Francis Bacon (1909-1992)

'Self Portrait', 1971 (oil on canvas)
FRANCIS BACON (1909-1992)
'Self Portrait', 1971 (oil on canvas)

Francis Bacon, the artist, paints provocative and disturbing images that carry a raw sense of anxiety and alienation. They reflect that existential fear, loathing and incomprehension at the atrocities of the Holocaust that came to light at the end of World War Two.

Francis Bacon was was born in Dublin on 28 October 1909, the second of five children. He often came into violent conflict with his intolerant and authoritarian father who was a horse trainer and major in the British army. After irreconcilable differences over his sexuality, he left home at the age of sixteen to live with an uncle in Berlin. The Berlin that he arrived in was a melting pot for radical social and political ideas and had evolved as the capital of European culture in the 1920’s.

In 1928, Bacon moved to Paris where he decided to become an artist after seeing an exhibition of Picasso’s work. The following year he returned to London and set up a studio in South Kensington. His art was influenced by Surrealist abstraction but it did not gain much critical success. Around 1944, he destroyed most of the work he had produced to date as he believed that it failed to communicate the way he felt about the world.

Images of Primal Angst

'Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion', 1944
FRANCIS BACON (1909-1992)
'Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion', 1944
(oil on board)

The year 1944 was a turning point for Francis Bacon's art. He painted and exhibited the triptych, ‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’. The work was meant to shock and was consequently met with wide criticism over its horrific imagery.

'Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion' (left hand panel)
'Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion'
(left hand panel)
'Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion' (centre panel)
'Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion'
(centre panel)
'Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion' (right hand panel)
'Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion'
(right hand panel)

The three 'figures', bestial mutations of the human form, were Bacon's interpretation of the Furies: the three goddesses of vengeance (Alecto, Megaera and Tisiphone) from Greek mythology. Their task was to punish crimes that were beyond human justice. Bacon painted the work at the end of World War Two, as the accounts of the Nazi death camps were beginning to emerge. The three deformed ‘Figures’ were an apt metaphor for the corruption of the human spirit and the artist’s revulsion at man's inhumanity to man.

SEVERAL STYLISTIC ELEMENTS that recur throughout Bacon’s body of work are introduced in ‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’:

THE CRUCIFIXION AND GREEK MYTHOLOGY - Crucifixion themes and references to Greek mythology, particularly the 'Oresteia' trilogy by Aeschylus, are often used symbolically in the subjects of Bacon's paintings from this time onwards.

USE OF THE TRIPTYCH FORMAT – the triptych, a painting composed of three separate panels, was a devotional format that was first used in Christian altarpieces. Bacon used this form of display for two reasons. First, exhibiting such despairingly secular subjects in a religious format could only be viewed, in the context of the time, as a calculated act of desecration that would amplify the shock value and emotive response to his images. Secondly, the adjacent frames of a triptych arrangement allow Bacon to conduct a kind of abstract or psychological narrative between the consecutive images. The idea to use a triptych format was probably inspired by the expressionist paintings of Max Beckmann which Bacon would have seen in Berlin.

Sequential Images

'The Human Figure in Motion', 1880's (photograph)
EADWEARD MUYBRIDGE (1830-1904)
'The Human Figure in Motion',
1880's (photograph)

SEQUENTIAL IMAGES - 'I see images in series. And I suppose I could go on long beyond the triptych and do five or six together, but I find the triptych is a more balanced unit'. Francis Bacon never drew from life and always worked from photographs. He had a copy of Eadweard Muybridge’s pioneering book from the 1880’s, ‘The Human Figure in Motion’ which explored movement through series of still sequential images of people walking, running, jumping and wrestling. Muybridge’s photographs can be recognized as the source for many of the figures that appear in Bacon’s paintings. Another book that the artist referred to for some of his more tortuous poses was Clark's 'Positioning in Radiography'.

ANTIQUE FRAMES WITH GLASS – Bacon mounted his paintings behind glass and used traditional heavy frames. He covered his paintings with glass as he liked the subtle interaction between the viewer and the image that was created by its reflection. The traditional frames were a device that associated his art with the dignity and substance of the old masters. Francis Bacon’s most famous work, ‘Study after Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X’ is based on the painting by the great Spanish master.

'The Screaming Pope'

'Study after Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X', 1953 (oil on canvas)
FRANCIS BACON (1909-1992)
'Study after Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X',
1953(oil on canvas)

In 1953, Bacon painted ‘Study after Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X’. This painting, commonly referred to as 'The Screaming Pope', was based on Velazquez's 'Portrait of Pope Innocent X' of 1650 and is considered to be Francis Bacon’s masterpiece.

'Portrait of Innocent X', c.1650 (oil on canvas)
DIEGO VELÁZQUEZ (1599-1660)
'Portrait of Innocent X', c.1650 (oil on canvas)

Velazquez's portrait is a very skilful work as it conveys the dignity and authority of the Pope, the most powerful figure in the world at that time, while subtly revealing the suspicions and doubts of the inner man.

Bacon was obsessed by this image and between 1951 and 1965 he painted around forty five variations of the subject.

The idea of producing variations on a work from the past was probably inspired by Picasso who reinterpreted works by Grünewald, Delacroix, Manet, Gauguin and Velazquez himself. Bacon said, ‘Picasso is the reason why I paint. He is the father figure, who gave me the wish to paint………. Picasso was the first person to produce figurative paintings which overturned the rules of appearance; he suggested appearance without using the usual codes, without respecting the representational truth of form, but using a breath of irrationality instead, to make representation stronger and more direct; so that form could pass directly from the eye to the stomach without going through the brain.’

'Portrait of Cardinal Filippo Archinto', 1558 (oil on canvas)
TITIAN - Tiziano Vecellio (1508-1576)
'Portrait of Cardinal Filippo Archinto', 1558
(oil on canvas)

Bacon said that never saw Velazquez's original painting and worked from reproductions. He also used other photographic sources to conjure up the final image of the his 1953 version. Titian’s portrait of Filippo Archinto, where the cardinal archbishop of Milan is partially obscured by a transparent curtain, was probably the inspiration for the ghostly veil of paint that screens Bacon’s Pope.

‘The Battleship Potemkin’, 1925
SERGEI EISENSTEIN (1898-1948)
‘The Battleship Potemkin’, 1925
(still photograph from the film)

The inspiration for Bacon’s head of Innocent X comes from a still photograph from ‘The Battleship Potemkin’ (1925), a silent black and white film by Sergei Eisenstein. The image depicts the panic of a wounded nurse whose smashed pince-nez spectacles are splayed across her blood stained face. This fearful image held a fascination for Bacon who always kept a copy of it in his studio. It encapsulates his philosophy, ‘Painting is the pattern of one's own nervous system being projected on canvas’.

If Velazquez's 'Portrait of Pope Innocent X' portrays the public face of power while hinting at the private flaws of the man behind it, then Bacon’s ‘Study after Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X’ broadcasts his inner psychoses.

Bacon’s Pope inhabits an ethereal world of perpetual torment – a living hell from which there is no escape. He is paralysed with pain and fear, and jolted with shocks from his golden throne which has been transformed from a symbol of authority into an instrument of torture. The composition reaches its focal point as a primal scream shrieks from the pope's mouth. This is a scream that we have heard before: it echoes back to birth of modern expressionist art - ‘The Scream’ of Edvard Munch at the end of the 19th century.

Francis Bacon's art is full of paradox - he both repulses and seduces his audience simultaneously. He repulses them with his shocking subject matter and his dispassionate gaze which has the detached curiosity of a scientist watching a lab rat. However, he also seduces them by the rich sensual qualities of his beautiful paint surface with its electrifying brushwork and rich expressive colour.

The same kind of contradiction confounds his subject matter. While ‘Study after Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X’ attacks the authority of the Catholic Church, the social and religious establishment of his Irish childhood, it is also part of an obsessive fascination with its iconography (45 variations on the 'Innocent X' theme is certainly obsessive). Bacon, himself, revelled in such ambiguities, 'The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.........If you can talk about it, why paint it?'

Francis Bacon Notes

'Painting', 1946 (oil and pastel on linen)
FRANCIS BACON (1909-1992)
'Painting', 1946 (oil and pastel on linen)
  • Francis Bacon, the artist, was born in Dublin on 28 October, 1909, the second of five children.
  • He left home at the age of sixteen and went to live in Berlin.
  • In 1928 he decided to become an artist after seeing an exhibition of Picasso’s work in Paris.
  • His early work (1929-1944) was influenced by Surrealism but did not gain much critical success.
  • In 1944 Bacon exhibited ‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’ to a public outcry due to its horrific imagery. This was the key painting in the development of Francis Bacon’s work.
  • After painting ‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’ he destroyed most of his early work as he believed that it failed to communicate the way he felt about the world.
  • ‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’ introduces many of the characteristics associated with Francis Bacon’s art: mutilated imagery, a sense of anxiety and alienation, the triptych format, antique gilt frames with glass and subjects that relate to the Crucifixion and Greek mythology.
  • Bacon never painted from life - he always worked from photographs.
  • Photographic references that Bacon frequently referred to were Velazquez's 'Portrait of Innocent X', the wounded nurse from the film 'The Battleship Potemkin', Muybridge’s ‘The Human Figure in Motion’, Clark's 'Positioning in Radiography' and medical textbooks that illustrated diseases of the mouth.
  • Bacon's art was seen as a metaphor for the corruption of the human spirit in the post World War Two era.
  • Bacon often painted variations of the same subject and sometimes revisited certain subjects many years later. ‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’ has a later version painted in 1988.
  • Francis Bacon died of a heart attack in Madrid in 1992.