What Michel Platnic Learned From Francis Bacon

In a solo exhibition in Tel Aviv, the French-born Israeli artist recreates and brings to life portraits by the 20th-century English painter.

David Bachar

Michel Platnic’s favorite work in “After,” his solo exhibition at Tel Aviv’s Gordon Gallery that closes on June 14, is the one he completed most recently, just before the exhibition opened, and which he said took the least amount of effort.

The painting is titled “After Study for Portrait II (after the Life Mask of William Blake), 1955.” The convoluted name stems from the fact that it, like most of the works in “After,” is based on a painting by the 20th-century British artist Francis Bacon: In this case, one that was itself based on the life mask of the 19th-century English artist and poet William Blake, so in effect it represents a chain of artistic responses.

Although Platnic’s paintings are technically complex, each one taking several months of intensive work, he completed this self-portrait, if that’s the right name, in just two weeks. But those two weeks came after an entire year of trying to improve an earlier version of the same piece with which he was dissatisfied. After attempting repeatedly to fix the painting, Platnic decided simply to start over, and then suddenly, he says, it was exactly “it.”

The uncompromising search for that “it” characterizes Platnic’s entire life to date. He was born in Paris suburb 44 years ago and studied electrical engineering. He says he always did many other things as well, knowing that electrical engineering wasn’t exactly his dream vocation, but it came easily to him. He also engaged in music, dance and theater.

“I wanted to do something that would allow me to express myself in a total fashion,” he says. At some point he took courses in sociology and anthropology. “I thought I would go in that direction, but essentially I needed terms to use to describe phenomena that disturbed me, like the way Europe related to other parts of the world. Then I realized that other people were already dealing with that, so I could rest assured and deal with other things.”

Fifteen years ago he immigrated to Israel, and for him that was the first “it.”

"After Lying Figure", 1966, 2013. Photo by Courtesy

“I didn’t ask myself too many questions. I wanted to live outside of France. I looked for work in Indonesia and all kinds of places, and suddenly I thought, why not Israel? In Israel I began to search for what I wanted to do when I grew up.” That’s how he got into art.

“A friend casually suggested that I take a painting class, where I made my first painting. I immediately bought paints and began painting a lot, in every spare moment I had. When I felt stuck I studied classical drawing technique and classical sculpture at the Kibbutz Artists Workshop. When I again felt stuck, because I was missing a more conceptual dimension, beyond technique, I went to study at Hamidrasha, Beit Berl College’s School of Art.”

Platnic says he immediately felt that he’d come to the right place, and that he was finally doing what he was meant to do and was good at. Ever since, he says, he always acts on impulse, even though his work seems to be the result of careful theoretical construction.

“Everything comes from intuition. Afterward there is, of course, a long process of thought, during which I ask why, how and what the context is. But the first thing is what comes from the void, really, not from thought. It’s not that one day I said, ‘Wow, I love the work of Francis Bacon, perhaps I’ll turn his colors into a living human figure, because that connects with the performance art of the 1970s, or because of the mixture of media’ or I don’t know what. I just felt that I wanted to revive it, to try to bring into reality the distortions he created, his painterly line and his brush line. That was the initial impulse.”

After the spontaneous drive that Platnic describes comes the lengthy, complex and difficult technical work. “After” also includes video installations based on Bacon’s paintings that at first glance appear to be identical to them but which are actually moving pictures, in which the characters from Bacon’s paintings come to life and build the space in which they exist. To achieve the effect of Bacon’s brushwork, Platnic applies paint to the bodies of his life models. To create the distorted effect so characteristic of Bacon’s figures, Platnic attaches prostheses to his models. For the works comprising three “paintings,” there are relationships between the different parts of the triptych, and sometimes characters pass from one space to the next.

What was it about Bacon’s paintings that bothered you and compelled you to respond?

"After 'Triptych, 1983,'" 2014. Photo by Courtesy

Platnic points to his own “After Three Studies of Lucien Freud, 1969” (2014), in which he turned the Israeli artist Jonathan Hirschfeld into the 20th-century German-born British painter, a friend and contemporary of Bacon, posing him in a metal cagelike construction as in the original Bacon portrait, and explains his approach to Bacon’s painting in philosophical terms.

“Bacon encloses all his characters within something. There’s a claim, which he really didn’t agree with, that he had been subject to numerous Existentialist influences, especially in the post-World War II world, which he saw as a world without meaning. That’s why he essentially builds everything, and before and after there’s nothing. Everything is for him — that is, for the figure in the painting.

“This also leads to a certain attitude toward the ‘other’, who for Bacon was a type of threat. He erases his face. And what I do is restore this face. I’m more influenced by the philosophy of [Emmanuel] Levinas, for whom the human face is the way to communicate with the ‘other.’ The other person is thus not a threat, but turns into a possibility, an opportunity. For the existentialist the vision is immanent, everything is right here, while for Levinas there’s something extra, the face brings another world into your world. In my work there is essentially a passage between the outside and the inside. This is no longer the Bacon’s face that is left trapped in the space. There are many works that ask what this framework is and how we can break it.”

So you’re trying to make a double correction — in the technique, the visual, and in the meaning?

“I don’t know about the technique. I use video, which of course allows me to bring life to a character, and I exploit that. But the correction is maybe in the sense of a response to Bacon, or perhaps in the sense of a new understanding that’s influenced by the time that has passed. What’s important to me in all these works is not to ask a question about the visual, because the visual from afar looks exactly like Bacon’s work. What interested me was the essence. Whoever looks at it says, ‘I’ve seen this already, it looks like Bacon. So what have you done, anyway?’ and the answer is connected to the essence of the work, which deals with what is a person and what is my attitude toward Bacon’s work.”

Platnic’s working method is virtuosic, and it’s impossible not to be impressed by the technical effort and artistic ability that is manifest in his re-conceptualizing a situation that is actually an exact reproduction of a Bacon painting. But Platnic insists that the process is not the important thing. What matters to him is the fact that everything is produced in reality, everything is real, and not the result of sophisticated computer work.

“I start with Bacon, who painted according to what his senses remembered or from photos that he distorted, and I take this memory, bring it into reality, and then I document it. That means it passes through reality. And in all this work it is very important to me that this takes place. That what Bacon did is not just in one’s thoughts, but is possible in the real world. Suddenly a thought, or a memory, becomes something real in the world. So I don’t know if the process of rebuilding the painting anew is important to me, but the fact that it’s real is very important to me.”

There is something about all this that is very not postmodern. You insist on taking the things that are the most physically liquid and undefined and giving them a body, turning them into an object. In your work, you turned one of Bacon’s brushstrokes into a chicken leg. Why is it so important to you to create all these elusive things?

“I’m really using his line to my advantage so as to illustrate it in reality and build my own story. He talks about a random brushstroke, and I take this random thing and turn it into an object that exists in my world. I also exploit the world of my interpretation, and this pushes me away from his work in a different direction. In general, when we have memories, as we think of them we distort them. Bacon paints something that passed through his emotional memory. He is trying to imitate or recreate something he felt. And I’m trying to turn a memory into something more tangible, to make it a reality.”

You describe here a long course of processing and thought, whereas you previously said it all started from intuition.

“Yes, I’ve already moved away from intuition at this stage. But apparently the madness of his work connects me to him. His work is very strong. His approach to the body, the way he places the body in the space. My first works also deal with the connection between the body and the space, in an effort to merge it. And he does that also. I wanted to connect, to learn from him.”