Surrealism and Bacon’s Room – an Exhibition Review

Image Credit: Photograph of Francis Bacon Studio by Perry Ogden (1998). Collection & image © Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin (Reg. No. 1963.14). © Estate of Francis Bacon

Jonathan Daleo investigates Francis Bacon’s exhibition in the Hugh Lane Gallery, with respect to Surrealism.

“I believe in a deeply ordered chaos”: a quote from Francis Bacon’s interview with the South Bank Show. An oxymoron if there ever was one. How can an order exist within chaos? The answer lies within a room-sized exhibition in the Hugh Lane gallery, Bacon’s studio. The exhibit was donated to Hugh Lane in 1998 and unveiled in 2001, the reconstruction of which was surely difficult. Bacon’s studio, at first glance, appears to be nothing more than an odd novelty in art history. This is further from the truth than can be conveyed in mere words. Bacon’s studio tells us an important story, of his inspiration and his chaotic muse.

“Bacon’s studio tells us an important story, of his inspiration and his chaotic muse.”

Ironically, the exhibit itself is aesthetically clean and minimalist. Black scrawling over the walls detailing Bacon and his life, the context behind the room’s creation. Small lights dangle from the ceiling to light up the paintings and nothing else. A dissonance exists between the chaos of Bacon and his habitat, against the clean and minimal museum surroundings. A harsh utilitarianism collides with an uncontrolled space. It resonates with Bacon’s idea of controlled chaos. 

While Bacon himself was certainly unique, it is nonetheless important to discuss his relationship to Surrealism for us to understand the nature of his exhibit. Picasso’s works inspired Bacon to become an artist, and Sergei Eisenstein’s film, Battleship Potemkin, 1925, which inspired many of his screaming paintings. Eisenstein’s work with the Proletkult, a Soviet Russian collective of Futurists and Constructivists, would either deliberately or subconsciously become an inspiration for Bacon. Picasso’s Biomorphism and Surrealism would undoubtedly also contribute. Picasso was involved with Surrealist cliques, especially with the founder of the Surrealism movement and former Dadaist, André Breton.

Bacon’s interview, which is played at Hugh Lane, reveals that he does not prepare his canvas with pencils prior to his painting, stating, “…it is so much better to immediately attack the canvas.” On the topic of unconsciousness, Bacon said, “I hope the most wonderful images emerge from [the unconscious].” After this, he contradicts himself by agreeing that his works are ordered. This inspiration is undoubtedly a conglomeration of Eisenstein’s Proletkult work, a highly centralized art form, and Breton, along with Picasso’s Surrealism and the chaos which emerges from it.

“Beauty will be convulsive or not at all.”

Breton wrote in his 1928 novel, Nadja, “Beauty will be convulsive or not at all.” Surrealist Automatism was a term coined during the Surrealist Manifesto, as Breton put it – “…the real working of the mind. Dictated by the unconscious…free from aesthetic or moral preoccupations”. Bacon’s work undoubtedly follows this doctrine laid out in the Surrealist Manifesto. The exhibit at the Hugh Lane tells a story, that Bacon’s own workspace embodies the very art he tried to create. Bacon’s room is worth visiting, specifically to understand what a Surrealist painter’s mindset, and by extension their material space, can have on their art.