‘Only idiots fail to contradict themselves three times a day.’ Friedrich Nietzsche
This week a painting titled Three Studies of Lucien Freud, by Francis Bacon sold for $142.4 million at Christie’s New York, the highest price ever paid for a post-war painting. Was it worth it? It’s an indecisive painting. It’s a portrait of Lucien Freud but doesn’t look like him. Most areas are abstract but there are figurative elements. It’s titled ‘studies’ because Bacon felt unable to decide that a painting was finished.
Research into creative thinkers reveals personalities full of contradictions. Eminent psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered that creative people ‘contain contradictory extremes; instead of being an individual, each of them is a multitude.’
Francis Bacon is a fascinating example of how contradictory personality traits are essential to produce great art. Bacon was a giant of 20th-century art who captured the anxieties and frenetic energy of the 20th century with brutality and tenderness. His violent paintings are revered and hated in equal measure.
Francis Bacon frequented The Colony Room, a private members' drinking club in London’s Soho. Out with friends, I sometimes found myself in that glorious hellhole that was a magnate for the creative in London. Bacon was usually centre stage, in the thick of the party, but only after he’d spent long solitary hours in his studio. He switched from extrovert to introvert.
Psychologists use extroversion and introversion as the most stable personality traits with which to measure people. They can’t do this with creative individuals because they exhibit both traits simultaneously. Creative people tend to be both extroverted and introverted, sometimes the center of attention, sometimes observers on the fringes.
Francis Bacon exhibited another classic contradiction of creative thinkers; he was simultaneously rebellious and conservative. He was deeply immersed in the traditions and history of painting; he used oil on canvas, painted mainly portraits and placed his paintings in large gold frames. Yet he challenged the traditions. He painted on the ‘wrong’ unprimed side of the canvas, he applied the paint with dustbin lids and rags rather than brushes, and his subject matter shocked and outraged the public.
It’s impossible to be creative without having a deep understanding of an area of culture, but a creative person has to be rebellious and iconoclastic to break away from the safety of tradition and make something different.
I believe that the truth has only one face: that of violent contradiction. Georges Bataille.
Francis Bacon was intensely passionate about his work, yet extremely objective about it. He was capable of being totally immersed in a painting for hours and days, yet suddenly switch to being objective and detached to a point where he’d slash and destroy a substandard painting with a knife. Without passion, we soon abandon a difficult task. Yet without objectivity we can’t assess our work.
Francis Bacon’s personality contained numerous contradictions, playful but highly disciplined and humble yet arrogant. His admiration of Rembrandt and Van Gogh ensured he modestly saw his own contribution in perspective. Yet he would belittle and humiliate painters he considered third rate.
His paintings are great art because they reflect the contradictions of his mind. He painted savagely gashed human flesh, with sensitivity. A painstakingly worked area of paint was then attacked by a wildly thrown splash. His brushwork was brutal yet tender. Most works contain an area of jet black against pure white. These contrasts create tension and excitement. The constant contradictions within the paintings made them great. Whether this makes them worth $142.4 million I can’t say.
‘One is fruitful only at the cost of being rich in contradictions.’ Friedrich Nietzsche
Although a creative person’s contradictions are perplexing and frustrating to others, they are the source of their creativity. They can see the world in all its complexity. There is pressure in our culture to be clear what you stand for, make a decision and stick to it. It’s practically a criminal offence to change your mind. The result is rigid thinking. The creative mind has to contain multiple perspectives simultaneously. Contradicting yourself is a sign that you are thinking creatively.
Rod Judkins MA RCA is an artist, writer, and professional public speaker, delivering lectures and workshops that explain the creative process and help individuals and businesses to be more inspired in their lives and work. He is author of the international bestseller, Change Your Mind: 57 Ways to Unlock Your Creative Self.