Does drawing express truths about the artist
or the subject they depict? Does drawing express any truths at all? What are truths in drawing? To question the
meaning of truth in drawing, we must first look at the debate about truth in
art in general first.
The quest to discover whether or not
there is any truth in art had long been undertaken by philosophers in the past,
beginning in Plato’s time. However, “truth” was often conflated with the idea
of “knowledge” when evaluating what we can learn from art. While the two terms
are interchangeable in some cases, this epistemological approach sometimes veers
towards comparisons with scientific and philosophical achievements, and has in
worst cases, denigrated any presence of artistic truth to a “sport”, as
Stolnitz (1992) had done. British philosopher Louis Arnaud Reid proposes that
art does attempt at knowledge but
that it is not “true” to reality as science is; instead, art presents “embodied
meaning” (1964, p. 326) that initiates us into “experiences of the nature of
man or of the forms of the external world” (ibid, p. 324). This “embodied
meaning” echoes one of the three truths in art formulated by Alexander Sesonske,
which he calls “embodied truths” and which conveys “ordinary truths of
experience” (1956, p. 351).
In this essay, I will investigate what
these embodied truths might refer to in the two artworks I’ve chosen to
analyse. Taking the concept of drawing broadly as to mean “a material process
in which the residue of media is used to make marks on a surface” (Hosea, 2010,
p. 354), I will look a self-portrait and a portrait, both painted by Francis
Bacon. In the first part, I will assess elements such as reflection and shadows
in Bacon’s self-portrait and examine how they bring up questions surrounding bodily
identity and subjectivity. In the second part, the idea of the body as the
intermediary between the self and the outside world will be expanded upon by
taking a closer look at how the skin of the subjects portrayed are painted. Owing
to Bacon’s characteristic way of “distorting” his figures, I will also touch
upon the topic of mimetic/non-mimetic representation. Finally, I will conclude my
opinions on whether truths in drawing pertains to the artist or the subject and
perhaps even argue about whether the definition of “truth” in drawing is as
clear cut as we think.
In my analysis of both paintings, I
will be mainly taking a psychoanalytical approach, drawing from Jacques Lacan’s
theory of the mirror stage and supplementing it with Bacon’s own words from his
interviews with David Sylvester.
Fig. 1: Bacon, Francis. (1973) Self-Portrait Oil on canvas
Bacon’s Self-Portrait (1973) exudes
an air of quiet and stillness. In it, we
see a figure, who we can assume is Bacon himself, propped against a sink. He looks
mentally distraught. We do not know what it is that distresses him but as a
self-portrait, how the subject is represented can inform us of the truth about
how he views himself.
Questions around the subject’s
identity is reflected in the “mirror” and in the play of light and shadow.
Reflection and Shadows
On the right hand side of the background,
we see an ambiguous image. What at first looks like a narrow doorway leading out
to a landing blurs into a reflection of the figure in the room. Yet the reflection
is warped; we do not see the back of the figure. Instead, we see the figure
diagonally from behind, a quarter of his face hidden by a trunk-like extension,
and the stool has instead transformed into a chair. Most notably, the figure is
set against a blue backdrop that brings to mind the sky, somewhere outside.
The “mirror” is thus a window into the
outside world, and by looking at the “mirror”, we are taking up an objective
view of the subject. The distorted form of the subject in the “outside world”
would then suggest that we perceive the subject differently compared to how the
subject perceives himself in his mind. Similarly, when the subject looks into
the mirror, he also battles with conflicted views of himself because he has to
link his experiential idea of a self with the objectified image of himself.
This division between objective and
subjective view of oneself stems from the “mirror stage” in the development of
human subjectivity, a theory accredited to French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan
(2006, p.94-100). During this stage, the infant identifies with an external
image of him/herself and thence forms a mental representation of an “I”. This
consciousness forms the infant’s Ego. However, because the wholeness of the
mirrored self does not correspond to the infant’s underdeveloped physical
abilities, the image thus becomes an “Ideal-I” in the subject’s mind – an
“other” that the subject will continue to strive for throughout his/her life.
To refer to this mental experience of “interiority” that accompanies the “I”
formed in the mirror stage, Lacan calls it Innenwelt
(inner world). In contrast, Umwelt
refers to the “environment” or “surrounding”. What is interesting to point out
here is that the Innenwelt is said to
manifest itself in dreams as protected, enclosed spaces.
Looking back at Fig 1, we can consider
the confined space as the subject’s Innenwelt
and the “mirror” as the Umwelt. Within
the room (the subject’s mind), the figure we see is whole and stable, therefore
he can only be the subject’s “other” (“Ideal-I”), not his “I”.
So where is his “I”? His seat of mind?
The figure’s seated positions clues us in on this matter. As he is transfixed
in his thoughts, his head angles to the left of the painting, directly towards
the light bulb. The fact that the light bulb has long been culturally
associated with notions of invention and intelligence in the West (REF) intimates its symbol in this painting as the core
of the subject’s mind – his consciousness, his Ego, his “I”. This also
substantiates its spectral quality, the fact that it seems to blend into the
walls, to have long been part of the subject’s inner world.
Since the seated figure (“other”) is
positioned directly in between the subject’s “I” and the outside world, it
seems that it is this ideal image that the subject has of himself that is the
intersection between his inner world and the outside world. The confliction we
see in the figure is thus his struggle with the different perceptions of his
We can see how this struggle is
embodied in the interplay between light, the figure’s body and his shadow.
If we look at Fig 1 as a two
dimensional painting rather than a painted three dimensional room, we can make
out the source of light that produces the figure’s shadow on the floor and on
the sink as coming from the light bulb and the outside respectively. Now, for
the outside to shine a light into the room is to hypothesise what the outside
world would see if given the ability to look inside the subject’s inner world.
Since it makes the figure cast a solid shadow on the sink, it means that the figure
is perceived as object and whole. Indeed, because the only image that the
subject has of himself is that ideal “other”, the “other” is what the outside
world would see as well.
On the other hand, the light bulb makes
the figure cast a blurry shadow on the floor. Because we know the light bulb
represents the subject’s “I” rather than a literal object, the hazy shadow can
be read as the “I”‘s attempt to materialise itself, to become whole like the
“other”, yet failing to do so. This means that the subject is essentially the opposite of object and whole – he is fragmented.
Ultimately, the subject’s experience of a fragmented self can only be conveyed
through his shadows, the non-physical elements that are nonetheless still part
Bakhtin (1986, quoted in van Alphen,
1998, p. 115), writes that:
body is not something self-sufficient: it needs the other Other, needs
his recognition and form-giving activity. Only the inner body (the body
experienced as heavy) is given to a
human being himself; the other’s outer body is not given but set as a task: I must actively produce
It is precisely because we habitually
set ourselves the task of giving others their form that we equate the notion of
a person as a whole body, and therefore we only see the subject’s “other”, not
his “I”. Hence, this painting exemplifies the
impossible reconciliation of subjective identity and the outside world. It
embodies truth about the artist and subject’s (one and the same person) perception
of his own identity and, I would
argue, truth about a common human experience that allows us to empathise with
the subject in the first place.
Fig. 2: Bacon, Francis. (1970) Studies of George Dyer and Isabel Rawsthorne Oil on canvas
In contrast to Fig 1, Fig 2 is a set
of portraits that focuses on the subjects’ faces. While Fig 1 can be seen as a
confrontation between the artist/subject and the world, in which the way we
perceive other people reflects how the subject is represented, Fig 2 is a
confrontation between the two subjects in the painting, with no outside
Similar to Fig 1, Fig 2 also refers to
the idea of a fragmented self and the influence of the Other, but this time by way of correlating the subjects’ facial
distortion with the mere fact that the subjects are facing each other.
Bacon’s signature way of distorting his
subjects’ faces reflects how he thinks appearances constantly change from
moment to moment, how it is a “continuously floating thing” (Sylvester, 1999,
p. 118). However, this deformity also inadvertently makes us question the thing
that most of us take for granted: our skin. What is the skin? What is its
function? And what can Bacon’s way of distorting it tell us about the subject
and perhaps even himself?
The skin is important because it is
the interface of the body; it
“provides the ground for the articulation of orifices, erotogenic rims, cuts on
the body’s surface, loci of exchange between the inside and the outside, points
of conversion of the outside into the body, and of the inside out of the body.”
(Grosz, 1994, quoted in Wegenstein, 2014, p. 26)
To this, Dyer’s (left) drastically distorted face instantiates the intersection of
his internal and external – the skin is in places bumpy, flat, bruised, or
off-colour. It is intact, it is missing, and it is sometimes taken over by
bone-like structures, tissues that connect yet disrupt the surface of his face.
It is as if his skin is malleable and imprecise, threatening to spill out his
insides and devour what is outside at the same time. It suggests that his
bodily wholeness is violated by forces
invisible to our eyes. At the same time, it also means that the Other’s gaze
fails to give him subjective
wholeness. (The “Other” in this case is Rawsthorne on the right.) The
fragmented appearance of Dyer is an explicit representation of his fragmented inner
Likewise, Dyer’s gaze does
not give Rawsthorne either bodily wholeness or subjective wholeness. As we can
see, Rawsthorne’s facial features are relatively discernible, but only up to a
certain point; a portion of her nose seems to have been severed off by her
shadow just as a portion of her shadow is cut off mid-air. There is an observed
co-dependency between her face and her shadow for we cannot discern the complete
silhouette of one without the other.
Ultimately, as van
Alphen puts it succinctly, the visual relationship in Bacon’s diptych “does not
define, but undoes, the characters”. (van Alphen, 1998, p. 117)
Whose truth is
It is particularly interesting to question what “truth” means in paintings
that teeter between figuration and abstraction such as Bacon’s portraits. On
the surface, “truth” is meant as a correspondence to “fact”, to “reality”, a
sense of “likeness” that is unanimously agreed on by the viewers. Bacon’s
rendition of his subjects might not be considered a mimetic or naturalistic
portrayal, “fact”, “reality” and “likeness” are nonetheless things that he strived
for in his paintings (Sylvester, 1999, pp. 66, 146).
To be sure, Bacon’s portrait of Dyer and Rawsthorne do resemble the
subjects themselves in real life, and thus it can be said to be true to the
subjects depicted. However, because what Bacon ultimately aimed to do was to
make his subjects look real to himself, “real to the way he feels about the
painting” and “real to the instinct” (ibid,
p. 164), it is
clear he sought to primarily express his own truths (his personal feelings) through capturing the subject’s truth
(the subject’s appearance). Therefore, the artist’s truth is prioritised and
embodied in the work.
Definitions of “truth” are wide-ranging and thus different approaches
can be taken in which things like literal likeness of subject or biographical
accuracy take the centre stage. My analysis of Bacon’s work leads me to
conclude that both Fig 1 and 2 expresses truth that is more geared towards the
artist only because I chose to focus on what truths they embody. Nevertheless, by
taking a psychoanalytical approach to the analysis of artworks, meaningful
connections can be made and consequently, “knowledge” about human nature can be