How evil! How interesting!

People are more interested in evil than in goodness, over ten times so, to be linguistically precise. A thesaurus gives you over 50 synonyms and only 4 antonyms for the noun “evil”.

People don’t want to be evil, but they are attracted to it so much they’ve invented a word for each and every aspect of it. These words give people a rainbow of meanings, all the way from absolute evil to its mildest form, “wicked”, which is even sexier than the cover-winning combination of “upright, fit and sun-tanned”.

We never ask for details when we are told someone is a good person. “She’s a good woman” fatally poisons a conversation with incurable boredom. A casual remark, “oh, but he is an evil man” is guaranteed to be followed by the excited “Did he kill anyone?”, “How many did he kill?”, and “Is he single?”

We are drawn to evil, but we don’t like it too close to ourselves. We prefer to be interested in it at a safe distance. We read books about evil, like Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky, or we watch movies about evil, like Omen, to learn the 50+ shades of evil because we want to be able to recognise it when it gets to us. How can we know the steak is good unless we heard of someone who had the nasty experience of having their cutlet well-done when they specifically insisted on “Medium-rare, s’il vous plaît”? I know this is a bad example, as it is obviously beyond evil.

Evil’s extreme manifestations are well-known and easy-to-recognise (rape, murder, and not putting your plate in the dishwasher after dinner). The problem with evil is that its everyday presence is not necessarily registered, even if you’ve read the full set of 19th century Russian writers, correspondence included. 

Everyday evil is clever, cunning, and has changed its Prada shoes for another luxury brand since its Prada addiction became known.

At times like this, painters come to the rescue.

They can’t surpass Guy Ritchie in parading all sorts of murder, excel in a zombie apocalypse better than, well, Zombie Apocalypse, or outperform Justin Bieber in raping music, but they can show the banality of everyday evil in such a way that we look at it, recognise it, and know what we must do to liberate ourselves from it, or at least compensate for it with something good (Important notice: I am NOT advocating alcohol under “something good” here. Strong alcohol doesn’t give answers, it just helps to forget the questions. Hangovers are never wicked, they’re always hell-approved evil!)

The first painting on everyday evil that comes to mind is The Study After Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Francis Bacon (painted in 1953).

innocent

In my previous post about Good-and-Evil balance in great works of art, I wrote about this painting, as a rare example of art that shows mostly evil but creates something good in the mind of the viewer.

What is the first impression this painting creates in the mind of most viewers (who are at least aware this is not a drag-queen, but a man in the picture)?

The man is suffering and screaming in a way that you’d expect a tormented soul in Hell to suffer and scream. In a contest of Painting-Hell-Convincingly this work is guaranteed to come first.

It is generally accepted that there’s nothing good in Hell, for it will be no different from the regular life were there anything worth a second look. And while there are people who find screaming men enjoyable, I prefer to believe none of them can be found among my readers. So what good can come out of this painting?

Oh, but at this point, the second wave of impressions and questions hits the viewer. And this time, it is more personal and subjective.

The instinctive reaction to a screaming man is to wonder what made him scream. Our brain does it involuntarily: we want to safeguard ourselves against a possible danger. We want to have this question answered before we dial 911.

Different people answer this question differently, but there are three interpretations that are most popular:

Art historian: “The man of power vents out his frustration, isolation, inner torments, and anger. He is rooted to his chair which is grounded in some hidden depths we don’t even see. He can’t move. He has to sit in that chair of power that seems to be torturing him.” 

Philosopher: “This is an ordinary man who is tied up by his responsibilities (that come with authority). It can be anyone. A middle-level manager, a top executive, simply an adult answering to and for his family. He has to sit in the chair of life the society assigned him, isolated, deprived of a life he could have. He can’t do anything to free himself from societal bounds. He screams because he realises he lives in a personal hell.”

Observant viewer with common sense: “Come on, guys, there is blood splashed on the white clothes of the man! See these red dots? The guy’s screaming at some atrocity he is somehow responsible for and is unable to prevent, and which gonna stay with him until his last day, and beyond!”

Regardless of the answers’ specifics, their commonality is obvious.

The cause of the man’s anguish is a combination of three ingredients:

  • Isolation
  • Impossibility to get free or to act as the man would like to
  • Torment caused by something immaterial (power, society, witnessing an atrocity, etc.)

This is the moment when a man of culture is tempted to use the phrase “existential conflict” to awe a half of his listeners into reverential attention (because the other half shuts down or leaves the room).  I am not a man of culture, fortunately. I will keep my story plain and blunt.

The blunt question is how on earth watching someone else’s isolation and torment can make one feel good. 

It’s not because you’re not him, or rather not only. The vertical lines create a veil that separates the viewer from the dreadful world of the man in the painting. He is like a lab rat you’re watching with horror – but the horror is about his condition, not yours.

And if you happen to be someone who is almost like him, a man of power daily facing dilemmas when you have to choose the best of the worst, you now realise any decision that doesn’t lead you to this world is a good one. Even a decision that may result in dying, which is in many ways better than the man’s existence.

Don’t be tempted to automatically attribute yourself to the group of lab scientists and not the lab rat. Most of us are men of lesser power than a Pope centuries ago, but we can be just as locked inside the societal boundaries in our comfortable sofas and office chairs. The everyday evil of isolation disregards status.  

Unlike the man locked inside the painting, the viewer still has a lot of choices and a few chances. Make children, find love, roam the Alps, wind-surf from a tropical beach, read books of gloomy Russian writers (a lifetime is not enough, don’t worry to run out of their supply), in short, keep doing things that people with a stiff upper lip call “eccentric”. Scream, as the last resort. Swear, for God’s sake!

You see how much good motivations this painting can create in the mind that realises what the picture is about.

Now, there’s one thing to remember.

Don’t get hooked on a work of art. Especially an expressionistic work of art. An expressionist artist doesn’t give a damn about the viewer. Expressionism is all about expressing the artist. Very often, an expressionist artist lets loose a psychosis or phobia that are 100% his own. One of the vitally important rules in psychiatry says it is a grave mistake to get included or involved into the patient’s delirium. So, on those occasions when the outpouring of an expressionist artist resonates with you, remember to separate your life from the artist’s obsessions.

The artist may dictate you an interesting essay, and you may enjoy listening to and writing it, but don’t take what you’ve put down for your own thoughts. 

Bacon is intellectually attractive globally, but emotionally he is a purely English artist (even despite his somewhat Irish origin).

Other nations would scream, swear, sing, and dance to vent out their frustrations, but the English would stoically maintain their stiff upper lip and the integrity of their personal island, regardless of the tempest raving on the inside. I absolutely adore my English friends for that, and will never abandon my attempts to teach them bear-hugs and proper swearing as a life-improvement method.

And now, for art masochists, a brief summary of this work in terms of “how the hell did he do it”. 

innocent

We’ll never know how his mind worked (unless he used to sneak out to a therapist whose heirs might decide to publish his notes), but we know what stimuli he used.

The portrait of the Pope by Velazquez was the main inspiration.

DIEGO VELÁZQUEZ (1599-1660) 'Portrait of Innocent X', c.1650

DIEGO VELÁZQUEZ (1599-1660)
‘Portrait of Innocent X’, c.1650

The face of the nurse from Sergei Eisenstein’s movie about Potemkin battleship and the uprising of its crew (for the face of Pope):

SERGEI EISENSTEIN (1898-1948) ‘The Battleship Potemkin’, 1925 (still photograph from the film)

SERGEI EISENSTEIN (1898-1948)
‘The Battleship Potemkin’, 1925
(still photograph from the film)

The portrait of a cardinal by Titian:

TITIAN - Tiziano Vecellio  (1508-1576), Portrait of Cardinal Filippo Archinto, 1558

TITIAN – Tiziano Vecellio (1508-1576), Portrait of Cardinal Filippo Archinto, 1558

These three stimulus went into the melting pot of Bacon’s very personal psychosis and – with the yellow cage that Bacon invented himself – solidified into a painting that had a 1% chance of resonating with other people, but used this chance to the full.

So, is this a work of a genius or an accident? 

It is an ingenious creative representation of one’s man paranoia that accidentally hit the bull’s eye of subconscious fears massively experienced by other people.

Bringing these fears to the surface takes a year for experienced therapists. Francis Bacon can accomplish it in a single session. It is a lot of money saved for a lot of people. It is perhaps, one of the few instances of a painting generating value for the global economy on an on-going basis.

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9 thoughts on “How evil! How interesting!

  1. pizzuti

    “An expressionist artist doesn’t give a damn about the viewer.” Or maybe the expressionist artist cares deeply for the viewer and wants them to know that we all experience the same things on this earth and that we really are not that different.

    Reply
    1. artmoscow Post author

      The moment an expressionist artist aims not at expressing him/herself but caring about viewers’ perceptions, expressionism is lost to a calculated use of lines, shapes, and colours. It is the essence of expressionism to show the artist’s emotions, to share them, of course – but with a very clear statement that we do not experience the same things on this earth, and that the artist is very different from the others. Otherwise, it is not true expressionism, but decorative art camouflaging itself in the expressionistic style.

      I know that’s opinionated 😉 but that’s my point of view based on studying and talking to many expressionistic artists. They may claim any noble objective, but laddering them down (as shrinks use to do) shows their best work has been done with one and only idea: showing and sharing their unique experience or emotional state. It is not always truly unique: in fact, it is just a unique way of expressing it, not a unique state of mind. But they believe it was unique. Good expressionists – just like any good artist – would be more sensitive than the average person, and so their hightened sensitivity helps them to express emotions/experiences other people couldn’t understand or register, and this is what makes good expressionistic artworks resonate with many viewers. But caring about how it would resonate with viewers? I don’t think so.

      Thank you for your comment and your opinion. I’ll never tire to say how grateful I am to readers who think differently from me!

      Reply
      1. pizzuti

        “The moment an expressionist artist aims not at expressing him/herself but caring about viewers’ perceptions,” Those two things are not mutually exclusive. You can express yourself and care about a viewer’s perceptions, now if the artist’s only goal in expressing himself is to evoke a response in the viewer, I do think that has the potential to hurt the work, but not always.

        “It is the essence of expressionism to show the artist’s emotions, to share them, of course – but with a very clear statement that we do not experience the same things on this earth, and that the artist is very different from the others” I don’t know how you can say this. And wouldn’t your argument exclude the possibility of any intention – to connect or to state a difference – for the work to be true expressionism?

        The artist may be more sensitive, more skilled at communicating what they’re feeling through art but we all experience the same things – some at a greater depth than others – but we’re all in the same boat. If an artist had no desire to connect with their audience they wouldn’t show their work. The way you state it sounds like the point of an expressionist artist’s work is to place themselves apart, and maybe even above others, I don’t think that’s true at all. It’s communication – the point of communication is to connect.

        It is interesting that you feel this way though. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s coming more from you than the artist. That’s the great thing about art though. 🙂

        Reply
        1. artmoscow Post author

          Expressing oneself and thinking on how to please/connect with someone else are two different mental processes that the brain can’t do at the same time. Much like it is not possible to read and write at the same time about two unrelated subjects.

          I am not saying artists don’t care about their audiences. I am saying the manifesto of an expressionist artist is that he/she sets their main goal as expressing their unique view of an idea or emotion. An expressionist artist expects viewers to feel his emotion or idea the way the artist perceived it, because it was a unique way worth expressing and exhibiting to other people.

          But connecting, not communicating, not resonating with viewers is not the main objective. That would be another manifesto for a different kind of artists.

          The expressionist manifesto indeed raises the artist above the others, in a way any unique object stands out from the crowd. I don’t see it is as something bad. Sometimes it is not justified, but it is not something to be ashamed of.

          If an expressionist artist doesn’t believe his vision is unique, the whole point of expressing it becomes… debatable.

          It is also true that even expressionist artists can at some point think about making their art more readable, likeable, connecting to their audiences. When it happens (that is when it becomes the dominating mental process), they may introduce changes to their art, which are often easily identifiable, if the work is seen in progress (or, sometimes, if it is X-rayed). Often, these changes make the work more resonating with the viewers, but less expressionistic, sometimes these changes make the work resonating with wider audiences, but less individualised.

          Please note I was talking about expressionism, as an art movement, with the expressionist artist defined by an early 20th century critic as someone “who wishes, above all, to express himself”, but is doing it not thru immediate reaction but through filtering random noise around ideas or emotions to arrive at their essence (much like in a distillery). This mental process does not allow for thinking much about the future viewers.

          A true expressionist artist distills something, and then bounces that something off the audience. If it doesn’t bounce well, the artist may go back and think again about the means he uses to distill his art and think up a new approach. But at the time the artwork is produced it is about personal expression, not about the way it would bounce off the viewers.

          Reply
  2. Anna

    My reading of the painting is different. Here is a powerful man, clutching desperately at his seat of power, not wanting to let go – the gold is not a cage but a throne. Yet he is being pulled for it, his soul rather literally being sucked into the Vortex. It’s Judgement Day, and the Judgement won’t be good for him.

    PS – You’re drifting a bit into the sanctimonious territory in the beginning of this post, with a rather liberal helping of we’s and how ‘we’ feel and what ‘we’ are drawn to in absolute terms. Some of us actually prefer to leave the darkness and evil and tragedy behind, turn off the torture porn (whether on HBO or evening news) and seek out good, whimsy, light — and movies with happy endings.

    PPS – Thesaurus.com gives 52 syns/ 39 ants to GOOD. EVIL generates 49 syns/ 27 ants. If you scroll to the nouns, both words get 16 syns each.

    Reply
    1. artmoscow Post author

      Thesaurus.com offers 16 synonyms for good as noun in the sense of “morality” while “evil”, in the sense of “immorality” produces 52 synonyms. I was mainly interested in the morality aspect ) I’ve checked )

      When I say “we”, I normally based it on (a) a survey of opinions I collect over time (b) sociological observation, and sometimes even hard data (that’s the nature of my business, unfortunately). Indeed some people prefer to go for lighthearted comedies, but I am sorry to say it, television ratings across very different countries show that interest in reports/movies/news on evil is much higher. I believe people are never 100% good, and there’s always some evil lurking inside. Unless a person knows what is evil about him or her, that evil grows uncontrolled and can not be offset by those character traits that are good.

      Any interpretation must take into account both what is shown and what is not shown by the artist, and offer a theory that explains it all, very much like a theory in natural sciences. The papal throne is of the same colour as the bars, that create a closed space around it. This space resembles a cage, and indeed it was more clearly defined in many other paintings by Bacon. The dynamics of lines in the painting indeed indicates upward motion, but I won’t go as far as you go in interpreting it as a soul leaving the body. It would be an easy end for the Pope, the moment of dying. Bacon was never magnanimous with his subjects, and especially this Pope, whom he obsessively portrayed over 45 times. Were it his own soul leaving the body, the blood splashed on the painting would be that of the Pope, and it is not. Bacon wanted to torment the Pope, but he wanted the Pope to stay and agonise – that’s why the feet are not painted, and Pope’s arms are resting on the chair. The scream going all the way through Pope’s body and leaving it (going up, because the lines of tension go up) is, in fact, silent and happening inside. The outside (the midsection of the body) is shown in the same regal and calm manner as in Velazquez original. Please note that the Pope is not clutching the seat; the shoulders and arms are relaxed. One of Bacon’s favourite books was an album of photographs showing human bodies performing various task, as a series of successive photographs. Bacon knew how to draw and paint tension, so it is not his mistake to paint the body relaxed. The Pope would love to leave his throne. But he’s got no feet to do it. He can’t.

      And ultimately, please don’t take me too serious. The evil of not putting plates into a dishwasher is mentioned on purpose. Bacon can’t be taken too seriously. He’s a powerful herald of unhappiness, and we don’t want unhappiness to be contagious, right? I can use “we” here, I think ))

      Thank you for reading this and NOT agreeing with me. Regardless of how many synonyms/antonyms are out there, there’s no single truth in art, which is, I guess, very fortunate.

      Reply
  3. Boryana

    Brilliant analysis, though I don’t think this piece is accidental in its ability to impact people’s emotional core. Would have been if it was just one of Bacon’s works that has this effect, and this is not the case. The attractiveness of evil in the arts is in the promise of catharsis and living some of the artist’s personal psychosis is a small price to pay for the experience.

    Reply
    1. artmoscow Post author

      Thank you! Bacon was a sensitive man and could better sense things that affected everyone else, but went unnoticed by the majority. I don’t think he ever rationalised what he was doing. He just sensed and expressed it. A lot of expressionists can sense but can’t express in a way that instinctively resonates with people. He was unique in this ability. )

      Reply

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