I have never read an art historian who has made any connection between the iconic paintings of the 20th century English artist Francis Bacon and the Japanese woodblock prints of the 19th century… which is surprising. I must suppose that there is no evidence to suggest that Bacon had anything other than a passing familiarity with Japanese art and yet the echoes of Japanese ukiyo-e are everywhere in his work. The curious mirror of stylistic and formal coincidence and – especially in shunga prints – the subject matter, was pointed out to me by the British painter Christopher Bucklow in an interview with the Toshidama Gallery on this site. Until then I’d maybe only noticed that Bacon was an habitual user of the triptych format which is uncommon in European art outside of the Middle Ages. Bacon’s triptychs share almost no relationship with the medieval altar piece: the exquisite and jewelled folding reliquaries and screens of the Christian church. Despite his hugely famous Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944 which seems to reference the genre, there is little or no connection in the dramatic single figure panoramas of his mature style with other British art. There is however, an extraordinary series of links between these mature works and the great, explosive triptychs of Edo Japan.
Before looking to the specifics, it’s as well to look at the drama. Japanese woodblock prints are particularly concerned with the kabuki stage. The principal subject matter throughout the nineteenth century was the actor stars and the dramas of the theatre which was fanatically popular with the devout followers of Edo and Osaka kabuki. Kabuki theatre is a theatre of gesture, melodrama and emotion. Hence so many Japanese prints having murder, suicide and revenge as their subject matter. To communicate these extreme emotions before the advent of amplification required exaggeration of gesture, costume, facial expression and setting. There is little or no European ‘subtlety’ in kabuki… here it is all red and white make up, garish costumes and dramatic stage scenery. The stars were the subject and their dramas were the lives of the townspeople. Bacon presents his subjects – both in the intimate head and shoulders portraits (which seem to me to recall more the tradition of the okubi-e portrait than the staid salon portrait of European tradition) and in the vast triptychs – as characters in a drama. The portraits are not records of physiognomies, as in the European tradition; these portraits are the record of extreme and passing emotion. The paint is hauled and dragged into distortions of features that recall in some cases the mie (the fiercely held grimace) in the climax of a dramatic scene in a kabuki play. The unusual, tightly bound feelings in Bacon’s portraits have few comparisons even in the preceding modernist tradition. The usual setting – the trappings of the bourgeois sitter – are absent in his studies as they are in their Japanese equivalents. The unnecessary is dispensed with and only the important subject matter – the drama – is retained, elevated, refined and explored. In this way, Bacon’s portrait heads share an uncanny similarity with their Japanese counterparts not only in their visual clues but in their portrayal of intense, emotional conflict.
Comparison of Bacon’s study of Lucian Freud from 1964 (above) with Hirosada’s triptych of three actors from 1852 illustrates well the intense, probing psychological examination of the subject matter, and in the Hirosada, as in the Bacon, it is all about the face – the features. All the attention is focused on the eyes and the mouth. There is little in either work that bothers with realism or accurate description; both works are mannered; each in their own way scrapes at the given limits of realism in order to go further… to wrest the identity from the flesh. Perhaps this is most startling in the comparison between Bacon’s study of Isobel Rawsthorne from 1965 and Hirosada’s picture of the famous kabuki role of the Ghost of Oiwa from 1849. Both pictures are unsparing in their probing of a woman at the limits of personal anguish. What sets them aside – both artists – is the lack of ‘expressionism’. As can be seen in the works of Edo and Osaka, Bacon’s paintings are formal experiments in picture making… using the tools of the artist to convey feeling in a mannered and restrained fashion. The concord between Bacon’s surfaces and his carefully cultivated self-image are a feint. His paintings are distant, aloof and formal: Bacon is above all a formalist masquerading as an authentic painter of emotions.
As Bucklow points out in the above mentioned interview, it is in the triptychs that the similarities between Bacon and ukiyo-e seem uncannily close. The defining attributes of an Edo period theatre print are that there is primarily one figure per sheet and each figure occupies its own, discreet space; and that the figures – full length and occupying roughly half the page – have to balance the tension between being individuals and interacting with the other two lonely players. This mimics the conventions of the kabuki performance itself, where great store is set by the individual actor’s interpretation of a role. It also, in the case of Bacon, mimics what might be his own real subject matter – the horror (the existential horror at least), of the individual in relation to a wider society. How the pain of existence finds little or no solace in the existence or the company of other individuals and yet paradoxically is obliged to interact – at least at arm’s length – with fellow travellers, in what Bacon, at least, sees as a world of pain. Hence Bacon’s portrait triptychs have the same tension between the social and the private as do the great prints of kabuki performances whereby the actor must evoke a personal anguish whilst at least acknowledging the existence of his fellow performers.
An example of this might be Triptych August 1972 (above). In this painting, not only do the figures operate as described above, they also occupy an identical, theatrical space as the typical theatre prints of Edo. This is the exposition in a sense of the tragedy of life. Here is the existential hero (or heroes) playing out their own tragedy on the stage. The backdrop is no more than a theatre flat, the stage itself, as in Japanese prints, is a shallow, perfunctory affair. The limit of the arena is defined in the left and the right panel rather in the manner of the apron of a stage.
Comparing the 1972 Bacon with Kunisada’s Scene from the Kabuki Play Nanso Satomi Hakkenden of 1857 (above), we see the same layout of three figures, each involved in their own dramas. The same rudimentary backdrop appears behind the characters, who occupy a similar, shallow, theatrical space. The figures themselves also suffer from terrific distortion, legs and feet are twisted and arms thrust out as each of the figures struggles to convey (or contain) the strong emotions… these figures (as in the Bacon) are apart and yet together. They are suffering an existential pain, whether as victim or protagonist, they are with us and yet also strangely never with us.
It is with Bacon’s sexual themes that there is in some ways the greatest coming together of style and content. Bacon’s various studies of figures on a bed or of wrestlers closely resemble the carnage of bodies in Japanese shunga. Here, in stark contradistinction to the works previously discussed, the various figures have become one… their suffering is cojoined, met in one joint and desperate struggle of existence. In both Bacon’s paintings and in the shunga of say, Utamaro, the flesh is combined, the distance… the inability to connect is abandoned and one is let into a kind of intimacy that is both shocking, perhaps violent but above all life affirming. Sex and violence (here the same can be said of Japanese warrior prints) it seems are the arenas in which human beings can at least connect. Regardless of the damage that may occur, it is in these acts of passion that for Bacon and the Japanese artists of the nineteenth century, the human being can escape the prison of the existential pain of urban life.