Friday, 29 February 2008

COMMENTARY: ‘Portrait of Henrietta Moraes on a Blue Couch' by Francis Bacon (1965)

Published: STUDENT DIRECT, February 2008

This painting by Francis Bacon is made precisely of what gave the English artist his international reputation in the 1950’s. It’s style and distortion of the subject matter, which is deeply immersed in expressionism, creates a haunting and disturbing image. Indeed, Bacon once said that he created his paintings from photographs because of ‘the injury I do to them in my work’.

It should be noted that Francis Bacon never wanted us to view his paintings as story-telling, instead he wanted his art to portray ‘the story and the sensation cut down to its most elemental state’ (John Russell Francis Bacon, p.122). If you stand before the ‘Portrait of Henrietta Moraes on a Blue Couch’, located in the Manchester Art Gallery, you see that this is exactly what Bacon achieves. His terrible, but at the same time beautiful, portrayal of the female form exposes the interior and bare elements of humanity. What we see in Bacon’s work is not necessarily how a human body appears, but more how it feels, how it is carried, the softness of its skin, the weight of its meat and the fluidity of its movements and behavior.

As in many of Bacon’s paintings, Henrietta Moraes is shown as an isolated figure, alone in a dark room. You are instantly struck by the violence with which he portrays the human body; his thickly smeared oil paint conveys energetically the curves and movements of naked flesh. However, interestingly, the point of focus in this painting is not the writhing and morphed body of Henrietta, but the bright yellow handle. Like a guide it leads the viewer to the open door in the contrasting linear background, which offers escape from the horror before you. Additionally the blue couch seems alive and organic, curving like a surging dark wave about to carry and envelope her out of the picture in to the deep fiery red beyond.

The distinct left foot and sensual leg of Henrietta carries the eye up the body to her even further warped face. Standing out of the strokes and twists of anguish, the face seems to portray again this sense of innermost nature. Her pronounced eye is closed as if peacefully asleep, contradicting the rest of her body. This tells us that the distress portrayed by Bacon’s brush is possibly metaphorical. The intensity of individualism shown in this detail produces vitality within Bacon’s portraiture and shows that his distortion does nothing to damage the subject’s identity.

Instead the pictures lack of clarity seems to send us straight into Henrietta’s self, where there is no room for beauty or ugliness. It shows the contrast between the, often serene, outward appearance of humanity and the motions and unrest that continually take place within the human body and brain. Bacon portrays the darker aspects that reside in everyone and the chance to confront this, especially considering that Bacon destroyed much of his work, should not be missed.

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