Bacon, Francis: Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne (1966)

The Independent's Great Art series

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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.