criticism of visual art, theories according to which visual images mirror, and so crucially help to construct, an ego enclosed against the other; such a model is presumed in Ernst van Alphen's Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self. Admittedly, this series of paintings is itself bound to invoke what Ricoeur terms ‘hyperbolic’ concepts of selfhood: van Gogh, through his biographers, became the type of artist-as-genius; Minelli's biopic Lust for Life, which Bacon probably saw, came out in 1956, and in the same year Jackson Pollock, prototypical ‘action painter’ died in a way that contributed to a comparable mythology. Against that, it is important to consider what Bacon does, and to notice the kinds of action, or interaction, tended to us as viewers. In context, the link with cinema assumes a different importance. Also crucial is Bacon's process of variation. Unlike philosophy, as Ricoeur shows, art can engage in play, freely varying all terms without a view to conclusion – art experiments with the self. Bacon takes selfhood apart, recombines its elements; he separates action from appearance, makes shadows substantial; he evaluates the centre, yet gives it bodily presence. He experiments (as had Velázquez) with the crossing of perspectives, reiterating the sense of arrest-in-passing evident in the van Gogh, as the walking figure turns to look out. In their postural address to us, these (self-) portraits engage us in reinventing versions of a painterly, slippery selfhood, other to itself.

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Subjects: Art Forms ; Art Styles ; Art Subjects and Themes ; History of Art ; Theory of Art

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