Thursday, August 19, 2010

Francis Bacon's Cartoon and the Messianic Resemblance

     In its original meaning, “cartoon” refers neither to Sunday comics nor Saturday morning animation; instead, a cartoon was, originally, a large drawing on scrap paper used as a design, of the same size, for a painting, fresco, mosaic, or tapestry. The cartoon, then, stands in a curious relation with the artwork as such, with any given, reified work. Neither sketch nor artwork, the cartoon finds itself lodged in the gap between imagination and reality, the potentiality and the actuality of a given work of art. Structurally, the cartoon is a pre-resemblance to an artwork, art’s latent ghost showing up not post-mortem, but before the work is even born. And following Benjamin’s lead, could one argue that the cartoon lives in the daydreaming world of Proust’s cult of similarities?

     Take Francis Bacon’s “Two Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer.” Not part of a series, this painting’s two studies reside entirely within it. On the right, Bacon places the figure of George Dyer, seated legs crossed and staring without eyes beyond the canvas. On the left, situated upon a plane of monochromatic black, a second figure of Dyer, this time naked, his opposite leg crossed yet staring beyond its own plane into that of the first Dyer and out into the void beyond the canvas itself. This second figure, pinned to its own void-like plane, is, properly, a cartoon. A bizarre cartoon, however. The painting’s layout – seated portrait study, hovering canvas with corresponding and emerging portrait – harkens to a long tradition of meta-paintings (ala Velázquez or Rembrandt). Yet, what Bacon gives us is not a portrait, but another study in the form of a cartoon. Where we expect another canvas to stare back at us like an endless self-reflective hall of mirrors, we find such extension instantly foreclosed with a pinned down scrap of a painting (which, one immediately sees, resembles and plays with Bacon’s style from the 1950’s – those fleshy figures composed against black backgrounds).
     What is the relation between this cartoon and the seemingly absent work of art? Is there, somewhere, a destroyed canvas with a naked Dyer resembling this cartoon? That this cartoon bears a relation stretching forward in time as if it were an as-yet-unrealized work is, given the title and dynamics of this work, difficult to support. Rather, we see a suspension of the traditional cartoon-artwork relationship. Instead of the cartoon serving as a latent painting whose potentiality is swallowed up in the final work, Bacon places the cartoon in relation to the painting itself as if the two were coeval. The two figures are, after all, the two “studies” for an as-yet-unrealized work (such a title is a typical gesture of Bacon’s). The cartoon, then, resembles the portrait, the portrait the cartoon, each locked in a discontinuous connectivity stretching from one plane to another.
     From this discontinuous connectivity arises something miraculous. As the stylistic clues the cartoon throws at us, what the cartoon itself resembles in the portrait (the more-or-less “realistic” Dyer) is the lived experience of a living being. Yet not just any old “experience.” As with Bacon’s work in the fifties (“Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X,” in particular; Figure 1, below) this cartoon constructs through indirection an image of pure sensorial experience. Yet where the “Study” used Eisenstein’s nurse (in Battleship Potemkin; see Figure 2, below) to refract how lived experience can be captured by some external force (how the experience of the body’s contortion in terror is constrained by a filmic image), the cartoon itself constructs a shimmering reflection of the lived experience of a living being’s simple, profound, and immanent flow – the body pulsing unknowably through veins, the flesh wincing unnoticeable underneath a gaze. Here the filter that illuminates experience is not an apparatus the living being experiences through (as with the nurse-pope), but a messianic sieve with which the living being’s experience is rendered visible.
     Just as Proust’s endless projections of similarities open upon a messianic world wherein living being can stand in relation with its own nature, Bacon’s cartoon bears the image of such a messianic being standing in resemblance to itself.

Figure 1: "Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X", 1953

                                  Figure 2: Still from Battleship Potemkin

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