The Perpetrator Occult: Francis Bacon paints Adolf Eichmann

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Although his post-war images of bespectacled men in glass boxes have led many to assume he did, Francis Bacon never directly painted Adolf Eichmann. One of Bacon's first glass-encased portraits was produced in 1949, a good 12 years before Eichmann's trial. This essay uses Bacon as a hinge first, historically, to think about the different kinds of perpetrator occults in the Nuremberg Tribunal and the Eichmann trial, and second, interpretatively, to draw out a contrast between a kind of looking (generic to the war crime trial) that keeps the perpetrator behind glass, and a more implicated looking that allows us to begin to think about the types of perception and imagination, and the kinds of reflective judgements, we might bring to the war criminal. If Bacon seems an appropriate artist to draw into contemporary discussions about the perpetrator, this is not just because of the historical associations between his work and the trial. Bacon's painting is uniquely situated between, on the one hand, the rise of the documentary photograph within the history of the Holocaust, and on the other, a powerful drenching of nameless emotion in his work that is also often so present in representation of perpetrators, but rarely acknowledged in legal or historical discourse. Bacon's work sits uncomfortably between history and nightmare, documentary evidence and an image of hell as, I argue, do the perpetrators of the Holocaust in the juridical imaginary.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)101-120
Number of pages20
JournalHolocaust Studies: A Journal of Culture and History
Issue number2-3
Publication statusPublished - 2012

Cite this