Screaming heads: a decolonial gaze on Francis Bacon’ images of flesh

João Pereira de Matos

Palavras-chave: decoloniality; flesh; Francis Bacon; multitude race

Participação: presencial

Following this year’s exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts – Francis Bacon: Man and Beast, the present communication will explore the figures of flesh in Bacon’s paintings as a "zone of indiscernibility" and as a site of "becoming" (Deleuze, 1981) not only between man and animal but, through a decolonial gaze, between the "overrepresentation of Man" and the racialized- other (Wynter, 2003).

In David Sylvester’s second interview, Bacon argues that "we are meat, we are potential carcasses" – it’s this common trait that folds, in his brush, the faces of modern subjectivity onto the screaming heads of the Fordist apparatus of slaughterhouses and twentieth-century concentration camps. Drawing on this, we will entangle Bacon’s depictions of the body as mere flesh – screaming heads echoing pain and vulnerability – to modernity’s genealogical racial caesura in the context of "mercantile capitalism and the institution of the system of the plantation through slave labor" (Thomas, 2013). As a "flesh and blood entity", the New World’s plantation anticipated the industrialization of death in Western societies. In the plantation, the entire captive community becomes a living laboratory where flesh is ripped, penetrated, and burned (Spillers, 1987). Forming a new episteme in the "politics of being", the irrationalized- captive-body functioned as the other that allowed the bio-logocentric invention of the modern Man (Wynter, 2003).

As a "zone of indiscernibility", we assert that Bacon’s figure of flesh opens his paintings to the gaze of the other (the non-human or the sub-human). Incorporating Bacon’s screaming heads, the mere flesh of the racialized-other creates a counter-memory that challenges the hegemonic narrative of violence in Western societies. If we admit this juxtaposition in Bacon’s meat-heads – of the modern Man with the racialized-other – we not only expose modernity’s racial master- code but, at the same time, we discover a decolonial gaze.

Modern artists have, as we know, objectified racialized societies by extracting motifs from their cultural productions as gems from a mine (e.g., primitivism); Bacon’s figures of flesh allow for a countermovement where the racialized-other, as an active spectator, encounters not only his stolen flesh but his common human trait. Bacon’s heads scream the irreducibility of flesh, echoing a continuum that deconstructs any possibility of Man-human caesura. In this carnal zone of indiscernibility, we encounter the reversibility of the self to the other: the modern Man becomes the racialized-other and the racialized-other becomes the modern Man. Bacon’s flesh is, as Deleuze noted, a site of "becoming". A place of excruciating pain but, at the same time, a place for transcultural possibilities: a place of "invention, color, and acrobatics" (Deleuze, 1981).

The monstrosity of Bacon’s meat-heads screams a decolonial praxis. In this communication, we will argue that Bacon’s figures of flesh offer an image for what Negri and Hardt called the "flesh of the multitude". As a "zone of indiscernibility" and "becoming", Bacon’s flesh is "pure potential, an unformed life force, and in this sense an element of social being, aimed constantly at the fullness of life" (Hardt & Negri, 2004).


João Pereira de Matos is a Portuguese Ph.D. student and grantee at Nova University (Lisbon), fully funded by the Portuguese Foundation for Sciences and Technology and affiliated with the Department of Rhetoric at UC Berkeley where he will be a visiting researcher, under the guidance of Professor James I. Porter, starting January 2023. His current research focuses on the concept of flesh through a constellation of space, inscription, senses, and race - juxtaposing ancient philosophical models, early modernity philosophical ideas on life, and the New World's system of plantation (slave labor) with more contemporary subjects in biopolitics, cyberculture, and postcolonial/decolonial studies. The author recently edited the double issue #32-33 of Interact – Online Journal of Art, Culture and Technology and has been active in conferences within the scope of what we can call «Philosophies of Technology».