Arts, Venue

Bacon and Munch’s depiction of horror

There is more horror to be found in life and reality than there is in a painting depicting blood, monsters or ghosts. There is something more worrying about an image that is frozen, immovable, and unable to be removed from your mind’s eye, than there is in a scene that may soon progress to a satisfying conclusion. There is a more alarming sense of fragility to be found in depicting pain, torture and suffering, or in depicting the ‘ghost’ of an emotion or memory that is mentally haunting the subject of a piece, than there is in sitting in a darkened cinema room waiting for the jump scare.

You never know in a painting by Edvard Munch or Francis Bacon what the conclusion will be. Will the fearful adolescent girl make it through puberty without deep mental scars? Will the Pope be freed from its cage, as it sits with its knuckles clenched over the armrests of its throne? Are the two lovers, who have become so passionate that their faces have merged into one, going to be intertwined forever, they are so scared of losing each other?

The works of Francis Bacon, many of which still hang in the Sainsbury Centre, induce within the viewer the combined reaction of both intrigue and repulsion, his subjects appearing to be forever trapped screaming in a noiseless canvas. Often painted with black backgrounds, smudged faces and distorted figures, pale bodies hanging from the faintly drawn lines of cages as if they are slabs of meat, you cannot help but feel in danger of slipping into Bacon’s bleak outlook on life that he appears to possess.

But as much as Bacon is horrifying, his works have not much subtlety. They hit you in the face with their grotesqueness. Edvard Munch, on the other hand, is a much more subtle and masterful artist when it comes to portraying pain and torture. He was also a source of inspiration and influence for Bacon’s works, particularly in Munch’s use of skewed faces and figures that effectively represented the inner emotional turmoil of not just the sitter, but Munch as well, the most famous and notable example being The Scream.

Munch understands that fear does not need to be depicted with such powerful, aggressive brushstrokes as Bacon uses, but can instead be portrayed with the tiniest marks.

Take the girl in Munch’s Puberty, staring at you with her tiny, timid eyes. There is something within those eyes, in Munch’s tiny brushstrokes, conveying fear on an epic, life-changing scale — namely, the fear of puberty. This feeling instilled within the viewer is then elevated through the earthy Rembrandt-esque lighting, and the presence of a grotesque, inhuman-looking shadow that seems to have attached itself to the girl. Just an absence of light, you say? Or the ghost of something haunting her? You cannot help but feel steadily uneasier the longer you look at the painting.

Of course, it is a matter of preference which artist you like, be it Bacon’s distorted humanoid figures who look as if they are being tortured by a spiritual person or thing, or Munch’s symbolic portrayals of human fear and suffering. But to see such portrayals of fear in art can only be a good thing; for it is a human emotion, and is part of human nature.

Bacon and Munch’s paintings can display empathy towards the viewer’s own sufferings, most notably with fear, and make the viewer not feel so alone in their emotions, for empathy in itself can help dwindle the feeling of horror.


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December 2021
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