Saturday, 2 May 2015

The Importance of the Scream | Pende Masks and Francis Bacon

Mbangu Sickness Masks | Pollitt Collection

Pollitt Collection
Pollitt Collection
Let us study two different entities at the same time. Both coming from very different cultures yet have a universal visual language of pain. Francis Bacon's Portraits in connection with Mbangu Sickness Masks from the Pende people from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their skilled craftsmanship of twisted faces on wooden masks depict the mental anguish felt by many of those oppressed and worn whilst jumping over an open fire. The colours that make up the masks are mainly white with hints of red. The suffering seen in the Congo for centuries is for many almost unbearable. It is no wonder when wanting to dig into the soul of man one need look no further than the Pende people of Central Africa.

The loss of faith in humanity in the late 1940s was such that the human image in art became increasingly difficult to portray. The existential despair expressed by Jean-Paul Sartre in Nausea at the beginning of WWII, 1938, found a visual counterpart in the early 1960's in the images of despair and alienation of Francis Bacon.

In Edinburgh in 2005, John Berger described Bacon as the 'prophet of a pitiless world':

"He repeatedly painted the human body, or parts of the body, in discomfort or agony or want. Sometimes the pain involved looks as if it has been inflicted; more often it seems to originate from within, from the guts of the body itself, from the misfortune of being physical."
Personally, I believe it comes from a sense of being regarded by the public as a homosexual pervert, a weirdo with mental-illness and sexual preferences different from the rest of the world. Growing up for Bacon must have been cripplingly difficult, feeling as I'm sure he did, such an outsider. The relevence of these works are vital as they were created after the Wolfenden Report of 1957 and at the time Britain decriminalised homosexual acts in private in 1965.
Homosexuality and Psychology
Mbangu Sickness Masks | Pollitt Collection

Psychology was one of the first disciplines to study homosexuality as a discrete phenomenon. Prior to and throughout most of the 20th century, common standard psychology viewed homosexuality in terms of pathological models as a mental illness. That classification began to be subjected to critical scrutiny in the research, which consistently failed to produce any empirical or scientific basis regarding homosexuality as a disorder or abnormality. As a result of such accumulated research, professionals in medicine, mental health, and the behavioral and social sciences, opposing the classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder, claimed the conclusion that it was inaccurate, and that the DSM classification reflected untested assumptions that were based on once-prevalent social norms and clinical impressions from unrepresentative samples which consisted of patients seeking therapy and individuals whose conduct brought them into the criminal justice system.
Since the 1970s, the consensus of the behavioral and social sciences and the health and mental health professions globally is that homosexuality is a normal variation of human sexual orientation, while there remain those who maintain that it is a disorder. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder. The American Psychological Association Council of Representatives followed in 1975. Thereafter other major mental health organizations followed and it was finally declassified by the World Health Organization in 1990. Consequently, while some still believe homosexuality is a mental disorder, the current research and clinical literature demonstrate that same-sex sexual and romantic attractions, feelings, and behaviors are normal and positive variations of human sexuality, reflecting the official positions of the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association.

 Francis Bacon | Study of Isabel Rawsthorne, 1966
Sigmund Freud's views on homosexuality were complex. In his attempts to understand the causes and development of homosexuality, he first explained bisexuality as a normal part of the "original libido endowment," by which he meant that all humans are born bisexual. He believed that the libido has a homosexual portion and a heterosexual portion, and through the course of development one wins out over the other. He also believed in a basic biological explanation for natural bisexuality in which humans are all biologically capable of being aroused by either sex. Because of this he described homosexuality as one of many sexual options available to people. Freud proposed that humans' inherent bisexuality leads individuals to eventually choose which expression of sexuality is more gratifying, but because of cultural taboos homosexuality is repressed in many people. According to Freud, if there were no taboos people would choose whichever was more gratifying to them- and this could remain fluid throughout life- sometimes a person would be homosexual, sometimes heterosexual. 

Francis Bacon | Portrait of Lucian Freud
Some other causes of homosexuality for which he advocated included an inverted Oedipus complex where individuals begin to identify with their mother and take themselves as a love object. This love of ones self is defined as narcissism, and Freud thought that people who were high in the trait of narcissism would be more likely to develop homosexuality because loving the same sex is like an extension of loving oneself.

Freud believed treatment of homosexuality was not successful because the individual does not want to give up their homosexual identity because it brings them pleasure. He used analysis and hypnotic suggestion as treatments, but showed little success. It was through this that Freud arrived at the conclusion that homosexuality was "nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation, it cannot be classified as an illness, but a variation of sexual function." He further stated that psychoanalysts "should not promise to abolish homosexuality and make normal heterosexuality take its place," as he had concluded in his own practice that attempts to change homosexual orientations were likely to be unsuccessful. While Freud himself may have come to a more accepting view of homosexuality, his legacy in the field of psychoanalysis, especially in the United States viewed homosexuality as negative, abnormal and caused by family and developmental issues. It was these views that significantly impacted the rationale for putting homosexuality in the first and second publications of the American Psychiatric Association's DSM, conceptualizing it as a mental disorder and further stigmatizing homosexuality in society.

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