Bacon, Francis: Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne (1966)

The Independent's Great Art series


Also in this article:



About the artist

The magic of painting! The phrase sounds a little too dumbstruck, too starry-eyed, too much like salesmanship. It's the title of a book or a TV series. It wants you to believe that the wonderful world of painting is a charmed and enchanted realm, where the masters wield their brushes like some fairy-godmother waving her stardust-sprinkling wand.

But if you mean magic as in magic trick, stage conjuring, prestidigitation, then you won't be so wrong. Painting is another art where the action of the performer's hand beguiles the spectator's eye. It's another art where the spectator's role is not simply to be amazed, but to keep trying, and failing, to see how it is done.

And don't only think of trompe l'oeil. The range of painting's magic is wider than mere illusionism. The critic Diderot was always calling Chardin a magician. The word recurs in his praise of the still life painter: "Here you are again, great magician..." "You can't fathom this magic." "A magic to make you despair..." But the magic resided, not in illusion, but in transmutation. "Oh Chardin! what you mix on your palette is not white, red and black: it's the very substance of things..."

What Diderot admired was the way Chardin can make the material world slip into the matter of the paint itself, as if the object depicted had pressed through the surface of the canvas and become a flake of tangible pigment.

Sometimes you can fathom how Chardin achieves these transformations. He makes the most of any physical likeness between things and paint. Paint is applied in strokes. Things are made of strands. Equate them. Render, with distinct strands of paint, pieces of string, sticks of cane woven in a basket, a tendon in a cut of meat. Match texture for texture. Do the hairs of a rabbit-skin, an onion's spray of hair-thin roots, with the visible hair marks of the brush. Note the way that nature, like paint, is laid on in layers. Make the paint mimic the powdery layer of flour on a loaf, the dusty bloom of a plum, the sticky charring of a pot.

Those are some of Chardin's tricks. Their object is to heighten the virtual reality of the image, by fusing it imperceptibly with the real tangible stuff of the paint. But the same kind of magic can be performed for the opposite reason: to make the image mysteriously disintegrate before your eyes. The great conjurer of modern art is Francis Bacon.

Bacon's Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne is in some ways a conventional painting. It has the size and shape and layout and pose of any bourgeois head-and-shoulders portrait - a standard upright oblong format, with the sitter sitting up within it, and the face placed in the top half of the picture and more or less in the middle. It would be a dramatic image: the head is made to stand out starkly against the uniform black background, while the lower body is very sketchily realised. But many modern portraits might take these liberties. It's around the face that Bacon starts to conjure.

And as he mixes his white, red and black, what substance can be grasped? Yet there wouldn't be any bafflement if the face was totally ungraspable, just a featureless mess. If it wasn't solidly and plausibly there, none of the other stuff that happens to it would be so sensitive, disruptive, disorienting.

The basic outline of a head, and its basic forms, and its familiar landmarks, are clearly established. There's a halo of hair, a brow, two eyes, cheekbones, a nostril, a big mouth, all roughly in the right places. And there's sufficient shading and highlighting to build up a feeling of three-dimensional solidity. True, there are style jumps. The right eye is cartooned. The lips have a subtle photo-realism. And there are some signs of caricature and distortion. But a real enough face is there.

Only at moments, though. At other moments all is lost, as the flesh slips, swerves and dissolves, going into smears and blurs, fugitive transparencies and quick dematerialisations. It can look like physical violation, as if the poor face had been sliced up and sutured, run over, melted, corroded, burnt. Or it can look like optical confusion, as with a photographic double exposure. Or it can look like something supernatural, an ectoplasmic manifestation.

Some of the transformations are obviously physically impossible. For example, the rapid fade to black in her lower right cheek is something that's done to the painted image, but couldn't happen to an actual body. An image can fade away at the edges. Flesh can't. But because the picture has done enough to establish that there's a solid face there, even this effect feels like a kind of physical mutation, as if here a face really had - somehow - evaporated into thin air.

The strangest mutation is yet to come. There are points where the image suddenly breaks the surface. Bacon's painting is mostly quite flat and thin. But just occasionally one of his swerving brushstrokes will seem to rise and materialise as a visible, tangible gout of pigment. It happens at the corner of the mouth, with that fat, white, inarticulate slick.

Unlike Chardin, this surface-stroke has left depiction far behind. It's a raw blot or slurp. It's as if the face, having passed through its various fluid transfigurations, had finally decomposed or curdled into this dead sticky matter; or as if, in its violence, it had squelched through the canvas and was slowly seeping.

But like Chardin, this is an art of imperceptible fusions, transitions and elisions, as it moves seamlessly between its different levels: the level of solid realism, of dissolution, of surface gunk and splatter. Bacon would never send the eye reeling, as he does, if it wasn't for his masterful sleight of hand.

This work is currently on display at Tate Britain as part of the BP British Art Displays 2007

About the artist

It used to be seen as a nightmare visionary. His Screaming Popes and Crucifixions are certainly horror shows, and his words were desolate. "I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, leaving a trail of the human presence as a snail leaves its slime." But this Soho bohemian was a social artist. Most pictures are portraits. The extreme facial variations are performed on friends and lovers. His colours are gorgeous. His lines have cartoon bounce. And since his death, his painting has begun to look less blood-curdling, less like human wreckage - and more sumptuous, energetic, playful, even jolly.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine