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  • Anglo-Irish “Distortion”: Double Exposure in Francis Bacon’s Portraits and Beckett’s The Old Tune
  • David Clare

Many critics—most notably Michael Billington, James Knowlson, Jane Alison Hale, Erik Tonning, and Peter Fifield—have discussed the painter Francis Bacon’s probable influence on the visual images in Samuel Beckett’s work for the stage, particularly the disembodied mouth in the 1972 play Not I.1 This, however, is not the only way in which the work of these two artists is connected. Both men, each from an Anglican family residing in Leinster, shared an interest in depicting their exile from Ireland by superimposing two images on top of one another in their work.2 Bacon depicted the “fragmentation of self ” that results from exile by superimposing two faces on one another in his portraits.3 “Distortion, or contortion, in Bacon’s pictures sometimes occurs by his superimposing one image on another,” and the resulting obscured faces, especially those in his [End Page 102] celebrated self-portraits, evoke the idea that an exile is “distorted” by residing outside the country in which he or she was born and raised.4 In Beckett’s case, he depicted the psychological “distortion” engendered by geographical exile by superimposing places he lived as an adult on the greater Dublin of his youth. In the Four Novellas (written in 1946), Beckett performs, as Gerry Dukes has pointed out, “a kind of double exposure or montage in which he superimposes Paris and the river Seine on Dublin and the river Liffey.”5 Likewise, Scott Eric Hamilton has demonstrated that Beckett set the novel Murphy (1938) in a part of London laid out much like Dublin (even down to the repetition of certain placenames) to signify the confusion of the exile who, in many ways, resides in two places at once.6 Beckett also superimposes an English town or suburb on the Dublin suburbs in his 1960 radio play The Old Tune.

The expressionist painter Francis Bacon was born on Dublin’s south side in 1909. His mother was born in England but had Irish family connections; his Australian-born, English-raised father was a former British army officer who dealt in horses and was a strict disciplinarian. The family moved in the circles of the Irish gentry, and Bacon was raised in Big Houses in County Kildare (Canny-court in Kilcullen and Straffan Court near Naas) and County Laois (Farmleigh in Abbeyleix, which originally belonged to Bacon’s maternal grandmother before it was purchased by his father). Around the time of his seventeenth birthday, Bacon was banished from his family home after his father discovered him modeling his mother’s underwear in front of a large mirror. The young man moved to London, where he spent most of his adult life (though he spent two years in Berlin and Paris in the late 1920s).7

Bacon’s conflicted relationship with his Irish identity is evident from his frequent evasiveness on the subject. He would occasionally insist that he was not in any significant way Irish, and he actually suffered panic attacks whenever he attempted to fly back to his native country.8 That said, Bacon would also regularly tell interviewers that it was important to remember that he was born and raised in Ireland when considering certain aspects of his work.9 Even more [End Page 103] significant, throughout Bacon’s career, he fostered an image of himself as “the untutored lad, coming straight from the wilds of Ireland to produce a body of inexplicable, haunting images.”10 A notable example of this occurred before his first retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London in 1962; he explained to Sir John Rothenstein, the director of the Tate, that “I had no upbringing at all . . . I used simply to work on my father’s farm near Dublin. I read almost nothing as a child—as for pictures, I was hardly aware they existed.”11

Bacon’s sense of his own Irish identity can be seen from the fact that he “would always speak with affection and admiration about Ireland and the Irish,” that he had a great love of Irish writers (Joyce and Yeats, for example...


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