When an artwork engulfs you, perhaps even whips you, the image itself may not be material. Francis Bacon's picture-making is like that; although given recent review of a show titled Couplings at the Gagosian Grovsvenor Hill gallery in London, not all art critics see it that way. In a review of his double-figure paintings, a clearly moved Jonathan Jones, critic for The Guardian, seemed taken with the self-evident – as he put it - “two men locked in a fleshy grapple.

Looking past the self-explanatory

Granted Bacon pictures undisguised flushed flesh of a couple in a state of consuming intimacy.

But there are reasons to believe that something else is going on. Because the lovers are faceless and nearly formless, as if their fierce heat fused them together, they come across as a mound of molten protoplasm, or what Jones calls “our vulnerable human pulp.” And therein lies the clue to what else this picture series is about.

Fighting one's demons

When Bacon famously said his goal in art was to “unlock the valve of feeling,” he freed us all to think that his pictures are not just about two men wrestling with feelings for each other, but also about one man – the artist himself – wrestling with his own state of mind. Which makes Couplings a self-portrait, and by extension, a likeness of all of us who correspondingly wrestle.

Up in arms

You can see that same inward struggle in Bacon's most celebrated painting, 'Pope Innocent X,' which reeks of restiveness and uproar. Bacon is in this picture, and so are we. He's quoted saying as much in the 1990 BookAnecdotes of Modern Art” by historians Donald Hall and Pat Corrington Wykes: “I want to make a portrait...Out of despair, I just use paint and suddenly the thing I make coagulates.” His use of the word “coagulates” is telling.

His figures look like bleeding blurs suiting his aim to make “records of the nervous system...to unlock the vowels of feeling.

The message bears repeating

The Couplings series, then, is about more than two people pleasuring one another that Jones describes as “a taboo-busting opus of sizzling flesh.” While it's true that same-gender relations were frowned on when these pictures were made in the '50s, Bacon wasn't bent on “taboo-busting.” His own words tell you that.

"Hardly anyone really feels about painting.” That's his subject - “the vowels of feeling.” Whether he pictured a Pope or a pair of lovers, it's always that portrait he was after.

Seeing the light

Jones wasn't the only critic distracted by the goings-on of the bedded figures in Couplings. Edward Lucie-Smith, writing for Artlyst, called the work “the power of the illicit...brutally frank about Bacon's homosexuality.” Odd that he doesn't see past the seeable narration. But wait, at the end of his review, Jones spotted “the clenched fists” of the figures and said, “It is a tight ball of pure feeling.”Yess!