Among the long list of talents of British artist Francis Bacon was his ability to explore subjects such as disembodied portraits, mangled, animal carcass-like bodies, screaming figures, crucifixions and popes in a way that is both beautiful and haunting, seductive and repulsive. Bacon’s work is heralded for his successful use of figuration to communicate the deepest, darkest human emotions.
Bacon was an Irish born British figurative painter who first moved to London in 1926 and later settled into his studio in South Kensington which has been transported in its entirety to the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin. His studio was cluttered with endless piles of books, paints, empty bottles and other detritus while the walls have splotches of paint reminiscent of a paint palette. The chaos of his studio is perhaps reflective of the artist himself, a reckless gambler and drinker who was exiled by his father at a young age for being homosexual. Throughout his career, Bacon was ruthless self-editor, a habit that began following his first solo exhibition in the basement of a friend’s house. After receiving an overwhelmingly negative response, Bacon destroyed all of his exhibited works.
Aided by the use of electrifying brushwork and rich colour while also drawing inspiration from masters like Michelangelo, Diego Velazquez, Edgar Degas and Vincent Van Gogh, Bacon brought to life highly shocking subject matter. Bacon translated these emotions and intensity into the expressive, graphic and raw imagery of his paintings and prints which carry a raw sense of anxiety and alienation.
From the late 1940s, Bacon notoriously painted on the “wrong” side of the canvas. This lifelong habit began when he was in Monte Carlo and found himself without any freshly primed canvases. Desperate to work, he opted to take a used canvas off its stretcher and paint on its back. Though it was a challenge, Bacon asserted that the unprimed side held the paint better, translated the appropriate texture which he created by blending sand into his paints and allowed thinner application of paint, which come through in his associated prints.
Bacon completed his first masterpiece in 1944 titled Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, now in the Tate collection. Formatted as a triptych and set against a bright orange backdrop, the work draws inspiration from Greek tragedies in the twisted and contorted central forms. First exhibited in 1945 towards the end of World War II and following the first release of images from Nazi concentration camps, the imagery of anguish, terror and revenge uniquely resonated with the public.
In 1962 Bacon would return to this topic once more in Three Studies for a Crucifixion, a largely red, orange and black triptych. From left two right are two assassins, a botched victim on a mattress and a hanging slab of meat. Though an atheist, Bacon constantly returned to religious imagery as it offered a predetermined format for him that allowed him to evade narrative content, which is furthered by the disjointing triptych format. Detesting narration, the manipulation of religious imagery allowed him to concentrate more completely on emotions and perception. This is particularly true of his use of the carcass which recalls Bacon’s belief that animals in slaughterhouses suspected their fate, much like humans which he alluded to in stating “we are meat, we are potential carcasses.” The painting therefore nods to human mortality.
Famous for religious imagery, most significantly for his popes, namely the purple-clad pope in Head IV from 1949. Based on Diego Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X from 1650, Bacon often copied works from Velazquez as an exercise, always taking his examples from reproduced images. In Bacon’s version, the pope is set in his trademark “space-frame” technique which traps the pope in a transparent cage. Allegedly a means for focusing the viewer’s attention onto the form inside the box, the space-frame simultaneously creates feelings of isolation and what the Tate calls a “claustrophobic, psychological intensity.”
Head IV has become iconic of Bacon, in part due to the scream released by the figure, a choice that was in part influenced by Sergei Eisenstein's film Battleship Potemkin from 1925. The scream can also be traced back to the 1920s when Bacon first saw Nicholas Poussin’s The Massacre of the Innocents, responding to the painting as “probably the best human cry ever painted.” Further, after purchasing a book in Paris in 1935 about diseases of the mouth, Bacon became entranced by the human mouth. Noting his particular interests in the movements, shape and teeth, Bacon went on to say that he hoped “in a sense to paint the mouth like Monet painted the sunset.”
It is a fascination that he explored further in other portraits, namely those of isolated heads such as Study for a Portrait. Using another motif that is characteristic of Bacon – the suited man – the portrait draws influence from Head IV, though with a scream that is perhaps less earth-shattering. The suited man recalls notions of status and power, which are undermined by the hospital-like curtain the figure is set against, directing the viewer to question the nature of his screams.
Important to Bacon’s depiction of figures were his sitters, an assembly of lovers and friends like Lucien Freud. Yet, Bacon never painted from life, instead opting to photograph his sitters to be painted later. One of his sitters was George Dyer, a lover and notorious criminal. Following Dyer’s untimely death in 1962 Bacon grieved through his works, including Three Figures and Portrait. One of the figures can be identified as Dyer while another is assumed to relate to the Greek Furies in its overarching theme of extreme suffering.
Later in his life, beginning in the 1970s, Bacon obsessively began painting self-portraits, stating that “people have been dying around me like flies and I’ve had nobody else to paint.” But painting himself also offered Bacon the benefit of turning his complicated questions with the human existence back to himself, allowing him to confront his own mortality before the canvas.