“An artist must learn to be nourished by his passions and by his despairs.” – Francis Bacon
A recent public discovery of a work by Francis Bacon, Study of a Bull (1991), has re-ignited curiosity surrounding the British artist, so we have complied of some of the most interesting facts about the audacious painter.
Francis Bacon was born in Dublin, Ireland, to English parents. He was named after the 16th century philosopher of the same name, of whom he was also a distant descendant. He grew up between Ireland and England, and was homeschooled due to aggressive asthma. His life was flecked with vivacity and controversy, but became one of the world’s most famous and respected painters; and was the subject of two Tate retrospectives and a major showing in 1971 at the Grand Palais.
Margaret Thatcher once described Bacon as “that man who paints those dreadful pictures”. Yet Bacon maintained he was merely encouraging people to acknowledge what was already there: “You can’t be more horrific than life itself.”
His Style and Sequences
Bacon’s style is instantly recognisable and entirely idiosyncratic. His work tends to deal with morality and violence; the figures are abstracted, often screaming, and blurred, heightening the transience of his subject matter that he sets in typically non-descript backgrounds. He first gained critical acclaim with his Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion which was painted during the horrors of the Second World War and many believe this secured his position of the chronicler of the monsters lurking inside the human condition. After seeing Three Studies, John Russell observed that “there was painting in England before the Three Studies, and painting after them, and no one…can confuse the two.”
His paintings were often in the diptych or triptych format, such as his triptych Three Studies of Lucian Freud.
Though he rejected any pigeon-holing, his oeuvre can be loosely framed in sequences and variations of a single motif. This began in the 1930s with his Picasso-informed Greek Furies, in the 1940s he transgressed to male heads isolated in rooms or structures, the early 1950s saw his fascination with screaming popes and the mid-late with animals and lonely figures. The 1960s began with his variations on scenes of the crucifixion and the mid-60s saw him creating portraits of his friends and drinking buddies. After the death of his lover George Dyer in 1971, Bacon’s art took a more melancholy turn as he became more existentialist and pre-occupied with death; climaxing in his Study for Self-Portrait and Study for a Self Portrait -Triptych, 1985-86.
Apparently the inspiration for Bacon’s screaming faces came from a medical book he bought in Paris, on diseases of the mouth, that remained branded on Bacon’s brain for the rest of his life. It’s also reported Sergei Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin (1925) was an influence, with Bacon keeping a photographic still of a screaming nurse from the film in his studio.
He Destroyed Most Of His Early Works
Bacon certainly succeed in the end, but he got off to a bit of a shaky start: only starting painting in his early 20s, and along with being an ardent self-critic and very unsure of his own abilities, his Picasso inspired work Cruxifixion was his first to gain public attention and was not well received, after this he worked only sporadically in to his early 30s.
It was the ruthless self-critic he harbored inside him that ensured he tore up many of his early works, making sure no one would see them. And it was his un-precious approach to the canvas (and a dose of poverty) that lead to an important discovery: he preferred to use the unprimed reverse of the canvas, as he explains in an interview with Melvyn Bragg in 1985: “Well, I was living once down in Monte Carlo and I had lost all my money, and, I had no canvases left and so, the few I had I just turned them, and I found that… what is called the wrong side, the unprimed side of the canvas worked for me very much better, so I’ve always used them. So it was just by chance that I had no money to buy canvases with.”
His reusing of canvases also accounts for the dearth of early work from the artist.
He Started Off As An Interior Decorator
After stint in Berlin and then Paris, where he first saw Poussin’s Massacre of the Innocents, which he would later return to in his own work; Bacon went to London and set up a studio in South Kensington, the studio was for his work as an interior designer. He mostly designed furniture, carpets and rugs and his Queensberry Mews studio was featured in the August 1930 issue of The Studio magazine, in a double page spread entitled “The 1930 Look in British Decoration” which showed his work including a large round mirror, some rugs and tubular steel and glass furniture largely influenced by the International Style – a major architectural style that emerged in the 1920s and 1930s.
True to form when Bacon discovered his passion for painting, he destroyed most of his interior designs. Though, two rugs surfaced at auction in 2012 that Bacon reportedly created, however uncertainty over their origins resulted in them being left unsold.
He Had A Film Made About Him
Bacon and his relationship with George Dyer was portrayed in the 1981 film Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon, with Derek Jacobi playing Francis Bacon and Daniel Craig playing Dyer. George Dyer and Bacon had met as Dyer was trying to rob Bacon’s home in 1963. Dyer was an alcoholic and of a delicate nature, allowing Bacon and his new-found wealth to control him:
“Bacon would goad George into a state of psychic meltdown and then, in the early hours of the morning – his favourite time to work – he would exorcise his guilt and rage and remorse in images of Dyer aimed, as he said, at the nervous system,” wrote John Richardson; one of which, Portrait Of George Dyer Talking, sold for £42,194,500 on Valentine’s Day in 2014. Dyer would take an overdose of barbiturates in 1971, leaving Bacon utterly distraught; which, would go on to influence his work, taking it to an even darker place from then on. Tilda Swinton plays Bacon’s friend Murial Belcher (then-owner of the Colony Room on Dean Street Bacon would frequent) in the film.
Most Expensive Painting Ever Sold
Francis Bacon is considered one of Britain’s greatest painters of the post Second World War generation, and is also recognised as an important influence on the generation of figurative artists in the 1980s. The market for Bacon’s work sky-rocketed after his death in 1992, and on 12 November 2013 his triptych we mentioned earlier, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, set the world record for the most expensive piece of art sold at auction, selling for $142,405,000. This would go on to be exceeded by the sale of a Picasso in May 2015 with Les Femmes D’Alger for $179,000,000.
N.B. If you’re in/visiting Ireland – in 1998, the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin received the donation of the contents of Bacon’s London studio. The items have been used to replicate the studio, which has been open to the public since 2001 and contains some 570 books, 1,500 photographs, 100 slashed canvases and 70 drawings.