One day, Francis Bacon decided to paint a bird perching on the grass in a field. “All of a sudden, the lines I drew hinted at something completely different,” he told the art critic David Sylvester later. “From this hint a picture emerged. I had no intention of painting this. I didn’t think of anything like that. It just happened so, as if a series of accidents piled one on top of the other”. Bacon called the result simply: “Painting 1946”. David Sylvester called it even more simply: “the butcher-shop picture”.
In a rounded room that is draped with fresh minced meat-coloured curtains, a comfortably sitting man is surrounded by meat carcasses. He is quite dark and dapper, with a yellow boutonniere in his buttonhole, one leg thrown over the other. A round steel structure (you can find such ones in casinos) closes the space in front of it into a kind of arena. Bacon bets on black: the top of the man’s head is hidden in the thick shadow of a black umbrella. It is possible, however, that the gentleman does not have the upper part of the head.
Painting 1946 might be called an early anthology of the classic Baconian nightmares. Acting intuitively, the artist hit the jackpot. His subconscious mind has helpfully lined up a series of images and solutions for him that would take an important place in Baconian iconography. In a sense, this picture showed Bacon the direction for years to come.
A great lover of antique drama, he would enclose part of the space in a circle or cube again and again, assigning this geometric reservation the role of a stage, an amphitheatre, an arena, sometimes gladiatorial, and sometimes circus. He would generously feed the audience with meat, finding special beauty in the steamed carcasses. Mouths living on their own would become his obsession, umbrellas his favourite accessory. By the way, it was this umbrella, its debut appearance, that provoked the greatest number of interpretations among the critics. Someone considered the dark gentleman Neville Chamberlain, the overly peaceful Prime Minister of Great Britain, who often appeared in public with an umbrella, and even turned this innocent object into a symbol of connivance with fascist aggression for a while. Someone called the umbrella “the usual technique of surrealist phallic symbolism”. Someone reasoned that the umbrella is the perfect tool to hide the eyes and emphasize the mouth — a technique that has almost become a special feature of Bacon.
However, there is something that distinguishes Painting 1946 from most of Bacon’s canvases. Considering Bacon’s own standards, this is an unexpectedly straightforward statement that hardly needs complicated interpretations. Its essence is exhaustively formulated in the title. The painting corresponds to its time. It is the 20th century. When going to a dinner, make sure you are not on the menu.