At first glance these two paintings would appear to have little in common. In reality, both share not only the fact that they mark the maturation and, finally acclaimed, power of these two men in the World of art history, but are also both representing the same subject; that of expressing basic human emotion.
Mark Rothko and Francis Bacon were both born in the early twentieth century and lived traumatically unsettling lives. Each experienced not only personal anguish, but the anguish felt by the whole globe on witnessing the utter destruction and base nature of humanity displayed savagely through two, utterly hellish, World Wars and one, monstrous, atom bomb. Their final successes, the beginnings of which are portrayed here, stamp them in history to be two of the most emotionally charged Post-War artists in existence.
Their styles alien to one another, their effects intrinsically linked, both wielding their weapons of paint to pierce our souls and extract our emotion. Both paintings unlock our deep subconscious as well as releasing thoughts and feelings that often go unexplored.
Bacon's Study For Three Figures at The Base Of A Crucifixion, with its terrifying and surreal beasts of misery, terror and despair, yanks us brutally by the hair, forcing us to confront the horror of the nightmares that we all have deep within us. For Bacon these creatures were inspired by the Furies from Aeschylus's The Oresteia, implying themes of sin and guilt, but this knowledge is not even required for our individual reaction. Bacon confronts us with the sense of the worst of images that occasionally flick into our minds at such times as when we hear incomprehensible accounts of man's capacity for utter evil, be it the holocaust, a rape, a child killer. When we find ourselves picturing unspeakable acts and we rapidly bury the images out of fear and a sense of guilt for even considering them. Such thoughts make us shudder, we never mention them, we quickly distract ourselves and feel relief that no one can read our minds, feeling grotesque for having the ability and fascination to visualise them. Bacon takes that perverse darkness and burns it into our memory with this savage triptych.
Bacon shocks us so profoundly by creating these three, trapped, menacingly tragic, surreal creatures that we believe exist as we feel their despair to our core. Their ambiguity makes us think about them, makes them exist in our mind, makes them real. These implacable images are made all the more powerful through his use of the unsettling expressionistic, visceral colour stimulating a deep and disturbing reaction.
“Bacon had seen how the Surrealists equated the desire to express something new with the need to shock, and it was to form the core of his own artistic belief”
Even before we view the painting the elegiac title alone creates a sense of foreboding, reverence, guilt and fear from the dire subject of the crucifixion that haunts any school child who was confronted with the horror of the crucifixion during religious teachings from an early age.He takes this all too familiar concept and heightens our perception with creatures that surpass our wildest imaginations in depicting the sense of desolate, helplessness. Their elongated, bowing necks, their disabled bodies, vulnerability manifested through blindfolds, unjointed, useless or completely lacking limbs and their terrifying mouths that were to become an obsession throughout Bacon's works.
Bacon's life itself was full of perverse brutality from being sadistically whipped as a sickly young boy on the orders of his militant father, to sadomasochistic homosexual lovers from a young age, sometimes leaving him fearing for his own life. When acknowledging these events, surrounded by the violence of the political unrest in his childhood Ireland and the destruction the two wars reaped on the architecture and fabric of British society, we can understand more the places where these disturbingly phallic, wretched beasts come from. Bacon unashamedly throws himself onto the canvas, he holds back nothing, protects us from nothing, just as he was made to toughen up as a child, we too must accept the horror behind the work and admit the truth of the depravity present in humanity.
A pre-World War Two public, however, did not seem ready to be confronted with such honesty, as we see demonstrated here by a critic for The Times 16th February 1934
“The difficulty with Mr. Francis Bacon is to know how far his paintings and drawings – at the new Transition Gallery in the basement of Sunderland House, Curzon Street – may be regarded as artistic expression and how far as the mere unloading on canvas and paper of what used to be called the subconscious mind . As the later they are not much consequence – except by way of release to the artist.”
It is as though the images and nightmares of Francis Bacon's mind could only be appreciated by the World after the Second World War, suddenly the horrors lived in everyone's minds and the knowledge of the concentration camps adds a painful potency to the anguish one feels when looking at the work.
In the same way as Francis Bacon, Mark Rothko had never found the means to express his inner turmoil in a satisfactorily universal way until the Second World War had penetrated the minds of society. He too had witnessed brutal violence as a child, with the Cossacks persecuting the Jews in his birthplace of Dvinsk in Poland, and had grown up hearing the horror stories of mass graves and the executions of his contemporaries. He was however protected from direct persecution after being exiled to America before the First World War but he grew up living with a sense of alienation and fear of violence. However, when looking at the two works, it is clear that Rothko found a way to express his inner conflict at being a human in a very different manner.
On first glance of Untitled 1951-52, with its yellow luminosity and flat plains of colour, one would be forgiven for equating the following quotation to be more likely from Bacon than Rothko on his aims as an artist:
“I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom....”
Rothko, unlike Bacon with his leading title and palpable creatures, has shed all that is tangible and completely cast aside objects, giving us no clue to his intended meaning. The only direction we get as a viewer is from the painting itself, from how it affects us when we connect with it. We struggle when using words to interpret a painting that is designed to transcend vocabulary and speak straight to a universal inner being. It would be easier to make a sound to convey how the blocks of colour make us feel than to articulate it, yet as we stare into the painting and react to its depth of colour, we know we are being communicated with but just not how.
We become like a newly born baby, blurry eyed, viewing the world through abstract shapes of colour, the difference being that we have a matured relationship and reaction to colour, we have had experiences of it in all its many forms throughout our entire lives and when we stare into the Rothko, our senses remember what has gone before and react accordingly.
The nuclear yellow strip across the centre, made all the more vivid from the frothing strip of red below, pulls us desperately towards the horizon. Its easy to see a foaming red sea, as the upper part of the canvas becomes a dark sulphur sky but then the skilfully soft edge put around the entire piece reminds us that we are just looking at blocks of colour but are reacting to it in an entirely new way:
“They are not decorative, seductive and sensuous; thus they do not fulfil the familiar expectations of colour. Instead, they evoke other-than-sensuous qualities”. Mark RothkoIt is through intense colour that we find another similarity between the two paintings. The burning orange of the Bacon creates a disturbing intensity, a vivid rage that contrasts with cold dead greys of the flesh. Rothko uses the mastery of contrast here too on an even greater level, an omnipotent energy comes from hot red radiating through the dirty yellow, interestingly switching the light in the bottom half as coming from red as opposed to the yellow of the horizon. We are then grounded by the melancholy bluey pool of the rectangle at the base. Contemplating the pool it becomes not blue or purple but more grey and again this searing red, it is like the contrast of a volcano with the inert plumes of dead ash atop of a mass of swirling, unimaginable heat and energy.
Such a subjective depiction feels entirely presumptuous when verbalised, particularly when comparing with the Bacon, who's emotion is so raw, forceful and undeniable that it is apparent even on a small reproduction, however, this is not the case for the Rothko who's presence can only be felt when stood up close in front of the large canvas. Once you leave Untitled 1951-52, the impression of it remains with you, its energy is imprinted just like that of the Study For Three Figures, but you find it much harder to understand why.
As war raged across the World, Rothko experimented frustratedly with surrealism and symbolism, distorted figures and clenched fists. How and what to paint following the horrors of the war plagued artists, Rothko's friend Barnett Newman talked of how artists could never paint the same things again, so profound was the affect he actually ceased painting all together for four years. Rothko persevered, yearning to find that perfect means of pure expression, natural and intimate and at last he came to the answer through the total abandonment of form, replacing it with abstracted blurred rectangles of colour.
In 1949 Rothko saw Matisse Red Studio and finally he truly understood the visceral effect of liberating colour.Rothko had been struggling to express his thoughts on the condition of humanity but in Untitled c1951-52 Matisse's violent red is used to stir something deep within our souls. We can feel it buried under the other colours and yearn for its ferocity and fortitude. This painting could be a metaphor for the surreal suburban America of the “Fabulous 1950s”. Rothko had miraculously survived unscathed when thousands of Jews had been viscously slaughtered. He had been transported to this strange, untouchable place, very different to Bacon's Britain all battered and bombed, financially stricken, mutilated war heroes a constant reminder. Bacon's surroundings matched his inner experiences but Rothko was an alien in a capitalist, bravado fuelled all American, baby booming wonderland. Industry, huge cars, technology, big smiles, painted white picket fences superseded the atom bomb. This painting with its eerily supernatural colours, masking the vengeance beneath. Rothko's red here is Bacon's Furies in Three Studies For Figures at The Base Of The Crucifixion.
There are other things we can discuss to draw parallels with the works, both paintings have their own constructed movement. In the Rothko the vicissitude of the colours creates recession and expansion giving life and breath to the work, it shifts and radiates in front of us. In Bacon's the heat of the orange makes the cold figures droop and melt all the more, reinforced by the elongated hanging necks that contrast with the diagonal lines of perspective in the background. The strong upward shriek of the scream in the third beast, an agonising fight against its hunched body with the strange upward mass of the thorny shadow beneath it. The triptych canvasses move our vision from one to the next and back again in the same way as the blocks of colour in the Rothko, the large scale of both works pulls us, sucks us into the action.
What is of more interest and more thoroughly uniting than the techniques and execution of the works is the complexity of the thoughts and the depths of emotions that culminated in their creations. As Bacon states,
“the greatest art always returns you to the vulnerability of the human situation”
Both paintings have progressed from the Surrealists fascination of unlocking the subconscious mind, on to unlocking and then extracting buried emotions, neither being satisfied with creating a merely hallucinogenic dreamlike depiction. Rothko said of Surrealism
“The surrealist has uncovered the glossary of myth and has established a congruity between the phantasmagoria of the unconscious and the objects of everyday life. This congruity constitutes the exhilarated tragic experience which for me is the only source book for art. But I love both the object and the dream far to much to have them effervesced into the insubstantiability of memory and hallucination”.
The need for Rothko's “tragic experience” and Bacon's “brutality of fact” are the key to the successes of these works as, undeniably, is the timing of their creations. Without the wars the artists may not have had the emotional material to create them and many of the viewers would not have the depth of understanding to read them.
“Its the old idea of classical Greek theatre: the public came to experience feelings of terror and thereby purge their passions” Francis Bacon.
These are paintings that are beautiful yet terrible, they are disturbingly honest and make us look inside ourselves in a way that had not seemed possible before. They were not the first to react to and to depict man's brutality, it is a shameful recurring inevitability, and many artists have affected us and profoundly moved us with their works around the subject of war and tragedy. It is how Bacon and Rothko pierce so directly to our cores using their own completely intangible instinct, they have managed to express something so innately personal and inexplicable to themselves, a thing so honest and uncorrupted and pure that it becomes a universal truth and that is when art is at its most fine.