The Visual Sonority of Francis Bacon’s Painting in Jerzy Skolimowski’s “The Shout” (1978) (Review Article)

The structure of The Shout (1978) by Jerzy Skolimowski is built on the antagonism between two male protagonists, Anthony Fielding (Ian Hurt) and Crossley (Alan Bates). The first is a composer who records and experiments with natural sounds; the latter is a mysterious invader who claims to possess supernatural powers and is able to kill with his shout. The classically trained musician embodies human culture and order, while the other character denotes rough animalistic forces and natural elements. This contrast between the two characters is accentuated by other elements in the film that represent the norm and the irregularity, such as the cricket match played between the “sane” and the “insane” teams, or the “normal” and “abnormal” tree that grow nearby the mental asylum.

Jerzy Skolimowski (dir.), "The Shout" 1978. Image courtesy of Recorded Picture Company.

The motif of the shout is connected to the painting of Francis Bacon. The inarticulate scream of the Pope is, in fact, the third voice in the film. Reproductions of Bacon’s works hang in the composer’s studio, probably as a source of inspiration. They also represent a “feeling of absurdity” as the director pointed out once, and are a complement of the surreal sense of the film. The three paintings are also present in the film in form of a series of tableaux vivants. His grotesque figures, half-human and half-animal, represent the artistic ideal to which Fielding aspires but which he is never able to achieve.

The surrealistic story with references to electroacustic music and Francis Bacon occupies an important position in Skolimowski´s filmography. He has been gradually abandoning realism in his films since the second half of the 1960’s; The Shout is a final radical break from the realistic representation and rational plots. Skolimowski’s work in many ways escapes classification. The director himself has been considered an outsider by Polish critics and, as Ewa Mazierska has pointed out(Ewa Mazierska, Jerzy Skolimowski: The Cinema of a Nonconformist (London, Berghahn Books, 2010)), the foreign media have often failed to correctly identify even his nationality. He has been referred either as an international, British, American or Polish director. Skolimowski has indeed a truly cosmopolitan background. He was raised in Poland and former Czechoslovakia where he was schoolmates with Miloš Forman and Vaclav Havel. He later returned to Poland where he studied at the famous Film School in ?ód?. In the 1960s he worked mostly in Poland, with the exception of Le Départ (1967), which was filmed in Belgium. He realised several semi-biographical features such as Walkover (1965), The Barrier (1966), or Hands-Up! (1967). Since the 1970s he lived and worked mostly in the United States and United Kingdom where he made some of his better known films such as Deep End (1970), Moonlighting (1982), or The Lightship (1985). He is also an actor and a successful painter. He returned to Poland to film Four Nights with Ann after a 17 years long break from film-making, and, recently, he completed Essential Killing (2010) for which he was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival. The Shout is his third film made in Great Britain after Deep End and Adventures of Gerard (1970). The plot is based on a short story by Robert Graves(Robert Graves, The Shout (London: Mathews & Marrot, 1929)) and was adapted by Michael Austin for a screenplay.

Jerzy Skolimowski (dir.), "The Shout" 1978. Image courtesy of Recorded Picture Company.

The film commences with the arrival of Rachel (Susannah York) at a mental asylum, where she examines corpses deposited on the tables in the dining room. The action moves back to a cricket match played at the mental asylum between the patients and medical staff. One of the doctors introduces Robert Graves, interpreted by Tim Curry, to a very unusual patient: extremely intelligent and well-read, but “not entirely normal.” To explain his abnormality, the doctor shows him two trees, one strong and healthy looking, and another one with twisted branches and irregular shape. Graves and Crossley are the score-keepers and remain in the shed during the game; the patient points at one of the cricket players and starts relating how this man has lost his wife.

The action moves back again, this time to the North Devon coast. A married couple is sunbathing on the dunes while they are awaken by a vision of an Aboriginal shaman pointing a bone at them. This appearance will be soon explained as they experience an unexpected visit by a stranger, Crossley, who claims that he lived with the Aborigines in Australia for 18 years. He had an Aboriginal wife and children, but none of them survived as he exercised his right to kill them shortly after birth. This fact strikes the Fieldings as they have been unsuccessfully trying to conceive a child. Crossley also claims that a shaman taught him to kill with his shout and he proves his abilities the next day on the dunes. The composer collapses, even though he covered his ears for protection, but a shepherd and some sheep die. The appearance of the stranger at Fielding’s home causes distress and destroys their lives. Fielding is unable to compete with the intruder on an artistic or biological level, and his wife is unable to resist him. The intrusion of the stranger forces the couple to abandon their rational ways of acting and thinking. Rachel succumbs to his charisma and adopts a passive role in her new relationship. Her submission is represented in the scene of her transformation into a crippled creature from Bacon’s painting Paralytic Child Walking on All Fours (1961), shown in form of a tableau vivant based on the Bacon’s painting.

The only way the husband can defeat the stranger is by abandoning all reasonable and civilised forms of behavior. Fielding eventually beats Crossley by destroying the “soul-stones” that represent his spirit. Consequently the intruder is arrested for the assassination of his children, an act that is permitted in Aboriginal culture, but that is not acceptable in Western society. He is placed in an asylum and later dies during a cricket match, when the shed is struck by lightning. His body is recognised by Rachel in an improvised morgue in the final scene of the film.

The confrontation between the two main male characters results in a duel between the two poles, the civilised and the primordial self, and also in the duality of the soundspace, which on the one hand is represented by the musical experiments of the classically trained composer, and on the other hand, by the atavistic scream of the mysterious intruder trained by Australian Aborigines.

Fielding’s creative method follows the model of musique concréte, a type of electro-acoustic music that employs taped sounds and electronic distortion. He uses recordings of his own voice, instruments, or natural sounds, and transforms them electronically in the studio. This kind of music pretends to trespass the traditional idea of composition, harmony, or melody and produces all sort of sensations in the listener. Fielding transcribes natural sounds into cultural form, but we never hear the final result of his work as he tries in vain to capture the primordial essence of the sound.

In his studio, Fielding keeps stuffed animals, stones, and shells. He uses some of them to produce the sounds he records. There are three reproductions of paintings by Francis Bacon on the walls: Paralytic Child Walking on all Fours (1961), Head VI (1949), and Reclining Nude (1969). The first is inspired by a photograph from the series of studies on human locomotion realised by Eadweard Muybridge in the last decades of 19th century, the second belongs to a series of heads painted in 1949 and is inspired by the famous image of the screamingnurse on Odessa steps from the Battleship Potemkin and the portrait of the Pope Innocent X. The third picture is based on a series of photographs of his friend and model, Henrietta Moraes taken by John Deakin.

Fielding keeps these pictures in his studio as a form of inspiration for his own compositions. The three images also represent the three main characters of the film. The crippled figure is the composer, unable to produce a piece or a child; he is as unfertile as an artist as he is as a husband. The reclining nude figure on a bed is the wife, unable to control her attraction towards the visitor. Crossley is identified with the screaming figure of the pope from Head VI that might be identified as a patriarchal symbol, the Holy Father.

Crossley represents the atavistic element, as opposed to the civilized composer. The scream is one of the primordial reactions of the human being to fear or pain, the most primitive expression of emotions, and also a way to intimidate adversaries that we inherited from our animal ancestors. It is as such independent from the social or ethnic background. Crossley’s shout is a cultural throwback to a primitive form of being, a natural power uncontrolled by human logic. His voice in the film is being magnified using the Dolby stereo system, to make it sound supernatural and terrifying. Fielding also attempts to record his own shout in his studio, but the results are not comparable to Crossley’s sinister skills.

The third voice in the film is the painting of Francis Bacon. The depiction of scream in his painting contains a resonant element, a sensation of sound. Skolimowski represents in The Shout the visual motifs from Bacon’s paintings through a series of tableaux inspired by his images as well as the sonorous aspect of his work.

The works of Francis Bacon, who was very interested in film himself, have been extensively used and quoted in cinema. At least since the 1960s multiple references to his painting appeared in the films of directors such as Pier Paolo Pasolini (Accattone 1961, Theorem, 1968), Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris, 1971), Nicholas Roeg (Performance, 1971) and Derek Jarman (Caravaggio, 1987, Edward II, 1991), who were inspired by his representation of the human body and the connections between violence and sexuality. Bacon’s images have been a visual and narrative model for David Lynch surreal films and Peter Greenaway’s cinema of ideas. An interesting example of use of his painting is Love is the Devil (1998), John Maybury’s biopic based on Bacon’s life, where no actual paintings were shown, though his aesthetic is overly present in almost every frame. Bacon’s imagery was also frequently employed in horror and science-fiction films, like Ridley Scott’s Alien (1978), The Thing (1982) by John Carpenter and several works by David Cronenberg, where the key characteristic of his painting that inspired the film-makers is its violence.

Skolimowski’s treatment of Bacon’s works stands out in this wide panorama of films and film-makers influenced by the works of the British painter. The Shout shows a unique approach to Bacon’s work, exploring both visual and sonorous aspects of his painting, Skolimowski achieved a double ékphrasis, and a transcription of the visual content of Bacon’s painting into two different time-based media, film and sound.

In the film there are several direct references to Bacon’s painting; apart from the reproductions of the three images pinned on the wall, it is also present in the form of several tableaux vivants. The sequence of the transformation of Fielding’s wife into a primitive self is a tableau from Bacon’s Paralytic Child. The images of Ian Bates screaming are similar to the images of Bacon’s screaming figures. The upper part of Crossley’s face is often shadowed, so the eyes are invisible and the mouth is the center of camera’s attention, in a similar way that the face of the screaming pope is represented in Bacon’s Head VI. In the sequence shot on the dunes of Braunton Burrows where Crossley demonstrates his shouting skills to Fielding, Alan Bates is shown with his arms extended in form of a cross and with his mouth open, in a position that recalls the form of the crucifixion from Bacon’s paintings. Far from its original iconographic connotations, the crucifixion for Bacon is just another example of human behaviour. It is sometimes connected to the motif of the scream, as in the Fragment of a Crucifixion (1950), as an ultimate representation of an act of violence.

In The Logic of Sensation Gilles Deleuze distinguishes between two different kinds of violence represented in Bacon’s painting: one of spectacle, which refers to the explicit images of blood and brutality, and one of sensation, which relates to the spectator’s experience in front of the canvas. The pope’s scream in Head VI represents, according to Deleuze, “invisible forces,” the abstract idea of violence rather than visual horror. The motif of the scream in Bacon’s painting is associated with violence, and it has sexual connotations, such as the orgasmic scream. Crossley’s shout has a similar denotation in the film: his skills horrify the husband, but they impress his wife and help him to seduce her.

Michael Peppiatt has made the first attempts to represent the scream in Bacon’s first paintings, such as the Abstraction from the Human Form (1936), but the motif became more visible in his art in the 1940s and 1950s, particularly in the series of heads and screaming popes inspired by the Velázquez’s portrait of Innocent X. Bacon abandoned this topic in the following decades. He painted both human and animal screams, for example A Study of a Baboon (1953); he also represented the human figure with animal features. The profusion of those atavistic figures in his works is connected with is interest in the animal and primal side of human being. Bacon collected books on Darwin’s theory of evolution and the origins of man, as well as studies on zoology and images of hominids. Many of these illustrations torn from the books were found on the floor in his studio, and in many cases they were used as source material for his paintings. He attempted to paint the human figure as a primal self, disconnected from its cultural and civilized upbringing.

Deleuze mentions the resemblance between the painting of Bacon and the work of some contemporary composers such Alban Berg and Olivier Messiaen, whose works transmit sensations in a non-narrative way, and he also pointed on the similarity between Bacon’s representation of the primal scream and its use in Berg’s operas Wozzeck and Lulu.

Although Bacon himself apparently didn’t use musical compositions as a direct source of inspiration for his work, and the only reference to music or musician in his painting are the portraits of Mick Jagger, it is known that he was interested in contemporary music. He was a friend of Pierre Boulez, the composer of electroacustic music who is famous for his creative method of “controlled chance.”(The lithograph of The Second Version of the Triptych 1944 (1988) is subtitled En Hommage a Pierre Boulez) He also kept a close friendship with Gerhard Schurmann, the author of Six Studies after Francis Bacon (1968). Schurmann was probably the first composer who studied the works of the British painter as a potential source of inspiration. In the following decades, Bacon’s art inspired numerous composers of contemporary music, and the fictitious character from The Shout could be easily one of them. Authors such as Massimiliano Damerini (Omaggio a Francis Bacon, 1999), Mario Garuti (For Francis Bacon, 2002) or Mark-Anthony Turnage (Three Screaming Popes, 1989 and Blood on the Floor, 1996) were inspired by different facets of Bacon’s art. Their works represent both the violent feeling of his paintings and some of their iconographic elements, including their serial character; the form of the triptych; Bacon’s own artistic references to Spanish art; and even allusions to Deleuze’s Logic of Sensation (Garuti). Many of these pieces focus on the sonorous aspect of Bacon’s art: the motif of the scream and its resonance in a glass cage, or the sound of a blood drop falling on the floor. They represent the visual content of the painting as a musical ékphrasis, in a similar way to the way in which Skolimowski transcribed this facet of Bacon’s work into the medium of film.


Monika Keska is post-doctoral researcher at the University of Granada. In 2011 she obtained fellowship from the Spanish Ministry of Education, and she is currently working on a research project entitled “The Influence of Francis Bacon’s painting on Narrative Structures in Film and Literature.” She also participates in the “Bacon´s Books” project at the Hugh Lane Gallery/Trinity College, Dublin.