On Friday, the third and last day of last week’s Windham-Campbell Prize Festival, roughly thirty people squeezed into a corridor on the YUAG’s second floor for a talk hosted by Marina Carr, one of the two prizewinners in drama. The wide-ranging talk, billed as a “Close Looking” discussion between Carr and Yale senior English major Ericha Wachs, JE ’18, covered literary themes in contemporary art, the rule of law, and the lives of the artists themselves. The two women discussed parallels between William Blake (the 18th and 19th century painter, printmaker, and poet) and Francis Bacon (the 20th century painter; not the Enlightenment philosopher and statesman). Carr, who was quick to admit that her specialty lies in the dramatic rather than visual arts, nonetheless demonstrated that there is a living symbiotic relationship between the two that stretches from antiquity to today.
Despite her refusal to claim expertise in art history, Carr certainly knew the stories of the two painters in question well. Living roughly a century before Bacon, William Blake was a strictly disciplined, married man, whose work reflects his skepticism towards established religion and religious mythology. According to Carr, rather than subscribing to a traditional faith, Blake sought to create an entirely new world mythos with the stroke of his brush, much in the way that Tolstoy sought to play God with the stroke of his pen. (Carr often drew upon her literary background for analogy, which brought life to the two artists even for those more familiar with the written word than the painted canvas). Bacon was incredibly ambitious as well, but adhered to a starkly different lifestyle — one that involved waking up at the crack of dawn to paint through the day, drinking into the wee hours of the night, and repeating the process the next morning. Additionally, Bacon despised Blake’s carefully crafted mysticism, and it was this clash between the two men’s artistic styles — along with the shared history of their respective homelands — that precipitated the “Close Looking” in the first place. Given Bacon’s animosity towards Blake, Carr contended, Bacon’s tendency to paint abstract, disproportionate figures was in part a reaction to the ordered, albeit strange content of Blake’s own work. At the same time, perhaps it was the freneticism of Bacon’s life that fueled his ire for Blake to begin with.
Nevertheless, Bacon, like Blake, revered Michelangelo. This seemed like a potential contradiction in Bacon: the Irishman detested Blake, yet he simultaneously idolized an artist in Michelangelo whose controlled, proportionally comprehensible painting style had inspired Blake. Carr resolved this tension by suggesting that while Bacon rejected Blake’s particular brand of creation, Bacon also aspired to wield godlike generative power by putting brush to canvas. Thus, even in the apparently anarchic swirls that comprise many of his works, one can see Bacon’s persistent attempt to establish dominion over painted realms emanating from his hand. In this way, Carr concluded, Bacon and Blake shared more in common than the former would have liked to admit.
From very early on, humans have tried to explain creation and destruction with whatever tools have been at their disposal — speech, writing, image-making, and so on. Each attempt has provided fodder for future generation to critique, augment, and revise. In the process, written texts such as the Bible and spoken works such as Sophocles’ tragedies have inspired new interpretations both within and outside of their original medium. William Blake read the words of the Bible and gave them new meaning through his paintings. Similarly, Francis Bacon reimagined Sophocles’ Oedipus — whom perhaps Bacon had seen portrayed on stage — and splashed a new version of him onto his canvas. What Marina Carr’s discussion suggested was that this process of taking a story received in one modality, adapting it, and translating it to another is how artists from the beginning of recorded history have staked out ownership in our collective understanding of life — as she put it, “Great art is one conversation between many artists.” And if great art reflects life, artists are the creators of life, as well.
At least, mused Carr, that is what they believe.