Intimate Frontiers Essay

Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse (1987) is still the best study in English of the Japanese writer Abe Kōbō’s fiction. She sees the master trope in Abe’s work as an overwhelming desire on the part of his protagonists to dissolve themselves – literally, as a sort of haptic viscera – and enter into the other. Abe’s men – and his protagonists are all men – are surfeited with loneliness. They long to escape the vastness of their isolation by fusing themselves with a woman. What they are after is contact unmediated by the formal limits of the skin. It is what Dworkin calls ‘skinless sex’, the most maximal sensuality, and it relates to the eternal and ancient desire, so raw and so consuming, to get inside the beloved.

Of course, says Dworkin, Abe’s men want both to abandon their suffocating sense of self and also (however paradoxically) to remain master of the sexual encounter. That is, his men want to enjoy, simultaneously, selfishly, the grandeur of their passion and their sacrifice. The tension between these two impulses – for they cannot be had both ways – is the compulsive, motivating power of Abe’s art. As Dworkin explains, skinless sex

is obsession, but obsession is too psychological. It becomes life; and as such, it is a state of being, a metaphysical reality for those in it, for whom no one else exists. It ends when the skin comes back into being as a boundary.

Dworkin’s book places Abe in some pretty eminent company – with the likes of Tolstoy, Tennessee Williams and Flaubert – all, according to Dworkin, writers who intuited more about sex under patriarchy than the patriarchy, and the world it underpinned, was or still is willing to admit.

When Intercourse was first unleashed on the world in 1987, Abe was widely regarded as Japan’s most important living writer. His novel Woman in the Dunes (Suna no onna, 1962), turned into an award-winning film by Hiroshi Teshigahara, brought him instant international fame, while his subsequent work – and further films with Teshigahara – made him Japan’s leading candidate for the Nobel Prize for literature through the 1970s and 1980s. He worked in the theatre as both a playwright and a director, and in 1972 he formed his own theatre company in Tokyo, the Abe Kōbō Studio, which toured to New York in 1979.

Since his death in 1993, Abe’s reputation in the West has slipped somewhat. His work is less visible than it once was, and is certainly less prominent than that of his one-time literary rival Yukio Mishima and earlier writers such as Kawabata (Thousand Cranes, Snow Country and The Old Capital) and Tanizaki (The Makioka Sisters, Some Prefer Nettles).

Richard Calichman, editor and translator of The Frontier Within, the first collection of Abe’s essays to be published in English, says that the ‘politics of translation’ might help explain this decline. In the last two decades, he plausibly suggests, the West has tended to look more to those Japanese texts which seem most exotic and ‘authentically’ Japanese. Abe’s outlook, on the other hand, was always deliberately international, and his direct influences are as much European as Japanese. Indeed, it is the standard line to hail Abe for his universality, as Edmund White did in his 1988 review of Abe’s The Ark Sakura (Hakobune Sakura-maru, 1984) in the New York Times. ‘That the author is Japanese seems almost irrelevant,’ wrote White, ‘a tribute to the universality of his fable and the colloquially American flavor of the translation.’

Abe was a prolific essayist, and wrote for most of Japan’s major literary magazines, though The Frontier Within is a surprisingly slim selection. There are only twelve essays here, spanning the first 25 years of Abe’s career: from 1944, when he was an unpublished poet studying medicine at Tokyo University, to 1969, two years after the publication of his ninth novel. Calichman seems primarily intent on giving a sense of Abe’s intellectual development and the theory that underlay it, as well as some insight into his critical temper, otherwise faintly sensed in the novels at the back of a generalised ambience of menace and hermeneutic enigma.

It makes for a strange collection. In the earliest of the essays collected here, ‘Poetry and Poets (Consciousness and the Unconscious)’, we find the undergraduate poet manqué labouring over ontological questions, trying to link poetry to the movements of the heavens. Ten years later, Heidegger has given way to Marxist literary theory, to Stalin on linguistics and Mao Zedong on knowledge and practice. It’s a bit of a grind to read (as it presumably was to write). Towards the end of the 1950s, he shifts in the direction of Sartre’s literature of ‘engagement’ and the responsibility of writers to work for political change. Later, in essays such as ‘Discovering America’ and ‘The Military Look’, we find him aping the nonchalant journalistic semiotics of Roland Barthes.

By the mid 1960s, Abe settled into a more original and incisive style, so that the last six essays in this collection show the author at his best: committed, intelligent and deeply curious about the workings of the world and the way writing can map it, or unmap it. Abe’s abiding interest is the relationship between the artist and what Nietzsche calls those ‘terrible bulwarks’ with which the state protects itself against the old instincts of freedom: the military, the police, the schools, the prisons and all the other walls and enclosures of civil society. Still, returning to Dworkin, it is possible to see how even in Abe’s non-fiction, the formal limit of the body – the epidermal limit (how can we shed our skins?) – continues to fascinate.

In 1965, long before the rise of the so-called science of innovation, Abe was asking whether creativity could be taught in schools, arguing that fostering freedom of thought and originality among students was the only way to resist and ultimately transform Japan’s militaristic culture. In the essay ‘Possibilities for Education Today’, he turns to Helen Keller, the American woman born deaf and blind, and to methods of teaching similarly afflicted children using touch alone as a way to escape the traditional ‘chains of thought’:

When I saw [these deaf and blind children], I felt enlightened by the fact that the educational sequence was so different from what it is generally. At the same time, I learned that there was enormous potential to educate people, and that infinite possibilities were available if one could just find the right methods to unlock that potential.

He does not speculate on what those methods might be. It is only in the fiction and the plays that he allows old ways to be torn to pieces by the ‘god of corporeality’ (as he puts it in an essay not collected here) – and to imagine a new world. The image of deaf and blind children in a world of darkness or of pure touch was already there in his novel The Face of Another (Tanin no kao, 1964):

How wonderful it would be, frankly, if everybody in the world would suddenly lose his sight or forget the existence of light. Immediately there would be agreement about form. Everybody would accept the fact that a loaf of bread is a loaf of bread whether triangular or round.

It is a utopian dream, that we might all take and eat of one bread; and it’s still there, although the dream is more explicitly an impossible dream, in Box Man (Hako otoko, 1973), where, as Andrea Dworkin describes it:

a man gives up society and lives in a box; the box is his skin; he gives up the box finally to have sex with a woman; they are skinless together – he is skinless without his box, she is skinless naked; when she dresses, their love is over, which is unbearable, so he locks her in the building where they have been living and cuts off the electricity so that in the dark it will be as if she were naked.

The man sits in the dark, which works both to conceal his own despised nakedness and to preserve her idealised nakedness. Only in darkness can he recover the radical innocence of skinless touch, of touch that knows no separation, that is limitless and without boundaries – at least, that’s the hope. But Abe’s men are characteristically frustrated in their desires, because they are ultimately unwilling to sacrifice the sense of self-possession which the skin of identity locks in.

The skin, according to Dworkin, is the frontier between the remnant world, the absolute limit to what we can know of others, and to our apprehension of human community, a frontier, a borderline. Like his protagonists, Abe is always kicking against these limits. More often than not in his novels, the motivating problem is sex. But in the essays we see just how far this restless urge to get outside really goes. Whether he is interrogating the institutions of the state and its power, or probing the progressive creep of fascist attitudes in everyday life, Abe always implies a desire to transcend, and his hope of outwitting the confines of the box.

In a speech from August 1969, the final piece in The Frontier Within, Abe said of his sometime friend and intimate enemy, the artist-samurai Yukio Mishima:

I sent [him] an invitation to come today, but of course I knew that he wouldn’t. He called to tell me that he wouldn’t be able to attend. It’s fine that he’s not here. He mentioned that he’s been directing a Kabuki play, which will debut on November 5. ‘So it’s a contest, then. It seems that I’m always competing with you,’ I replied.

A year later, Mishima was dead. He committed seppuku, the full ritual self-evisceration of the Bushido knights, an act he had prefigured and celebrated many times over in his fiction, at the headquarters of the Eastern Command of the Japan Self-Defence Forces, after failing in his bid to incite a military coup.

The two writers form a wild contrast. Born only a year apart, they were in their day the two best-known Japanese authors alive, at home and internationally. They both worked in the theatre and they both grounded their art in fervent political commitment. Mishima was a far-right nationalist, sometimes seen as the greatest truly fascist writer who ever lived, and at least the greatest literary reactionary since Dostoevsky; Abe was an internationalist in sensibility and communist in his sympathies. In fact, he was a member of the Japanese Communist Party for more than a decade, but was expelled in 1962.

Faced with the yawning abyss of social alienation that confronted Japanese artists after World War Two, Mishima worked to recuperate and rekindle traditional forms and themes, rejecting modernist fragmentation in favour of a distinctly Japanese neo-classicism: deliberately exotic in its aristocratic barbarism and its erotic, frequently homosexual, violence, through which Western influences were adapted and re-figured. Abe, on the other hand, has an affinity with experimentalism, the strenuous subversion of forms that, in different ways, characterises Kafka, Beckett, Sartre and Joyce. He argued that art was ‘progressive’ or nothing. And his novels tantalise with what this might mean. They are full of cinematic gestures and dynamic shifts in voice.

And yet, whatever his influences, Abe is not a man without a country. The Frontier Within makes it clear that he renounced nothing in his Japanese heritage, nor he did attempt to transform that heritage through critical reconstruction or iconoclasm. In the essay ‘Beyond the Neighbor’, he says:

Regardless of whether or not we problematize ‘tradition,’ it is impossible to escape from it. ‘Tradition’ is precisely that from which one can never escape. No matter how much I might claim to lack ‘tradition’, I am nevertheless forced, for example, to think within the linguistic structure of the Japanese language.

But heritage, though unavoidable, should always be secondary for a post-war artist. In an essay from 1965, Abe writes that uniquely national ways of thinking are less nourishing: like it or not, contemporary writers must opt for universality. ‘I believe that the most contemporary and effective way for us to view tradition,’ he says, ‘is as a trap, something dangerous and likely to drag us inside it.’ This apprehension underlies, for instance, his short play The Suitcase (1973), about a woman worrying over a locked case in which she can hear the mingled voices of her husband’s ancestors. She forces the lock and is about to open the case when at the last moment she changes her mind and keeps the ghosts at bay.

Here ‘universality’ means – in the first instance – economic, political and cultural globalisation. For Abe, urbanisation is the central transformational-revolutionary fact. It is the growth of cities and the migration of people from the country to the swollen cities that makes nationalism irrelevant. Cities are the heart and soul of the state, and one major city is much the same as another.

Counter to this global transformation, which constitutes the social space and the very geography of society, Abe identifies the persistence of so-called ‘agrarian ideas’, whereby the land is still celebrated as sacred, essential and foundational to the state’s formation and its strong continuance. Abe implies that, as more and more people are alienated from the land, the belief in the country, the agrarian faith, becomes a negative theology. The imagined national community stands on a resistance to the city, on a suspicion of all that is not folkish or pastoral, and against anything cosmopolitan or internationalist or migratory.

According to Abe, any modern belief in a distinct ‘national culture’ – be it European, American or Asian – is necessarily grounded in anti-urban sentimentalism. Real culture does not come from the cities, so the myth goes, it comes from the soil:

Must ‘authentic citizens’ appeal to antiurban or native elements in order to preserve their ‘authentic culture’? Must we for the sake of our culture stand barefoot on mother earth and purify the filth from cities?

According to this myth, this pastoral as populist political rhetoric, some citizens are more real than others:

Authentic citizens thus appear in the form of peasants, while pseudocitizens are driven off to the cities. In reality, it is the city that is the backbone of the state; on the scale of authenticity, however, the city is merely a frontier within.

So Abe’s universality – in the second instance – means resisting the ideology of authenticity, an ideology divorced from contemporary reality. The model for his universalism is Kafka, more particularly in his Jewish aspect. Abe sees in the cultural ferment of large cities a frontier against pastoral nonsense, a frontier first opened up in the early twentieth century by writers of Jewish background. Kafka’s Jewishness might seem to bind him to the tradition of one folk, but Abe’s point is that for Kafka, and other European Jewish artists and thinkers, Jewishness is the tradition of the city-against-the-land, of a people driven off land and always excluded from the state’s fantasy of blood and soil – the heroic richness of peasant and patriot.

The pastoral myth legitimises the ideology of the state: a sense of ‘the land’ creates solidarity. A recurring question in Abe’s work is whether social organisations can exist without fealty, whether a polity based on disobedience and anti-patriotism is possible – a polity that could embrace betrayal and apostasy, deception, treachery and vagabondage. This preoccupation is dimly visible beneath the opaque varnish of his Woman in the Dunes, where the captive protagonist, put to work in a strange village, finally accepts his new life amid the shifting sands; but it is more explicit in, say, Ark Sakura, with its comic representation of a would-be community of derelicts and the alienated in a labyrinthine fallout shelter, chasing after each another with flashlights and air rifles.

Abe’s attitude to the role of the artist in creating such organisations is somewhat ambiguous. First of all, art must not serve the state, must not perpetuate the lie of authenticity. ‘In speaking with Mishima,’ says Abe, ‘I again realized that what we call “art” must ruin the nation …’ But what is art that ‘ruins’ the nation? Is his universality only the art of refusal? Creating by negation the conditions where a radically different politics might exist?

Abe is always described – and not only in the West – as a Kafkaesque writer. In his novels, plays and stories, metamorphoses and bureaucratic absurdities abound. And of course he is obsessed by images of confinement, disorientation, marginal identity and sexual inadequacy. But for Abe himself, Kafka is more than just an icon of estrangement and alienation. He is the pre-eminent poet of the ruined state – wandering Jew, army deserter, wastrel hippie of Shinjuku, hopeless nomad going nowhere. He is the exemplary figure of the artist who says no to the state and defies its doctrine of power. Kafka is the ‘No! in thunder’, which is also Bartleby’s ‘I would prefer not to’. He refuses to participate, to accommodate, to believe.

Kōbō Abe was born in Tokyo in 1924 and grew up in Japanese occupied Manchuria. He returned to Japan after the war to study medicine at Tokyo University. He complains that his early education was ‘completely militarist’, and he struggled against this influence in Japanese society throughout his life. As a child, he was considered good at mathematics, and his hobbies, such as insect collecting, were of a scientific bent. His father was a professor of medicine, but Abe was apparently no great shakes as a medical student. Although he did succeed in graduating, he never practised as a doctor. Still, his medical training or systematic temperament has left traces in his fiction. Medical and technical terms litter books such as Inter Ice Age 4 (Daiyon kampyōki, 1959) and The Face of Another. Kangaroo Notebook (Kangarū nōto, 1991), a dream-like novel about a man whose legs begin sprouting beanshoots, features several long digressive sections about hospital beds.

The insects return, too. The man who is imprisoned by desperate villagers in Woman in the Dunes is an amateur entomologist searching for an unclassified species of beetle. In what may be his most memorable imaginative creation, Abe has a fictional beetle called the eupcaccia that becomes the totem spirit of Ark Sakura – an insect which has no need of legs because it eats only its own faeces, or rather the bacteria which grows on its faeces, so that it interminably circles itself, self-perpetuating, self-parasitic:

It begins ingesting at dawn and ceases at sunset, then sleeps till morning. Since its head always points in the direction of the sun, it also functions as a timepiece.

More than anything else, it is the visual clarity and realistic detail with which he builds his scenes that creates the sense of scientific precision. Think of his careful, step-by-step instructions in Box Man for the construction of ‘the box’. We then get his explanation of how to move while wearing the box, the way to throw bricks when you are inside the box, the way to fight from within the box. It is so exhaustive you start to think that he must have tried it out himself. This, again, is that uncanny use of high realism we get in Kafka, most notably in Metamorphosis and ‘In the Penal Colony’.

Abe believed that visualisation, the image in the mind, was the strongest provocation to language; it was the primary urge that led to creativity or imaginative embodiment. He explains this in ‘Does the Visual Image Destroy the Walls of Language?’:

In order for fiction to shock language … and recover the energy needed to revitalize it, one must first depart from the framework of fiction and experience the shared task of art. In this sense, I am certainly an ultra visual imagist in comparison with other visual imagists, and that is also how I regard myself.

The visual images conjured in his imagination subvert traditions and habits of language and demand new structures. In describing the exact dimensions of a room, the precise shade of a curtain, the exact layout of a street, Abe is first of all responding to the destructive power of the images in his head, using ‘the force of his linguistic impulse’ to create anew where clichés have been obliterated. And if his precise descriptions conjure visual images for the reader, well, that is the progressive, as well as the progressivist renovation of literature. This, ultimately, is the object of art:

One might say that the task of art consists in temporarily disturbing [the balance between perception and reason] so as to make use of its restorative force in a progressive manner in order to expand and develop knowledge as a whole.

Again, we are back to artists as agents of the ruined state. Writers do not or should not draw new maps, but rather punch holes in the old ones, in the useless maps of old customs and directories which constrain our thinking in much the same way that the skin of the lover constrains his visceral passion. ‘Novelists have an obligation,’ he writes, ‘to participate in the making of dynamite so as to ensure the destruction of language.’

While on the subject of this new – or perhaps ‘schizoanalytic’ – cartography, it is worth noting how often The Frontier Within touches on images and shadows of ideas that have an affinity with the post-structuralist philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Japan was especially receptive to the work of this duo of thinkers, particularly in the 1980s. Guattari visited Japan several times in this period and wrote extensively about Japanese culture. He said in an interview in 1985: ‘There is for example someone for whom I have great respect, Kōbō Abe, who is truly singular and Kafkaesque.’ Indeed, it is interesting to note that in 1968, the same year in which Deleuze introduced the unsettling (or de-settling) idea of nomadic distribution as a potential in Difference and Repetition – an idea later developed with Guattari into the concept of ‘nomadology‘ – Abe can be found similarly preoccupied with nomadic peoples and the thought of discovering a freedom beyond the reach of the mediation of the state:

Unlike the occupations on the part of fixed states, these nomadic peoples did not see the need to redraw borders; rather they allowed the destroyed borders to remain destroyed. Those peoples living a settled existence had hitherto believed that the borders of their land marked the ends of the earth, but now the real horizon suddenly appeared before them, stretching off infinitely into the distance.

There has always been a resonance noted, at least in academic circles, between the novels and plays of Abe and the thought of Deleuze and Guattari – the similarity of interest in Kafka, the molecular flows of A Thousand Plateaus and the shifting sands in Woman in the Dunes, the construction of a face in The Face of Another – but the essays in The Frontier Within brings it home for English speakers. For instance, Calichman translates the phrase nigedashippanashi as ‘sustained flight’, but the Deleuzian ‘line of flight’ (ligne de fuite) would do the trick just as well. As Abe writes in ‘The Frontier Within II’:

The notion that we need to cultivate concerns the state of sustained flight. What does this mean? Whereas settling down somewhere is a basic condition, remaining in a state of sustained flight is a process. We carry within ourselves a prejudice that this process invariably involves settling down somewhere. My point here consists in shedding doubt on this prejudice.

Here we can see what he is looking for beyond the skin, the border and the frontier. Abe – crucially – sees himself engaged in a project which is also a process, or a flight. He does not see himself as a universal artist already set in his achievement, but as an artist constantly in transit, constantly becoming universal.

Again, this is why we ought to be careful when attributing universality to Abe and his work, and of being too free with that ubiquitous adjective ‘Kafkaesque’. Abe doesn’t have the dazzling, baffling, unfathomable originality of a Kafka – that sense in which, as Sartre noted, Kafka is all the more universal because he is so deeply singular. In a way, it is Mishima – a disaster so untimely and awful, so turned around and twisted and obsessive – who is the more universal or at least singular artist. Mishima was, as it were, always already universal: a man born into the wrong time, in whom alienated men and women could see their own blurred reflection, and therefore an impossible person, an instant genius and an inevitable outcast – and he was universally recognised as such.

Abe had none of that. He is not a Hamlet figure, still less a Raskolnikov or Stavrogin involved in some eviscerating portrait of the artist-as-hero. He had to pull himself away consciously, piece by fragmented piece, away from the old order and into a new global territory, a new earth. And it is this process of becoming, of dramatising the refusal of territorial limitation and cultural authenticity, which Abe sees as the ultimate responsibility of all artists:

Is it not the duty of writers who are conscious of contemporaneity to, at the very least, reject all ‘beliefs in legitimacy’ and attempt an internal defection to the frontier within?

It sounds portentous, but the seriousness is real and has its vindication in the art it underpins. For Abe, the point of ruining the state was never really to overthrow the state, only to encourage what he darkly calls its ‘autointoxication’ – in other words, to remake himself and feel in his guts the universal morality of the nomads, the hobos, the Jews who wander the world without settlement. It was left for the histrionic and terrible Mishima to organise the coup d’état and offer himself as a literal sacrifice, to reveal for the world what Dworkin calls – in relation to the skinless embrace – the ‘unspeakably, grotesquely visceral’.

‘In his work,’ Dworkin writes of Abe, ‘sexual intercourse is a metaphor for the human condition.’ In The Frontier Within, we catch a glimpse of the condition as Abe sees it, without the metaphor. Just as in the sex lives of Abe’s protagonists the ultimate goal of dissolution eludes them, so too in Abe’s non-fiction there is a plangent note of frustration:

… the earth has everywhere come to be divided by fixed states, and beyond their borders lay only other, similar fixed states. Have all hearts now lost the need for migrant, mobile rhythms? Does not even one awkward person remain who finds himself confused by the fact that his heart beats out of rhythm?

In the conversation between Abe and Mishima quoted above, Abe reproaches Mishima for not spending enough time rehearsing his new Kabuki play. Mishima tells him that he is too preoccupied with the military business of saving the nation to worry about the ‘tiresome’ business of the stage. Mishima was at that time the head of his own personal militia. All the creator of Woman in the Dunes can say to him is:

Then it can’t be helped. I’ll focus on the art of a ruined nation while you go ahead and fight for the country.

In the grim wake of World War Two, it says something about Japan that it produced two such extraordinary writers at such extremes. The Frontier Within, slim and occasionally difficult as it is, gives us some clue as to what went on in the mind of the saner and milder of these two great writers.


Neuroesthetics seeks inspiration and insight from works of art and from debates in the humanities to try to gain some insights, however small, into the workings of the brain. The present article, on the work of the British painter Francis Bacon, is written in the pursuit of that aim. The article does not delve into the artistic merits of Bacon's works, which lies more in the province of art criticism; it does not discuss the artistic influences that shaped Bacon's art, which belongs more properly to art history; nor does it consider, except in a marginal sense, the influence of Bacon's up-bringing and sexual orientation on his art, which would trespass into psycho-analytic studies. Instead, concentrating above all on his artistic output as well as on statements about his work from him and others, we try to ask how what his declared aim, of trying to give “a visual shock,” amounts to in neural terms and what insights into brain organization the resultant work gives.

A Visual Shock

Bacon, whose first US exhibition was described in Time (October 19, 1953) as a “chamber of horrors” filled with paintings that are “snapshots from hell,” told Melvyn Bragg (1985) on the South Bank Show that he wanted to give a “shock… not a shock that you could get from the story [but] a visual shock.” He apparently succeeded in doing so, not only when he first began to produce his work but even today. In the late 1940s, when he first began to exhibit, a critic wrote in The Observer that Bacon's paintings “… horrifying though they” are also technically superb, making one “… regret the more that the artist should have been brought to subjects so esoteric” (quoted in Peppiatt, 1996, p 156), while the correspondent of The Times thought the subject of his pictures to be “so extremely repellent” as to make his paintings “as vivid and as meaningless as a nightmare,” lamenting that Bacon should have used his considerable powers of imagination and pictorial skill to produce something “which it is impossible not to think worse than nonsense, as Head II, which appears to be a mutilated corpse, most certainly is” (Peppiatt, 1996, p 156). Nor are such comments restricted to the early phase of Bacon's output; they persist until the 1990s, well after he had acquired world-wide fame. This suggests that the passage of time did not diminish the intensity of the visual shock that he intended to produce, either in the average viewer or among those more knowledgeable about art. The reaction of the average viewer is perhaps best summed up by Margaret Thatcher (1992), who described him as “that man who paints those dreadful pictures.” This view is not too distant from those expressed in even more powerful adjectives by more learned critics, Margaret Walters (Cork, 1985) describing his work as, “daemonic, hysterical, monstrous” and Peter Fuller describing him as an “evil genius” whose images were “odious” (Brighton, 2001). As recently as 2012 he was described in The Guardian as creating “a monstrous, surreal imaginative world of enclosed rooms and private hells” (Jones, 2012). Such adjectives leave little doubt that he had succeeded in producing an enduring shock, even in the same viewer.

The conceptual framework within which Bacon worked is relatively easy to establish and of importance to our argument. It is significant that, like many other great artists, he destroyed many of his paintings, claiming that he had usually destroyed the better ones (Sylvester, 1963). He was always trying, he said, to paint the one perfect image which, he claimed, he had never succeeded in achieving. Thus, by his own account, all these paintings were a journey toward the representation, in a single perfect image that was never achieved, of a concept in his mind. He claimed to have had a concept in mind before starting work on a painting but that, once he started, the painting changed unpredictably and by accidents, but accidents “out of which [the artist] chooses the marks which he wants to leave” (Jebb, 1965) (that is, those marks that correspond best to his concept), which for him were “forms that relate to the human image but are a complete distortion of it” for only then could one get “to the reality behind the image” (Sylvester, 1963). From those “accidents” he thus chose what came closest to representing his concept.

Bacon's Overall Concept

What was the overall concept in his mind? It is useful to begin by making a distinction between inherited and acquired brain concepts (Zeki, 2008). One of the primordial functions of the brain is to acquire knowledge, and it does so through inherited and acquired concepts. Faces and bodies are examples of the former and there is reasonable evidence to suggest that the recognition of faces and bodies, though not of their identity, is at least facilitated through inherited concepts that are present at birth (Zeki, 2008) (see section The Privileged Status of Faces and Bodies in Visual Perception). Inherited concepts are robust, stable and do not change with time or do so insignificantly; crucially, they are common to all humans, except in relatively rare pathological conditions, of which acquired prosopagnosia is especially noteworthy in this context (see section Prosopagnosia or Facial Imperception). Certain configurations and relationships are critical for recognition of faces and bodies as normal ones. By contrast, acquired concepts to which that of houses, cars and other human artifacts and situations belong, are malleable and change with time and acquired experience and are culture dependent. At any given moment, therefore, they are the synthesis of all previous experiences of the same category of object or situation. (Zeki, 2008).

Bacon said that he tried to represent “concentrations of reality” (Bragg, 1985). We may surmise from his work that one such “concentration of reality” (which we equate with acquired concepts) behind the images that he produced was that of alienation, a situation in which he commonly found himself and apparently saw in others. The sense of alienation may have been the result of his own tastes which, during much of his lifetime, were regarded by Church, state and society as an evil which should carry a deep sense of guilt. According to Andrew Brighton (2001), Bacon found inspiration in the writings of Count Joseph de Maistre, an 18th century French philosopher who had emphasized universal guilt derived from Original Sin and the Fall. Thus, the lonely, alienated, figures in Bacon's paintings (and most of his paintings contain single figures, some two, rarely more) were part of mankind, bearing a guilt common to all even if differing in detail and traceable to different sources, allowing Bacon to believe that he was depicting a universal message, that of pain. For Bacon, “nearly all reality is pain” and he thought that, when we look at his paintings, we are looking at the real world: “What could I make,” he asked, “to compete with what goes on every single day… except that I may have tried to make images of it; I have tried to re-create it and make, not the horror, but… images of realism” (Bragg, 1985).

The means that Bacon employed to project his acquired concept in his paintings was to subvert the brain's inherited concepts of what bodies and faces should look like. Thus, in addition to the lonely figures, he made use of mutilated and savaged faces and bodies, often in combination. This enabled him, in his own words, to hit “the nervous system more violently and poignantly” and thus get to the reality behind the image (Sylvester, 1963). He was looking, it seems, for something primitive and instantaneous, divorced as much as possible from the cognitive element and presumably from cultural context as well, for by concentrating on deformed faces and bodies he was working outside any social and cultural context and within one that most, irrespective of race or culture, would respond to, even if only negatively. Faces and bodies occupy a very privileged position in visual perception, and indeed their recognition may be due to inherited brain concepts. Objects do not share that same privileged position and hence their distortions would not produce the same visual shock or, if they do, they become rapidly adapted to, unlike distorted faces and bodies (Chen and Zeki, 2011). Bacon, on whom Picasso was a leading influence, thus violated and subverted deliberately the brain template for registering faces and bodies, leading to an almost universal experience of his portraits and bodies as disturbing. By contrast, Picasso's Cubist work is not as disturbing, partly because many of his portraits do not disfigure or mutiliate faces or distort the relationship between their components as violently as Bacon; disfigurations are minimal and maintain significant parts of the relationships between components intact, even when presenting, or attempting to present, different views on the same canvas. The adjectives describing Bacon's work, which are peppered throughout this article, testify that few, if any, have qualified these works as beautiful, even if they consider them to have considerable artistic merit; almost all find them disturbing. These disfigured and mutilated faces and bodies are usually set against neutral backgrounds or anonymous spaces containing few objects—chairs, tables, light bulbs, cars—which, by contrast, are not in any way deformed. He seems to have had a marked preference for faces even in other artists' work; for example, he preferred the portraits of both Picasso and Giacometti to their other work (Archimbaud, 1992).

That Bacon should have concentrated almost exclusively on distorted human bodies and faces to produce an immediate emotional impact on the nervous system, before things got “spelled out” in the brain (Peppiatt, 1996), invites enquiry into what is so special about the neural representation of faces and bodies, which they do not share with other everyday objects. One question we therefore address is whether there is any neurological basis for this violent, primitive and instantaneous assault, an assault that lies beyond reasoning. It was always Bacon's intent not to appeal to reason or even to thinking. The paintings, stripped of any associations, contained the message and his concept, but otherwise had no story to tell for, as he said, “once an image could be explained… it was worthless,” adding that, “After all, if you could explain it, why would you go to the trouble of painting it” (Peppiatt, 1996, p. 117); in his paintings, he was presenting, he said, “nothing except what people wanted to read into it” (Bragg, 1985). The central argument in this essay, which we develop below, is therefore that Bacon was trying, in his work, to project his acquired concept of pain and alienation and horror by subverting, as far as is possible, the brain's inherited concepts of face and body; that, in other words, he was trying to use an inherited brain concept to project his own acquired concept.

To achieve his overall concept in paintings, that of depicting realism by subverting the brain's inherited concepts, Bacon worked from memory and from photographs but frequented establishments such as the Colony Club in London, where people, as he told Melvyn Bragg (1985), were completely dis-inhibited and not on their guard, so that he could study them in the raw, as it were. As well, he was fascinated with movement, especially as portrayed in Edweard Muybridge's chronophotography of the movement of deformed animals as well as in the “Extraordinary photographs of animals taken out just before they were slaughtered” (Sylvester, 1963). This obsession with deformity and violence extended to his literary tastes. One of his favorite literary sources was the Oresteia by Aeschylus. It was, he said, “the most blood-bathed tragedy that exists, with almost nothing but blood from beginning to end” and yet, “The reek of human blood smiles out at me” was a favorite passage of his from the play (Peppiatt, 1996, p 111). The preoccupation with deformity, violence and violent distortions, indeed with representing violence (for almost all his paintings suggest that a violence has been done to the subject) may have been the result of several factors: the violence he received from his father, to whom he was sexually attracted, the “neurosis” of the century in which he lived and his experiences as an orderly during the Second World War, his own taste for violence even in sex, which he considered to be a violent act. Whatever the cause, he was partial to portraying the human condition by representing violence, for he considered the whole of life—from birth to death—to be violent.

We first address the question of whether faces and bodies occupy a privileged position in visual perception because of inherited brain concepts regulating their recognition, one not shared by objects and, next, whether distortion of faces and bodies influences the neural response more than distortion of objects and man-made artifacts. The relevance of discussing this in the context of this article is our belief that inherited brain concepts, such as configurations that qualify a stimulus as a face or body, are much more susceptible to the effects of distortion than acquired ones, to which houses, cars and man-made objects in general belong (Zeki, 2008; Chen and Zeki, 2011), and that Bacon consistently achieved his effects by distorting inherited brain concepts of face and body and sparing the objects, which are more resistant to distortion.

Faces and Bodies

Faces in general occupy a very privileged position in visual perception, as do bodies. This is not surprising, given their importance in obtaining knowledge about an individual, their emotional status at any given moment and their identity. The literature on the topic of face perception is now quite voluminous, and the one on body perception tending in that direction. We do not provide an exhaustive review here but distil from it those points that are especially relevant for discussing Bacon's “visual shock” and its enduring effect, in terms of that privileged position.

The Privileged Status of Faces and Bodies in Visual Perception

Reflecting their significance for acquiring knowledge, special areas of the brain appear to be critical for the recognition of faces and bodies, although whether these areas are uniquely specialized for faces or bodies has been debated (Haxby et al., 2001) as has the question of whether there is an inherited neural template for facial recognition, some considering that it is more a matter of expertise derived from intimate contact and experience (Gauthier and Nelson, 2001; Bilalic et al., 2011). Whichever view turns out to be correct, there is common agreement that the areas enumerated below are strongly activated by faces. Among these are (i) an area located in the fusiform gyrus and known as the fusiform face area (FFA) (Sergent et al., 1992; Kanwisher et al., 1997; Kanwisher and Yovel, 2006) (Figure 1B), damage to which leads to the syndrome of prosopagnosia or an incapacity to recognize familiar faces (Damasio et al., 1982, for a review). We note in passing that the FFA is also activated by faces viewed from different angles (e.g., Pourtois et al., 2005) and by animal faces (Maguire et al., 2001), both common in Bacon's work. (ii) an area located in the inferior lateral occipital gyrus and known as the occipital face area (OFA) (Peelen and Downing, 2007; Pitcher et al., 2011) and (iii) a third area, located in the superior temporal sulcus, which appears to be involved in the recognition of changing facial features and expressions (Haxby et al., 2000; Kanwisher and Yovel, 2006), thus emphasizing the importance of the face as a means of obtaining knowledge about a person's emotional status. These areas respond better to faces and give weaker or no responses when the faces are scrambled so as to contain all the elements but arranged in a way that is different and does not lead to recognition of a face (Kanwisher et al., 1997). This in itself, at a very elementary level, implies that there must be certain configurations of a stimulus if it is to lead to activity in areas critical for the recognition of faces. The privileged status of face perception is further emphasized by the very rapid activation of OFA, at 60–100 ms after stimulus onset (Pitcher et al., 2007).

Figure 1. (A) shows some of the classical visual areas on a surface drawing of the brain, while (B) shows the areas that are critical for face and body recognition. The position of these areas is approximate.

That there is a privileged mechanism that favors the early recognition of faces and bodies is further supported by evidence which shows that the face and body recognition systems are not only very robust but also very exigent in their demands for activation. For example, the negative EEG potential at 170 ms (which refers to a negative deflection, N170, of occipito-temporal origin, occurring at about 170 ms after presentation of the stimulus, and is larger in amplitude to faces and bodies than to objects) is demanding as to the correct configuration of the face since mis-aligning the two halves of a face delays and increases it specifically for upright faces, much less so for inverted ones (Ishizu et al., 2008). Here it is interesting to note that many, if not most, of Bacon's portraits can arguably be said to be misaligned in one way or another (see Figure 2). One may surmise from this that a stimulus such as that of Figure 2 would equally delay and increase the 170 ms deflection, in other words signal an abnormal configuration by leading to a modified pattern of neural responses.

Figure 2. Francis Bacon—Self Portrait, 1969, an example of a mis-aligned face. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2013.

The N170 component is also enhanced and delayed when the stimuli are those of inverted bodies (Stekelenburg and de Gelder, 2004; Minnebusch et al., 2008), thus suggesting an interaction between separate representation of faces and bodies, since images of human bodies themselves elicit a negative peak at 190 ms which differs in spatial distribution (Thierry et al., 2006; Ishizu et al., 2010); how a mutilated head sitting on a mutilated body, as is common in Bacon's work, would affect neural responses is not known, the effects of distortion having been studied in relation to a face or a body but not the two together. All of this speaks in favor of an essential configuration for faces, which may be due to an inherited or rapidly acquired template for facial recognition.

That even severe distortion of faces (and bodies) such as Bacon regularly practiced has little effect, beyond a delay, on the recognition of a stimulus as a face or a body testifies to the robustness of the representation, even if distorted faces result in a pattern of activity in the brain that is different from that obtained with neutral faces (see section A Fast Route for the Recognition of Facial and Body Stimuli). Hence the face recognition system is robust on the one hand and susceptible to disfiguration on the other, since disfiguration leads to a different pattern of neuronal activity.

The brain also appears to devote special cortical areas to the representation of human bodies, even headless ones (Schwarzlose et al., 2005). One of these is the fusiform body area (FBA), located in the fusiform gyrus in close proximity to the FFA, and the other is the extrastriate body area (EBA) located in the infero-posterior part of the temporal cortex, neighboring area OFA (Peelen and Downing, 2007 for a review) (see Figure 1B). Hence, there is also an essential configuration that is critical for eliciting activity from these specialized areas. But here again, Bacon, though maintaining the relationship between the constituents that constitute a body, distorted them severely and added a subversive emotional envelope (see section The Effect of Distortions of Face and Body on Cortical Activity). The areas critical for body recognition lie in close proximity to those for facial recognition (the OFA and the FFA); the brain thus appears to devote separate systems to the recognition of bodies and of faces but ones that are intimately connected since exposure of subjects to pictures of fearful body expressions activates the FFA (Hadjikhani and de Gelder, 2003), implying an intimate anatomical and functional connection between them. We note in passing that, his portraits apart, Bacon commonly disfigured both faces and bodies in single compositions (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Francis Bacon—Portrait of Henrietta Moraes on a Blue Couch, 1965, an example of disfigured face and body. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2013.

The areas enumerated here may not be the only ones that are important in the recognition of faces and bodies, and their emotional status; some have argued that the recognition of faces engages a much more distributed system (Ishai et al., 2005), but there is common agreement that they are critically important. Hence, viewing of Bacon's portraits is strongly dependent upon the functioning of these areas, an interesting if by now obvious fact. It has, however, also been argued that, even within the region of the fusiform gyrus occupied by the FFA, cells responsive to common objects may be found (Haxby et al., 2001). This is interesting, both in the context of Bacon's work and in relation to the neurobiology of visual representation in the brain. Given the resistance of objects, and the susceptibility of faces and bodies, to inversion and to distortion (see below), it becomes interesting to enquire whether cells representing faces and bodies on the one hand and objects on the other, are regulated differently, even if they co-occur in the same area(s) and whether it is because of this differential susceptibility that Bacon concentrated on deforming faces and bodies and sparing objects.

Prosopagnosia or Facial Imperception

Prosopagnosia or an incapacity to recognize an individual through the face, and especially inherited prosopagnosia (McConachie, 1976; Ariel and Sadeh, 1996), also supports the view that there is an inherited or a rapidly acquired template for face representation that is not shared by objects. When acquired, the syndrome is usually the result of damage to the fusiform gyrus that includes the FFA. Prosopagnosia may result in an incapacity limited to the recognition of familiar faces but there have been examples of patients simply not able to recognize faces. The imperceptions may extend to an inability, or impaired ability, to recognize the faces of animals (Assal et al., 1984), which have a basic significant facial configuration not unlike humans, and we note here that Bacon depicted both human and animal faces and bodies, sometimes in combination. Not even knowledge that a prosopagnosic patient is actually looking at a face (for example at his own in a mirror) can restore the normal perception of a face (Pallis, 1955).

For our purposes here, we may summarize this section by saying that, regardless of disagreements over important details, there is now general agreement that the face and body recognition systems are neurologically robust and that several cortical areas are critical for their recognition. The relevance of a robust system is that its properties are much less plastic and therefore much less modifiable with experience, a point that seems to us of importance in understanding how Bacon was able to produce a visual shock.

Form Representation in the Brain

The form system in the brain is commonly thought to be derived from the orientation selective cells of V1 (Hubel and Wiesel, 1977) (Figure 1A) and consists of a single hierarchical pathway which uses the orientation selective cells to build up more complex forms, and eventually complex objects that an area such as the lateral occipital complex (LOC) responds to (Grill-Spector et al., 2001). This view is almost certainly far too simplistic and there is evidence that the form system itself may consist of parallel sub-systems. We do not review this here but point to clinical evidence which shows that (a) agnosias for complex shapes and objects need not be accompanied by an agnosia for simple line representation of the same shapes (Humphreys and Riddoch, 1987) and, conversely, that agnosia for simple line drawings of complex shapes need not be accompanied by an agnosia for the complex shapes themselves (Hiraoka et al., 2009) and (b) that an agnosia for static forms does not extend to the same forms when in motion (Botez and Sebrãnescu, 1967), consistent with the suggestion that there may be a separate dynamic form system in the brain (Grossberg, 1991; Zeki, 1993). Our interest in mentioning the brain areas critical for form is (a) that regardless of whether the brain areas critical for face perception also respond to objects, other, distinct, cortical areas have been reported to be involved in object representation and, so far, these have not been implicated in face or body perception; (b) that the areas critical for face recognition should also be responsive to objects complicates the picture somewhat on the one hand while emphasizing a critical feature on the other, namely that the brain reaction to distorted faces and bodies is different from its reaction to distorted objects (see section Consequences of Violating the Essential Configuration of Faces).

Inherited Templates for Facial and Body Recognition

Evidence that we are born with a capacity to recognize and register essential configurations that qualify stimuli as a face are present at birth or very soon (within hours) thereafter is shown by the fact that children react very early on—within a matter of hours—to faces, in that they orient more readily toward simple face-like patterns (Goren et al., 1975; Johnson et al., 1991). But what exactly they are reacting to is not universally agreed on. One view is that we are born with some kind of inherited “template” that approximates a face and another is that it has more to do with asymmetries in what appears in the upper and lower field of view, the reasoning being that new-borns prefer patterns in which more elements appear in the upper field of view (eyes) than in the lower (mouth) (Simion et al., 2002; Cassia et al., 2008). A third view may be that the intimate contact between infant and parent privileges the face through a rapid plastic process that facilitates the recognition of faces (Johnson, 2005). These arguments, though of substantial interest in the context of the neural determinants of facial perception, are of little interest for our present purposes because, whichever of the hypotheses turns out to be valid, the net result, perceptually, is that new-borns orient preferentially to faces or face-like stimuli, thus suggesting that there is something robust, or becomes rapidly robust, about configurations that are face-like. Whether due to an inherited concept (Zeki, 2008) for faces or face-like configurations or a privileged plasticity that favors the recognition of face-like stimuli, it is clear that there is a very early recognition of, and preference for, face-like stimuli. Hence, Bacon was subverting something very privileged in visual perception.

The perception of bodies has not been studied as extensively, but there are reasons to suppose that there are also essential configurations that qualify stimuli as being that of bodies. The evidence comes principally from electroencephalographic (EEG) recordings from the brains of 3–4 month old infants, who appear to be able to recognize bodies (de Gelder, 2006).

By contrast, there is no similar essential configuration to qualify an object, and where there is one through exposure and training, it can adapt rapidly to a new configuration that is radically different. One need only refer to the example of planes, from simple twin-engined turboprop planes, to drones, to jumbo jets, to variable swing-wing aircraft, to realize that there are many configurations that can fit the (acquired) concept of a plane (for before there were planes there was no acquired concept of them). Nor does there appear to be a distinct and privileged mechanism for early and rapid acquisition of a template for objects. Here it is interesting to note that, even in adult life, monkeys can be trained to learn new configurations of objects and discriminate them as a category even if they had not seen the particular example before (Logothetis et al., 1995). Whether rapidly acquired through a privileged plasticity or not, the templates for faces and bodies are not modifiable, in the sense that those for objects can be modified (see section Consequences of Violating the Essential Configuration of Faces).

The Holistic Representation of Face and Body

While painting disfigured and mutilated bodies and faces, Bacon nevertheless maintained a generally holistic representation that makes it easy to discriminate his paintings as being of faces or bodies. It is commonly accepted that face representation is holistic. Evidence for this comes partly from studies of the so-called “inversion effect,” by which is meant the relative difficulty of recognizing faces when they are inverted, although Bacon himself rarely painted inverted faces and bodies, Figure 4 being a somewhat rare exception and Figure 5 (Reclining Woman, 1961) a more extreme version, in the total inversion and disfiguration of the human face and body. The inversion effect has been proposed as demonstrating the importance of configural, relational, information in facial recognition. It is not actually limited to faces, since objects in general become more difficult to recognize when inverted (Haxby et al., 1999); but inversion has a disproportionately large effect on facial recognition compared to the recognition of objects (de Gelder and Rouw, 2000). Many prosopagnosia studies also attest to the fact that the deficit is holistic, in the sense that it leads to an incapacity to recognize a face while sparing the ability to recognize its constituents, such as the eyes or the nose (Kimchi et al., 2012), that the whole is other than the sum of the parts, in Gestalt language. It is, in short, the relationship of the constituent parts that is critical, and constitutes the essential configuration. It is interesting to note here that a patient suffering from object agnosia but not prosopagnosia was capable of perceiving a face made up of objects (the Arcimboldo Effect), without being able to recognize what the constituent objects were (Moscovitch et al., 1997), implying that a given essential configuration or arrangement, no matter what the constituents that make up that configuration might be and no matter how distorted the constituents are, provided they bear the essential relationship to one another to constitute a face, are sufficient to qualify a face as a face.

Figure 4. Francis Bacon—Triptych—Studies of the Human Body 1979 (detail of center panel). © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2013.

Figure 5. Francis Bacon—Reclining Woman, 1961. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2013.

The neural consequences of inversion are controversial, in line with the controversy as to whether there are “face modules” in the brain or whether there are extended brain regions in which objects are represented, of which faces constitute one category. There is general agreement that face inversion diminishes the response to faces in the FFA and the temporal face regions, and has a selective and dramatic effect on the responses to faces in regions which are responsive to houses (Haxby et al., 2000). This raises an interesting question: if knowledge of faces and objects are both acquired through expertise, as has been argued (Gauthier and Nelson, 2001 for a review), the larger perceptual susceptibility of faces and bodies to inversion implies that different mechanisms are at work, or perhaps that the neural mechanisms underlying one kind of representation are more labile than those underlying the other. Bacon appears to have opted instinctively for the less labile representation to deliver his visual shock.

Inversion of faces, as of bodies, also results in slower reaction times and higher error rates for identification (Reed et al., 2003) and it is inversion of the whole rather than of components that produces these results (see also the “Thatcher Illusion,” Thompson, 1980). Indeed, even distorted faces (ones in which the eyes are positioned asymmetrically) are processed holistically (de Heering et al., 2012). Crucially, inverted faces lead to a pattern of cortical activation that is distinct from that produced by upright faces and resembles more closely the activation pattern produced by viewing objects (Haxby et al., 1999), as if an inverted face becomes coded as yet another object. This implies again a difference in the neural mechanisms regulating the representation of the two. Inversion has a disproportionately large effect on the recognition of body postures (Reed et al., 2003). Distorted bodies also have a significant effect on brain-evoked potentials (Gliga and Dehaene-Lambertz, 2005), suggesting that the perception of bodies may also be facilitated by some inherited neural template, which may however also be facilitated through expertise.

The mutilation and disfiguration of faces and bodies in Bacon's work is largely restricted to the constituents but does not affect the relationship of these constituents to one another, hence maintaining their holistic aspect and allowing them to be recognized easily as faces or bodies. Only rarely is the relationship of the constituents altered, as in his Self Portrait (Figure 6), which violates somewhat the norms of a face in the absence of one eye, and the depiction of a severely distorted jaw with an abnormal relationship to mouth and nose. Otherwise, his distortions are of constituents which, though bearing a correct relationship to one another, may be unequal in size or severely asymmetric. The portrait in Figure 7 has an essential configuration that is recognizable instantly as a face, but it is a highly abnormal one, with one side being out of proportion with the other. Hence, in terms of our definition given above, the pictures contain not only the essential configuration necessary to result in activity—though apparently an abnormal one—in the areas critical for face perception, but in addition arouse strong negative emotions and also almost certainly entail activity in the amygdala and insula (see below section A Fast Route for the Recognition of Facial and Body Stimuli).

Figure 6. Francis Bacon—Self Portrait, 1973. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2013.

Figure 7. Francis Bacon—Head III, 1961. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2013.

The Effect of Distortions of Face and Body on Cortical Activity

The distortion of faces and bodies is more severe in some of Bacon's paintings than in others but very few can be said to render faces and bodies normally. Distortions in general, even those that are much less severe than the ones crafted by Bacon, lead to a pattern of cortical activity that is somewhat different from the one produced when humans view normal faces and bodies, although it should be emphasized that images of “distorted” bodies and faces used in the experiments described below were nowhere as extreme or as distorted as the ones depicted by Bacon in his paintings. In particular, the amplitudes of the responses evoked by viewing faces and bodies are reduced by viewing distorted versions of both (Gliga and Dehaene-Lambertz, 2005). It is, again, noteworthy that object inversion and distortion, which Bacon generally avoided, does not produce similar results (Boutsen et al., 2006).

One of the most famous portraits of Bacon is inspired by Diego Velazquez's painting of Pope Innocent X, a painting which Bacon never really saw but worked from photographs of it alone. Bacon may have wanted to depict the human cage in which even someone so special, as he said, as the Pope is confined but the Pope is not the only figure to be so confined in Bacon's similar drawings. It has been suggested that the paintings are a reaction to his relationship with his father and that they were influenced by a scene from Eisenstein film Battleship Potemkin or by Nicholas Poussin's The Massacre of the Innocents, where a mother is crying in agony at the murder of her child, or perhaps both. Whatever their psychological and artistic origin, the Pope drawings nevertheless show an unaccustomed picture, of someone screaming, even if the face of the Pope is not as mangled as those in many of his other portraits. In Head VI (Figure 8), barely half the face of a screaming pope is visible, suggesting a profound abnormality characteristic of his other depictions of popes and cardinals. They thus also constitute a departure from a sort of distortion of what qualifies a face as a face. On the rare occasions when he portrayed, in similar conditions, a much more normally appearing face [Figure 9 (Study for Portrait II, 1952)], the impact is much less severe and the painting correspondingly much less arresting.

Figure 8. Francis Bacon—Head VI, 1949. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2013.

Figure 9. Francis Bacon—Study for Portrait II, 1953. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2013.

The list of distortions is hardly worth describing in detail; about the only general but accurate statement that can be made of all his paintings is that they are agonized, mutilated and savaged portraits. Cecil Beaton, the English photographer, recounts in his autobiography his shock at seeing Bacon's portrait of himself where, “The face was hardly recognizable as a face for it was disintegrating before your eyes, suffering from a severe case of elephantiasis; a swollen mass of raw meat and fatty tissues. The nose spreads in many directions like a polyp but sagged finally over one cheek. The mouth looked like a painful boil about to burst… ” (Peppiatt, 1996, p 226). Bacon himself preferred to work from photographs rather than have models in his studio, especially in his later years, “to avoid, as he said, inflicting on them in their presence the injury which he did to them in paint” (Peppiatt, 1996, p 204). Indeed, it is said that when Lucien Freud came to Bacon's studio to pose for a portrait, he found that it was almost finished, with Bacon insisting that he only needed to work on the feet!

It is interesting to note here that human-animal complexes—as in Egyptian art and in particular the sphinx—which Bacon greatly admired and which could be regarded as “distorted” representations of both humans and animals, are not nearly as unsettling or disturbing as the disfigured paintings of Bacon, either those of faces alone, or those of bodies, or of the two together. We suppose that this is because, although the two are combined in a departure from what humans usually experience, nevertheless the two neurally separately represented entities—bodies and faces—are normal and neither would constitute an “assault” on the nervous system. By contrast, when Bacon used the sphinx as a template for his paintings, both the body and the face were distorted (see Francis Bacon, Oedipus and the Sphinx after Ingres).

No less deformed in Bacon's paintings are the bodies; indeed few of his paintings, if any, can be said to escape that savage disfigurement. There is no particular part of the body that is privileged in this regard but what is interesting is that, even when a segment, for example the torso or the legs, is spared, the general impression gained by the viewer is a total disfigurement, suggesting a holistic representation of the body. His Study for a Portrait (1971) is a typical example of a mangled body, which has one or two “normal” features, in this case the foot, which nevertheless is in a somewhat abnormal position. Study from the Human Body: Man Turning on the Light (Reynolds, 2007) (Figure 10) has a more or less normal appearance in one half and a much distorted one in the other which, if bodies are processed configurally, would amount to distortion. Such examples may be multiplied, but it is interesting to note that, especially with his depictions of the human body, the ordinary objects incorporated into the paintings are virtually always undistorted.

Figure 10. Francis Bacon—Study from the Human Body: Man Turning On the Light, 1973. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2013.

The perceptual classification of a face or body as happy or threatening or sad or fearful also depends upon given specific configurations. It is common knowledge that upturned corners of the mouth are one element signifying a happy face while downturned ones signify the opposite. Here, another innovation in Bacon's works intrudes—his faces are neither happy nor sad, neither threatening nor comforting, neither fearful nor welcoming. Instead, they are all mutilated and usually savagely so; they are, in Peppiatt's words, “unusual” and “sinisterly unpleasant.” Hence, what Bacon has achieved is to trample over such configurations that allow the rapid classification of the emotional envelope on a face or a body into the above categories.

A Fast Route for the Recognition of Facial and Body Stimuli

In his book, Peppiatt states that Bacon's intent was to produce work such “that the nerves are immediately alerted to something unusual, something sinisterly unpleasant, before the image has spelled itself out in the brain” (Peppiatt, 1996). Most of his paintings alert one to something unusual, even his relatively normal ones of the Screaming Pope. There is evidence that the emotionally disturbing rendering of faces and bodies engages a fast neural system, but whether this occurs before the image has “spelled itself out in the brain” is not certain. It is to be noted that objects can also be distorted but do not have nearly the same emotional impact as distorted faces and bodies and, moreover, that Bacon himself rarely distorted objects and when he did so, it was very mild and produces no emotional impact at all.

When the faces viewed have a “sinister” and therefore strong emotional component (both common in Bacon's paintings), there is activation of the amygdala (Morris et al., 1996; Hadjikhani and de Gelder, 2003; Sato et al., 2011) as well as of the insula (Krolak-Salmon et al., 2003), although neither has been shown to be engaged when neutral faces are viewed. It has been suggested that viewing a fearful face leads to fast, short-latency activation (at about 100 ms after exposure) of the amygdala before spreading to the cortex (Krolak-Salmon et al., 2004). More recent evidence shows that the latency of response from the sub-cortical centers involved is not very different from latencies in areas such as the OFA when subjects view neutral faces. Fearful faces activate the amygdala rapidly (in the 50–150 ms time frame), while a transcranial magnetic stimulation study suggests the earliest activity in the OFA occurs at 60–100 ms for neutral faces (Pitcher et al., 2007), with a later component at 150 ms (Hung et al., 2010).

The facial recognition route which registers rapidly extreme expressions on a face or a body such as fear or disgust, is more “primitive” in the sense that it is activated by low spatial frequencies (coarse visual information) and is independent of the precise identity of the person viewed (Vuilleumier et al., 2003; Maratos et al., 2009). The sub-cortical routes seemingly influence strongly face perception but can act autonomously, since subjects can recognize the valence on a face when faces are viewed without conscious awareness of the face itself (de Gelder et al., 2005), even if the sub-cortical route relays signals to the corresponding cortical zones and modulates activity in them (Johnson, 2005). This suggests that the emotional component—fear, disgust, (as is so common when viewing Bacon's paintings)-is recorded as rapidly as the face itself. Hence, the sub-cortical system may be instrumental in alerting the brain, with very brief latencies, that a stimulus recognized as a face has something unusual about it.

It is likely that the sub-cortical system is used in the demonstrated newborn preference for faces (Johnson, 2005). This route may in fact not only modulate cortical responses but also be indicative of a system involved with facial recognition that acts in parallel with the high frequency system, which identifies details on the face as well as facial identity. Thus, while the recognition of a stimulus as containing the “primitives” of a face might depend upon a sub-cortical system and on low spatial frequencies, the process appears to become more “corticalized” as refinements due to experience are added and recognition is not only of a face as such but the identity of the face (Johnson, 2005).

To our knowledge no parallel studies have been performed to learn whether there is a sub-cortical or cortical system that reacts to bodies presented in low spatial frequencies. Nor has any fast, sub-cortical route for object recognition been reported.

Unconscious Emotional Impact of Disfigured Bodies and Faces

Bacon often emphasized that his work came from the “unconscious.” “I've made images that the intellect can never make,” he told Melvyn Bragg emphatically (Bacon, interviewed by Bragg, 1985). He also often stated that he produced some of his most prized works, such as Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) (Tate, 2013a) [of which there is also a second version (Tate, 2013b)], when in an inebriated state and not capable of clear thinking, thus perhaps emphasizing the predominance of what he supposed is the “unconscious” element. Bacon reputedly was inspired by a number of sources for this painting, including Greek mythology as well as the work of Pablo Picasso. Taken together with his avowed aim of attacking the nervous system before things get spelled out in the brain, he is perhaps emphasizing that his paintings are originating from the “unconscious” and are destined for the “unconscious.” Of course, what Bacon means by the “unconscious” is never spelled out clearly or defined. The meaning we would like to attach to it is more specific; we mean by it a severe mutilation and distortion of what constitutes a normal face that is registered in the brain even when the subject is not consciously aware of having viewed such a face. Violations of essential configurations are experienced consciously and have, as a consequence, an emotional dimension that is also experienced consciously. But there appears to be also an unconscious dimension that mediates the experience; subjects can discriminate the emotional valence on a face even when not consciously aware of the face, especially if the expression is fearful (Bertini et al., 2013). Here it is important to notice, once again, that the “fearful” faces used in such experiments are not nearly as unusual as those depicted by Bacon. The rapid activation of amygdala and insula by emotional stimuli which can be registered “unconsciously,” implies that, for the ordinary viewer, a Bacon painting is registered through the two parallel systems, cortical and sub-cortical, with a dominant sub-cortical emotional registration occurring through structures such as the amygdala and insula. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the sub-cortical system is the emotionally more dominant one, since it is capable of responding even in the absence of an acknowledged “awareness” of the stimulus. The adjectives used to describe Bacon's work—“repellent,” “mutilated,” “hell”–serve to describe well the strong emotional component in his work, a component which seemingly would activate the emotional branch of the face-recognition system powerfully. Disregarding the religious connotation in the title of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, it is evidently a painting of some horrifically deformed animal(s), so deformed that it is hard to tell the species or indeed whether it is an animal at all. Yet, we emphasize again, there is nothing extraordinary about the geometric configurations against which the animals are set. Especially in the second version of the Three Studies

0 thoughts on “Intimate Frontiers Essay”


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *