Black and white photo of author Milan Kundera.

Distortion & the Self – Milan Kundera & Francis Bacon

In Zoe Cameron Blog by Zoe Cameron

Black and white photo of author Milan Kundera.
Milan Kundera. Portrait taken in Paris in 1981. Czech born writer who has lived in France since 1975.

“for there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.” 

Milan Kundera, ‘The Unbearable Lightness of being’

Kundera’s novels are intense , and realms of moral judgment are suspended . As a young man in communist Czechoslovakia, he turned to the novel. Kundera recalls: The only thing I deeply, avidly, wanted was a lucid, unillusioned eye. I finally found it in the art of the novel. This is why for me being a novelist was more than just working in one “literary genre” rather than another; it was an outlook, a wisdom, a position . . . a considered, stubborn, furiousnonidentification.

It was as a young painter that I first discovered Kundera’s books, thinking at the time that his particular method of writing bore similarities to my partners working process, he was a painter. Revisiting one his books in my studio this week, it sparked my own thoughts about distortion in art and in life.

Open book on a paint palette.
Immortality. Milan Kundera. Studio.

Kundera, in his collection of Essays entitled, Encounters, one of the cultural figures he considers is the Irish born figurative painter Francis Bacon, he asks the question, “Up to what degree of distortion does an individual still remain himself?” It’s a question that resonates throughout the book. To what degree can we be distorted by violence and fear … in short, by history … and still be ourselves? Kundera sees this distortion everywhere, a distortion that art and artists embrace and explore. 

Three abstracted heads
Three studies of George Dyer. Francis Bacon.1966.

He described Bacon’s portraits as “an interrogation on the limits of the self, and considers “the brutal gesture” , the “hand movement that roughs up another person’s face in hopes of finding, in it and behind it, something that is hidden there”, and I really do see and understand that driving force in Bacons work.

During our lives, most of us will consider to what degree of distortion does a beloved person still remain a beloved person? For how long does a cherished face growing remote through illness, through madness, through hatred, through death still remain recognizable? Where is the border beyond which a self ceases to be a self?”.

Artist Francis bacon seated in his studio
Bacon in his studio.
2 figures and 3 interpretations of living flesh.
Francis Bacon.Three studies for Crucifixion. 1944. Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Critics tell us that Kundera’s subjects are mirrors, offering variously distorted reflections on his own work and situation, perhaps so. He did say, with reference to a remark by Francis Bacon about Beckett: “When one artist is talking about another, he is always talking (indirectly, in a roundabout way) of himself, and that is what’s valuable in his judgment,” so that does offer us some insight into himself and others .

Milan Kundera, Encounter

Milan Kundera and Francis Bacon, who transcend the mundane .