Figure with Meat, Francis Bacon, 1954

I

No paintings captivated me as a child quite like the “Screaming Popes” of Francis Bacon. The cynic might say this is because one of them, Figure with Meat, appeared prominently in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), where the Joker and his goons are shown rollicking through a museum and defacing works of art. They come to the painting, and the Joker, smiling horridly, as only Jack Nicholson could, remarks, “I kind of like this one, Bob. Leave it.” It’s possible no greater compliment has ever been paid a work of art.

The truth, though, is that I admired Bacon’s paintings—no, admire sounds merely respectful; I worshipped at his alter, and found myself repulsed by him, too, in so far as his work was too good, intimidating even, in so far as I could never hope to achieve what he’d done—precisely because they were so visceral, so raw, so new. His were the first I’d seen that combined the technical proficiency of realism with the broad brush strokes and the expressive force of modernist abstraction. It was as if everything I hated about Picasso—his lack of accurate depiction—and everything I despised about Vermeer—his lack of any painterly emotion—were removed. The result was the perfect fusion of spontaneity and classical rigor. In other words, to put this in terms a non-artist could fathom, it was as if he had created a beautiful, classic portrait of a pope and then had the balls to slash through it with a brush. Not unlike the Joker, in fact, minus the act of creating.

When you’re twelve-years-old and striving to paint anything realistically, from your face to your hand, it’s hard to overstate the appeal of this.

I first encountered master paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago, where I had the privilege to take youth classes—if one can call them classes at age ten—and where I spent virtually all of my free time. In retrospect, it was probably illegal, but I distinctly recall my parents dropping me off each Saturday morning shortly before classes began, and which, if I was inclined, I’d attend. Either way, as soon as the classes adjourned, I’d make my way down to the galleries, past the inky blue windows of Chagall, the endless dots of Seurat, the rainy street of Caillebotte, Picasso’s sad guitarist, and all the other works memorably depicted in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)—a film in which I saw little humor, by the way, close, as it was, to my own truant heart.

My pursuit of art as a child was rather limited, since my only innate gift, which is admittedly probably the most vital one, was persistence. I could sit at a canvas for hours. In grade school, the other students, from roughly ages eight to fourteen, would often marvel at my abilities as I sketched or drew with a charcoal pen. What they didn’t know is that the only thing separating me from them, apart from a great deal of practice, and perhaps the means to attend courses downtown, was the attention I exerted. They’d simply gossip in class, or pass notes, or torment one another, and when the period ended, they were almost always amazed by my work. This is also why I was probably the last male, including a few queer ones, to experience a kiss with the opposite sex.

To say I wanted to be a painter when I grew up would be like saying most boys sought to be Michael Jordan. Perhaps, but it would be more appropriate to say that I, like them, couldn’t envision anything else—marriage, job, a house, having kids. None of that mattered. Girls did not matter. The paintings on canvasses did. (As you can surmise, I never had a date for a dance and found myself frequently isolated, despite being decent at sports).

Arguably the most horrifying moment in my young adult life came one Saturday when I was leaving the class at the Art Institute, Faber-Castell acrylics in-hand. Stacked along a shelf in the hall were a series of canvasses, evidently oil paintings that “professional” students had done (i.e., those enrolled full-time at the School). One of them was a fairly simple portrait, using huge strokes, of a nude model leaned down by a wall. Her gleaming breasts didn’t strike me. Nor did her smile, or the setting in which she posed. No, what froze me—literally shot through my back—was the way this artist, whoever he was (or she, as I’d later determine to be possible), had managed to capture a human being, a fully, living, breathing one, in less than twelve strokes. An entire person lived there, preserved for all-time. It’s possible the painting itself wasn’t finished. I didn’t care. I had never before, and arguably never have since, witnessed such an economy of detail, such precision with every stroke. Later, I’d come to appreciate the same thing in sketches by Rembrandt and Goya, among others. But at the time, I was just flustered. Awestruck, in fact.

I continued on my path of artistry, taking every visual arts course offered. In college, I took a couple studio classes, and even a course on watercolor painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, with which my college, Brown, was affiliated. By that point, I had other interests, namely a girlfriend, the Arabic I was studying, and the books that captured my mind—mainly works by Noam Chomsky, Christopher Hitchens, Edward Said, and others on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, with which I, a Jewish-American, had become obsessed. Painting became more like a hobby in so far as I only devoted seven or eight hours per week.

The third or fourth week into the course, having completely slacked off, I made the mistake of doing a last-minute water color portrait of what I must have took imaginatively to be a sunset. The thing was truly horrid—a slosh or two of paint. But I’d seen worse at the Art Institute. Witness the works of Mark Rothko—whom, it should be said, Bacon reportedly loathed.

When it came time to hang up our paintings along the wall and hear our critiques, as the septuagenarian professor was prone to give—he, Thomas Sgouros, was an immensely talented realist, by the way, who specialized in landscapes—I was terrified. I knew mine was the worst. And since I was the only student not enrolled full-time at RISD, this was obviously a mistake.

He paused before mine, examined it closely, and asked, “What the hell is this?”

That was the end of my career as a painter, and I don’t think I’ve dabbled since.

Young traumas aside, I have nurtured an appreciation for art since then that I think only an aspiring artist can have. That is, I never took a course in art history, nor did I learn the names of established movements—a “figurativist” is what I believe Bacon is called?—though I’ve always approached art from the standpoint of one who’s tried to do it, and mercilessly at that. I’ve lived with the perennial disappointment of having failed to achieve what I sought, and even now, after having had a book or two accepted for publication and being ready to finally declare myself an “artist”—if that’s what writers must be—I deem myself a failure if only because I never became Francis Bacon, much less that painter of the nude by the wall, who, if I had to guess, is enjoying critical acclaim—or should be; God knows it’s no easier in art than in writing.

The second grand moment of desperation in my life—actually, there have been quite a few of them, right down to the moment my girlfriend explained, a couple weeks after my professor had scorned me, that she wanted to take “some time off”—came when I first saw Bacon’s portrait up-close. It wasn’t his Study after Velázquez, which had always been my favorite, and probably his most acclaimed, nor his Figure with Meat. I have yet to see either of those in-person. But it was one of Bacon’s earliest “Popes” in the series, and his first one to reference the painting by Velázquez.


Head VI, Francis Bacon, 1949

Head VI, as it’s called, had never seemed his most compelling, and seeing it in-person, as I did early one evening, while home from college, at the Art Institute, I was plainly shocked by the artifice of it; the blandness. It just looked like blotches of paint, with perhaps a few teeth drawn into it and a white box loosely scraped over.

Then I reconsidered it briefly. Yes, there was technical proficiency. The cape was well drawn, the mouth rightly situated, the expression alarming and fierce. It met all the checkmarks. And every scrape of paint slanting down was bravely smeared onto it, almost impastoed, as if daring to ruin what had otherwise been diligent work. Yet—and this is crucial—it lacked the combination of spontaneity and rigor that my earlier viewings had shown. This was just good. Not great or overwhelming. Not the kind of thing that would justify giving up girlfriends and kisses in school.

A night later, I returned to it, flummoxed once again. What had I seen in this artist? I studied him obliquely, alone once again by the wall, and realized, for perhaps the first time in my life, that the beauty was in the far glimpse: the way I had marveled at it often as a child, but only in books. When one approaches it closely, as with a Seurat, one can only see paint strokes or dots. The beauty was to take a step back, appreciate the force of it, the majesty drawn from afar.

Bacon once remarked of Velázquez’s Portrait of Innocent X, which evidently inspired his “Popes” series: “I think it is one of the greatest portraits that has ever been made and I became obsessed by it.” Yet he famously avoided seeing the work in-person until much later in life. Even then he was reportedly nonplussed by the experience, as I could understand. Sometimes that initial flash of inspiration, that brilliance viewed from afar, is what inspires us most as artists, and too much examination, too detailed-a-view, lends itself to reproduction, or, worse, disappointment in what we’ve seen.

In 2009, Peter Schjeldahl, the New Yorker critic, called Bacon his “least favorite great painter of the twentieth century,” and, though acknowledging his historical importance, deemed him merely “illustrational.” This, as compared to the evidently more cerebral Pollock or Rothko. Schjeldahl also noted that Bacon, in one of his more “caustic moods”—of which there was apparently no shortage—“pronounced ninety-five per cent of people ‘fools about painting’” and complained, as he put it, that “hardly anyone really feels about painting: they read things into it.”

One even begins to wonder if he wasn’t talking about critics like Schjeldahl.

II

In 2003, shortly after graduating college, I was living in the Cairo Hostel in East Jerusalem, a place that I imagine has since been condemned. The cost was nineteen shekels per night (about $4.50), excluding the price of pot, which added a few bucks, and the cartoned hummus you were expected to buy. Sasha, who was Ukrainian and had six or seven teeth, a wiry neck, and a single, torn Bob Marley t-shirt, presided over this dormitory, nargilah in-hand, while Sasha II, his cousin, provided some combination of security and fatherly advice, usually from his place on a ratty, cloth couch. Sasha II wore a spiked leather jacket, kept his head shaved, and did pull-ups, predominantly while high, from a little bar he’d erected in the kitchen. The two patrons of these quarters—a middle-aged Japanese tourist and I, who couldn’t communicate in any language but smoke—came and went as we pleased.

Showering, when it was done, involved thrusting aside curdled foam from the floor with a rickety squeegee and bearing the wrath of cold water. We were happy in this place, all of us, I’d guess: the two Sashas, because it wasn’t Ukraine, and offered free pot; the Japanese man, because he’d fled whatever problems or family he’d encountered in Japan; and myself, because I could read and more or less live on the cheap (technically, I was employed on a fellowship in Jordan, but I spent about six months roaming around the West Bank and residing in this damp shelter, which perennially reeked of smoke).

At this time, it should be said, an Intifada was raging outside, which is why there were no tourists. A few activists came and went, though they mostly stayed at the Palm, which was cleaner and didn’t feature a muscled skinhead at the door, who occasionally wielded a knife. That was just fine with the four of us, since we formed a sort of family and didn’t much care for the activists. Sasha I was a Zionist, Sasha II a Nazi (if I had to guess), and the Japanese man indifferent but generally unwilling to speak—in fact, I don’t think he mouthed a word in the three or four months he was living there. I, of course, wanted the quiet, despite all the gunshots outside.

One night, a particularly gloomy one, from what I recall, I sat down with a book I’d never read, For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Sasha I looked on, confused. “Heminvay?”

I nodded.

“Ah, Heminvay good. I read dis in Russian.”

Sasha II clung to his bar, his muscled scalp sweating, his veiny eyes bulbous and red.

“Very good,” Sasha I continued. “He writes vell about var.”

Several hours later, a hundred pages in, with Sasha I passed out on the couch, the nargilah still smoldering, Sasha II out and about (probably skinning kittens, if I would guess), and the nameless Japanese man drinking alone in his bed, I rose to search for some grub. All the hummus bins were empty, the pita bread stale, so I unlocked the front gates—I had been given a key for this purpose—and wandered down Nablus Street, For Whom the Bell Tolls in-hand.

I got about as far as Mishmarot when a flashlight spotted my face. The light was near-blinding. Soon, a laser beam dotted my chest. “Stop,” said a voice.

I did, my heart pounding. A few uniforms hove into view. Then their Jeep skittered on, contented that I was just lost.

Earlier, from the window of the hostel, I had seen a bright flare light the sky. The Israeli troops were probably searching for someone, as they usually did after an attack.

Not wanting to reencounter them, or perhaps too excited to sleep, I continued ahead towards the arching stone portal and columns of Damascus Gate.

Like most American tourists, I carried a water bottle with me and had not a clue where I went. Inside the Old City market, all the falafel stands were shuttered. Even Abu Ali’s bakery, at the foot of the souq, which sold delicious and occasionally roach-covered pizzas, was closed. All the kiosks were boarded, the limestone slabs of the walkways slick with raw offal and rain. It was near-freezing. A cat or two swerved out of view.

I wandered down to the only place that might be open at this hour: an enormous stone church with a crumbling facade and Romanesque dome that was known, in common parlance, as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, evidently the place where Jesus had died. Not a bad place to continue my reading, I thought.

I sat among the pews, passing the medieval vaults, the occasional monk or veiled pilgrim sodden with tears, and gazed up at this marvelous place. The smell of incense overwhelmed me. Frankincense, clove. Someone was chanting. The brass lanterns flickered their light. “You felt,” wrote Hemingway,

something that was like the feeling you expected to have and did not have when you made your first communion. It was a feeling of consecration to a duty toward all of the oppressed of the world which would be as difficult and embarrassing to speak about as religious experience and yet it was as authentic as the feeling you had when you heard Bach, or stood in Chartres Cathedral or the Cathedral at León and saw the light coming through the great windows; or when you saw Mantegna and Greco and Brueghel in the Prado.

I had visited this church several times, mostly at night like this, and though I didn’t believe in Christianity, or Judaism for that matter, much less anything else, I was starting to believe in churches and the elaborate power of Art: the way these walls had been constructed, with their fluorescent domes, and the way that milky orange light of Jerusalem filters through the leaded glass panes. Hemingway had seen it at Chartres, in the swirling clouds of El Greco, and possibly, once, in a war.

I had no idea what I was doing in Jerusalem, much less in reading this book, but I was captivated there and stayed up the rest of the night. And, of course, I kept picturing that flashlight, that blinding white glow from the gun.

III

Fifteen years later, I’ve written a novel about the Israeli army, in which I once, fleetingly, served. Like Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls, I volunteered. Unlike Robert Jordan, I didn’t die, and if I had to ascribe a motivation to my effort, which I can’t, it wouldn’t be the service of a cause, antifascism or otherwise, but rather for the experience of art: to understand what it’s like to be in an army, and to try to set it down in a book.

I don’t know if I succeeded in that effort—the book still hasn’t come out—but, like Robert Jordan, for the past fifteen years, I’ve been singularly committed to its cause. And what I fear is what I fear Robert Jordan might have feared: that someone might stop to examine the futility of this, or wonder why I’ve done what I’ve done.

The answer, I think, is in the art, in the gleaming, final product, the way the light filters in through the panes, and you know, in spite of yourself, and in spite of others’ thoughts, that the beauty itself is complete.

Certainly, if you stop to inspect it, a book is just sentences, lines. Tiny globules of ink, even. I can’t say it portends any truth.

“Painting is a duality and abstract painting is an entirely aesthetic thing,” Bacon once wrote. “It always remains on one level. It is only really interesting in the beauty of its patterns or its shapes.”

To that, Robert Jordan might add:

It was something that you had never known before but that you had experienced now and you gave such importance to it and the reasons for it that your own death seemed of complete unimportance.

I can’t in retrospect say what my novel might mean, or how anyone else could interpret it, or why I even wrote the damn book, much less devoted fifteen years of my life, or even, by some accounts, ventured to risk my life. But the answer, I think, lies in Head VI, in that nude-model portrait, in the “beauty” of “patterns” and “shapes.”

That alone, I’d guess, is good reason, and reason enough never to read it again.

J. A. BERNSTEIN is the author of a forthcoming novel, Rachel’s Tomb (New Issues, 2019), which won the AWP Award Series, Hackney, and Knut House Prizes; a forthcoming story collection, Stick-Light (Eyewear, 2019); and a forthcoming chapbook, Desert Castles (Southern Indiana Review), which won the Wilhelmus Award. His work has appeared in Shenandoah, Boston Review, Kenyon Review Online, and other journals. A Chicago-native, he teaches in the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi and is the fiction editor of Tikkun.