Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne (1966) ; GREAT WORKS ++ Francis Bacon ++ Tate

By Lubbock, Tom | The Independent (London, England), February 9, 2007 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne (1966) ; GREAT WORKS ++ Francis Bacon ++ Tate


Lubbock, Tom, The Independent (London, England)


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 rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne (1966) ; GREAT WORKS ++ Francis Bacon ++ Tate
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?