In my last post, I discussed the impact of seeing the the Metropolitan Opera‘s production of Lulu, and how it has influenced my own work.
To be influenced is to engage so deeply with a piece, with a work of art, that it becomes part of you, infecting your point of view, challenging values or just becoming a catalyst for opening yourself to greater experiences. Francis Bacon, the 20th-century British painter, one of my most personally treasured artists, was heavily influenced and inspired by the 17th-century Spanish painter Diego Velázquez and had a reproduction of his “Portrait of Pope Innocent X” hanging in his studio when he made his “Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X”. Not only was he influenced by the elements in the composition, such as the throne, the robes, and the posture of the Pope but also by the Pope’s facial expression and gestures. The darkness implied in Velázquez’s Pope has been transformed into articulated agony in Bacon’s version. There is no subtle anguish but, instead, loud and clearly expressed emotional torture. Through his engagement and encounter with Velázquez’s painting, Bacon created a portrait of Pope Innocent X that is undeniably his own. His powerful ability to communicate emotion through his application of paint, his choice of colors, and his way of making marks on the canvas leaves no doubt that this painting was made by Francis Bacon. While clearly influenced by Velázquez, the result is, without question, original.
I find that many young artists are concerned with being “original,” as if this is the defining test for being a “real” artist, without really understanding what “original” actually means. Original works are not innovations or subjects that have not been used before. It is not that simple. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe addressed the complexity of originality when he said, “The most original authors of today are original not because they create something new but because they are capable of saying such things as if they had never been said before.”
The first time I saw any quantity of Bacon’s work was in 1989 at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. I was immediately struck by the passion of his expressions. Even the paint itself was screaming with intensity. The raw, honest texture of these emotions startled me, confronted me, and ultimately pushed me. He put into his paintings feelings I thought I was surely the only one to experience. Through his work, I found connection to the deepest parts of myself, beyond the scope of mere words. By the time I had finished viewing the exhibition, Bacon’s work had become a part of me, incorporated into my psyche. Jeanette Winterson expressed this perfectly when she stated, “True art, when it happens to us, challenges the ‘I’ that we are.” (Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, Vintage, 1996) Bacon inspired and dared me to push myself in my own work, as far as I could go, and then to keep going.
I didn’t see the depth of this influence until five years later when I made “Untitled #5978,” an image clearly informed by Bacon’s work. The resemblance to a number of his paintings depicting a scream was unintentional, the result of a long, intuitive exploration, yet it was such an exciting moment for me when I saw this effect. In “Untitled #5078,” the reﬂection of the lower jaw is prominent on the surface of the water and makes the mouth look like it is double-hinged. The head above the water does not show because it is night and there is no light on it. The scream is coming from so deep in the figure’s gut that her jaw appears to be blown wide apart. The body is twisted in just the perfect way to maximize the force of the scream. The scream is not in anger at something but rather the expression of psychic agony, a release. Bacon’s scream in “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” (c. 1944) articulates similar primal raw intensity. In both Bacon’s painting and my photograph, the scream represents pure expression and emotion; there does not appear to be any cognitive activity within. These forms are a mass of muscle, gut, neck, and, of course, an ear and a mouth with a full set of teeth. Without a frontal cortex, both figures lack the ability to think, allowing their reactions to be unrestrained by the power of reason.
Did Bacon’s paintings inform my work? Did his images give form to (or animate) my own feelings? Yes, there is no doubt. After I had experienced his images, my awareness of my self was heightened, and I was enlightened to powerful yet previously undefined feelings and thoughts. Bacon’s paintings dared me to be honest with myself in a raw and real way. This is one of the greatest functions of art – to express complex emotion that cannot be conveyed in a linear or verbal way. Bacon’s work affected me deeply, and it would eventually have a profound impact on my work as well. I discovered “Untitled #5978” through my own exploration, and I was able to see it because of the way Bacon’s work had become a part of my psyche. It was not an attempt to copy but rather was an encounter – the result of an intuitive process – as all of my images are. My debt to Bacon is undeniable as is my admiration. The compelling passion of his paintings pushed me in my own process to be daring and to reach as deep within myself as possible, as he did.
So, if being “original” is not to be the ﬁrst to do something, yet if being heavily influenced by other artworks does not preclude originality, then what does it mean to be original?
The word “original” is deﬁned as “Of or pertaining to the origin, beginning, or earliest stage of something; source of something; from which something arises The wonderful paradox of originality is that it is at once something unique and individual (“the earliest stage”) while at the same time it is connected with the source. How can something derive from a “source” and simultaneously be unique? The fascinating paradox of originality makes sense in the context of Carl Jung’s ideas of the collective unconscious. If we think of the “source” as the collective unconscious, then the word “original” refers to an encounter with the deepest parts of our humanity – the pool of collective symbols, archetypes, knowledge, and wisdom that is accessible to all humanity. The most profound connections we can make with ourselves and with others is through this “source” in which we encounter the very core of our own humanity and which is shared with every other human being.