Art of the 20th Century


Art Styles in 20th century Art Map






Francis Bacon (1909-1992), arguably the preeminent British painter of the twentieth century, was also for forty years the most controversial. Bacon's art often appears deliberately disturbing. His subject was the human form. Bacon reinterpreted the physical construction of the body with a new and unsettling intensity. To him it was something to be taken apart by the artist's penetrating gaze and then put back together again on canvas. He forces us to see, perhaps for the first time, the separate shapes and stresses hidden in the familiar human figure.

Bacon's treatment of the face could be especially challenging. In his portraits, generally of people the artist knew well, the subjects are sometimes shown screaming. Even in repose the features shift and reshape themselves before our eyes, yet they never become unrecognizable despite the swirling paint.

Often called an Expressionist or even a Surrealist, Bacon himself strongly rejected both labels. He insisted that in its own way his work was close to the world we see every day, remaining true to what he called "the brutality of fact."





Figure and Space


The concept of representation takes on a double meaning in Bacon's painting, for his works can be understood in almost theatrical terms. From the 1950s onward a clear difference can be observed between the treatment of the figure—violent, distorted, riven with complexities—and the treatment of the space around it, which is arranged like a bare stage. The contrast between the highly charged figure and its relatively neutral, flat surroundings is part of the visual theater designed by the artist; he places the painting's viewer in the same situation as a spectator at a peep show—confronting a figure displayed at a moment of profound intimacy, held in a linear box like a cage. It is made clear that the space enclosing the figure encompasses the viewer as well, since the box is simply an extension of the viewer's lines of perspective.


Figure in a Landscaspe

The image of the person seated on the park bench is fused with the surroundings,
emerging from them in an unexpected fashion.
Bacon had not yet developed the kind of pictorial space that appears in the 1950s.


Figure Study I


Figure Study II


Figures in a Garden

Study for Crouching Nude

The tension in this figure derives directly from Michelangelo's nudes.
Yet the figure is given an elusive, almost vaporous pictorial treatment
that contrasts with the definite linear prism in which it is contained.
It contrasts as well with the circular space, like a circus ring,
whose rigid physicality is emphasized by the numerical
calibrations marked on the railing behind the figure.


Crouching Nude on a Rail


Seated Figure

Two examples of how the painter exploits the relationship between figure and space.
In these two canvases the figure appears trapped in his pose,
crushed against the chair or the bed as though he were only a vestige of himself,
his mere lifeless skin, molded by the pressing weight of the surrounding space upon him.


Sleeping Figure


Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe

The same subject is repeated with six years' difference.
In the second version the motif of the needle disappears,
and instead the light bulb and switch appear,
activating the space above the figure.


Lying Figure


Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe


Two Seated Figures

The two figures, with the look of businessmen in the waiting room
of a station, occupy a closed, domestic space.
The surprising verisimilitude of the chairs derives from Bacon's
early experience as an interior designer.


Seated Figure

Seated Figure


Seated Figure


Man and Child


Study for a Portrait

The portraits made before the 1960s are somewhat generic,
lacking particularized identities.
They can be understood as the artist's reflections on the possibilities of the form,
similar to the images based on Velazquez in the same period.



Man in Blue I


Man in Blue III

Man in Blue IV

Man in Blue IV

Man in Blue VII


Study for a Portrait of a Man in Blue


Portrait X


Study for figure II

After the life mask of William Blake III


After the life mask of William Blake III

After the life mask of William Blake III

Three studies of the Human Head


Three studies of the Human Head


Three studies of the Human Head

Sketch for a Portrait of Lisa


Landscape near Malabata, Tangier

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