Francis Bacon, who also responded to the media explosion of the 1960s, was well aware of the implications of this question for painting. In an interview conducted with David Sylvester in 1966, Bacon identified a rupture between ‘direct reporting like something that’s very near to a police report’ and, on the other hand, ‘great art.’ For Bacon, there was an essential difference between the two. Direct reporting describes the literal appearance of things. By contrast, great art aspires to capture ‘the violence of reality itself’, that is to say the feelings experienced by each individual through being in the world. As Bacon realised, the difficulty is how to make art that conveys the intensity of reality.
Bacon was not hopeful that ‘in the attempt to make great art, anybody will ever do it in our time.’ However, his views on the nature of the task are illuminating. The essential issue is that our experience of the world is never simply visual, but inextricably bound up with the feelings aroused by a personal involvement with reality. Speaking to Sylvester, he explained this in the following way: ‘When I look at you across the table, I don’t only see you but I see a whole emanation which has to do with personality and everything else.’ Even when confronting inanimate objects, ‘there is the appearance and there is the energy within the appearance.’ Bacon understood that recording the look of people and things in a literal way simply documented their external characteristics, but conveyed nothing of the sensations and feelings that they inspired. This explains why a photograph may be horrific, but, being a mechanical replication, does not fully convey the visceral implications of the situation it describes. It is primarily a record of appearance. To convey a sense of reality as it is experienced, Bacon sought a way of evoking appearance together with ‘the sensation and feeling of life.’
This is illuminating in regard to the violence that informs Micallef’s treatment of appearance.
In order to appeal directly to the viewer’s emotions and visceral responses, Bacon knew that it was necessary to resort to ‘deep injury to the image’, and the painter was uniquely equipped to achieve this. Whereas a photograph illustrates appearance, ‘only the texture of a painting seems to come immediately onto the nervous system.’ For Bacon, and in turn Micallef, the substance of paint is a complex vehicle for experience, a physical and expressive analogue for events within the body of the observer. The task is to find equivalence between shapes, texture and movement on the surface of the painting, and the sensations the artist wishes to convey. Inevitably, therefore, the manipulation of paint away from literal description and towards feeling involves injury: both to the medium and, as a result, to the image.
Micallef’s art may be viewed in the context of the developments pioneered by Bacon and others, taking its place within an artistic outlook that it both shares and, in its own way, extends. Finding his mature voice in the 1940s, Bacon echoed ideas explored by Alberto Giacometti. Working in Paris in proximity to existentialist philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Giacometti emphasised the importance of intense involvement with recording his private sensations. Based in London, Bacon was the progenitor for a group of artists, associated with the so-called School of London, whose ethos is essentially personally expressive. Although each forged a highly individual approach, Freud, Auerbach and Kossoff are linked by the particular view of reality that they advanced in their work. The world is seen through the lens of feeling. That philosophical view is the basis for their emphasis on painting as substance, and a shared conviction that only through a prolonged engagement with the manipulation of paint can the artist’s emotional responses be communicated in an affective tangible form. Proceeding in their respective directions, Bacon, Freud, Auerbach and Kossoff each found a way of representing the world that proceeded from a deeply subjective source.
In common with these older artists, that interior source is the context for Micallef’s work and its point of departure. But having been born in 1975, he grew up in the latter part of the 20th century and belongs to a different generation. As a result, his art has developed against the backdrop of a radically changed world. The proliferation of reproduced images that gathered momentum during the 1960s attained a new, even more intense level of saturation during the time that Micallef attained maturity. The imagery that defines the contemporary world is bewildering in its complexity. It ranges from what Micallef has described as the ‘frivolities of pop culture’ to the excesses and darker undercurrents to which the world-wide web is an open door. Yet, as before, the profusion of photographs has a bearing on the way we look at the world and experience it. More than ever we view our surroundings at a remove, through screens of literal representation that filter out deeper personal engagement. In these circumstances, the objective identified by Bacon returns with an even greater urgency. The artist must ‘unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently.’ But in the 21st century how is this to be accomplished?
This is the challenge addressed by Micallef, and his work provides a distinctive and arresting riposte. Responding to a world of selfies, he too has positioned his own image in the foreground. However, by contrast to endlessly generated, disposable images of a confected self, he has made his own features and body a site for prolonged and intense exploration. Through the medium of paint, the act of representing the self has become the expression of something that goes beyond appearance and plunges deeper. In his paintings, the act of stripping away layers of superficiality involves violence that is at once apparent and real: the image of a flayed figure is inseparable from the fact of paint applied to canvas expressively. His self-portraits are convulsed by raw feeling, and in that way they transcend the ‘frivolities’ of a world entertained by selfies. But there is a deeper purpose. Engaging with the tradition of portraiture, Micallef macerates in order to reinvent and renew.
1.This and all subsequent statements by Francis Bacon are quotations from David Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact – Interviews with Francis Bacon, 1975, reprinted 1990, Thames and Hudson, London.
2.Antony Micallef in conversation with Paul Moorhouse, at the artist’s studio, London, 2015.