Brain Pickings

Artist Francis Bacon on the Role of Suffering and Self-Knowledge in Creative Expression

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“An artist must learn to be nourished by his passions and by his despairs.”

“When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer… his unique opportunity lies in the way he bears his burden,” Viktor Frankl wrote in his spectacular 1946 treatise on the human search for meaning. We’re immersed in a great deal of cultural mythology regarding spiritual and psychoemotional suffering, but nowhere is it more dangerously romanticized than in the “tortured genius” myth of creative destiny — a myth whose patron saints include tragic heroes like Vincent van Gogh, David Foster Wallace and Sylvia Plath. It’s a formulation of creative pathology that I’ve always found toxic, and yet beneath it lies a deeper conversation about the role of suffering in human life and creative expression.

From The Artist Observed: 28 Interviews with Contemporary Artists (public library) by the prominent dance and art critic John Gruen — the magnificent out-of-print tome fifteen years in the making that also gave us Agnes Martin on art, happiness, pride and failure — comes a wide-ranging conversation with artist Francis Bacon, known for his highly graphic, emotionally charged imagery with strong undertones of anxiety, terror, and turmoil. Considered Britain’s greatest living painter at the time of the interview in 1972, Bacon was as reviled for his violent themes as he was revered for creative vision. In 2013, eleven years after his death, his painting Three Studies of Lucian Freud became the most expensive piece of art ever auctioned, amassing a formidable $142,405,000.

Portrait of Francis Bacon by Irving Penn

Bacon, whom Gruen describes as seemingly enveloped in a time vacuum, presenting “the image of an awkward teenager, aged 62,” reflects with remarkable self-awareness on what he calls his “gilded gutter life” and contemplates the broader role of suffering in the creative experience:

I think that life is violent and most people turn away from that side of it in an attempt to live a life that is screened. But I think they are merely fooling themselves. I mean, the act of birth is a violent thing, and the act of death is a violent thing. And, as you surely have observed, the very act of living is violent. For example, there is self-violence in the fact that I drink much too much. But I feel ever so strongly that an artist must learn to be nourished by his passions and by his despairs. These things alter an artist whether for the good or for the better or the worse. It must alter him. The feelings of desperation and unhappiness are more useful to an artist than the feeling of contentment, because desperation and unhappiness stretch your whole sensibility.

Three Studies of Lucian Freud by Francis Bacon, 1969

After offering Gruen another round of drink, Bacon revisits the subject of suffering, offering an alternative interpretation of — or, rather, a confound at the heart of — the “tortured genius” mythology:

Of course I suffer. Who doesn’t? But I don’t feel I’ve become a better artist because of my suffering, but because of my willpower, and the way I worked on myself. There is a connection between one’s life and one’s work — and yet, at the same time, there isn’t. Because, after all, art is artifice, which one tends to forget. If one could make out of one’s life one’s work, then the connection has been achieved. In a sense, I could say that I have painted my own life. I’ve painted my own life’s story in my own work — but only in a sense. I think very few people have a natural feeling for painting, and so, of course, they naturally think that the painting is an expression of the artist’s mood. But it rarely is. Very often he may be in greatest despair and be painting his happiest paintings.

This osmosis of suffering and creative flow, according to Bacon, is rooted in a deep and necessary self-knowledge:

You must understand, life is nothing unless you make something of it. I’ve learned, as life progresses, to become more cunning. I know where I would automatically go wrong, which I wouldn’t have known when I was younger. Anyway, I’ve become more cunning both in my work and in my relationships. When I say cunning, perhaps it’s the wrong word. I think knowledgeable is a better word, because, in fact, I don’t like cunning people.

Ultimately, the creative process itself springs from that self-knowledge and remains a private experience, independent of external validation:

When one is right inside the work … it’s very stimulating and exciting, because that’s when you bring things nearer to the nervous system. you must understand that I don’t paint for anybody except myself. I’m always very surprised that anybody wants to have a picture of mine. I paint to excite myself, and make something for myself. I can’t tell you how amazed I was when my work started selling!

The Artist Observed, should you be able to find a surviving copy, is a treasure trove in its entirety, featuring conversations with such creative icons as Saul Steinberg, Agnes Martin, and Roy Lichtenstein. For more archival interview goodness, see Jackson Pollock on art, labels, and morality and Frank Lloyd Wright on his famous peers, education, and New York City’s skyline.

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