Art of the 20th Century


Art Styles in 20th century Art Map



Francis Bacon

(Encyclopaedia Britannica)

born Oct. 28, 1909, Dublin, Ire.
died April 28, 1992, Madrid, Spain

British painter whose powerful, predominantly figural images express isolation, brutality, and terror.
The son of a racehorse trainer, Bacon was educated mostly by private tutorsat home until his parents banished him at age 16, allegedly for pursuing his homosexual proclivities. Self-taught as an artist, he drifted in Berlin and Paris before settling in London in 1928, after which he worked as an interior decorator. He had also begun painting, though he did so without recognition until 1945, at which time the original and powerful style displayed in such works as “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” (1944) won him almost instant notoriety. His mature style emerged completely with the series of works known as “The Screaming Popes” (1949–mid-1950s), in which he converted Diego Velázquez's famous “Portrait of Pope Innocent X” into a nightmarish icon of hysterical terror.
Many of Bacon's early paintings are based on images by other artists, which he distorts for his own expressive purposes. Examples of such themes are the screaming nanny from Sergey Eisenstein's film Potemkin and studies of the human figure in motion by the 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Most of Bacon's paintings depict isolated figures, often framed by geometric constructions, and rendered in smeared, violent colours. He was admired for his skill in using oils, whose fluidity and mysteries he exploits to express images of anger, horror, and degradation. His later portraits and figure paintings are executed in lighter colours and treat the human face and body in a style of extreme distortion and contortion.
Bacon's devotion to his art stood in curious contrast to his subject matter and the eccentric squalor of his personal life. Because he destroyed many of his early works, only a few examples can be found, mainly in American and European museums.




The Realism of Francis Bacon


George Dyer, the most frequent model in Bacon's paintings until 1971, the year of Dyer's death.

The painter Lucian Freud, Bacon's friend and model, with whose works he has a certain affinity.

Isabel Rawsthorne, another frequent subject in Bacon's canvases, particularly in the 1960s.

Medical photographs of a kind that inspired a number of Bacon's figure paintings;
from K.C.Clark, 1929

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."


It is not unusual to hear the paintings of Francis Bacon described as Expressionist. Yet that label greatly annoyed the British painter, displeasing him even more than other, quite unflattering characterizations of his work. Most artists associated with Expressionism sought to project their emotions onto the world, deforming or distorting appearances toward that expressive end. Such art can, therefore, be considered idealist; exaggerated facial traits, for example, can flaunt the subject's distance from an imagined ideal.

Bacon's works have in common with some modes of Expressionism in modern art the violence of the pictorial gesture and the immediate effect of shock, but they could be considered Expressionist only in a very general sense. The artist himself summed up his work as an attempt to capture, through the painted image of the body, the sensations that its physical reality stirred within him. For Bacon, abstract art held little appeal; the human figure was the fundamental, and almost the only, subject. The figure is subjected to distortion in Bacon's work for reasons different from those of the Expressionists: what he seeks is to mock the routine, superficial way we generally look at ourselves and the world. He seeks to overturn conventions associated with everyday perception in order to bring the viewer closer to the raw fact of corporeal life. The objective is to upset the stability of the ordinary point of view, breaking down the protective barriers separating us from the immediacy of experience.


The Theater of the Body

Perhaps the term that best describes Bacon's work is "realism," a classification that is often employed too loosely but which here is meant in a special sense. In this case, realism does not mean direct, straightforward representation—something Bacon dismissed as mere "illustration," and from which he felt as far removed as from abstract painting. Instead it means a fidelity to the vital experience of living inside the body, which for him is a fundamental theme of art. Like the realists of the nineteenth cen-tury, Bacon scrupulously recorded the mobile, shifting reality of the human form with the means that painting placed at his disposal. The difference is that by Bacon's time, a century later, the arsenal of resources for painting is much greater; naturalistic, imitative criteria are no longer sufficient. Bacon's realism is, therefore, radically modern, and his point of departure, as he freely admitted, was Pablo Picasso's work from the late l920s, which is sometimes considered Surrealist, though of an unusually tough-minded kind.

The drama in Bacon's painting arises from the fact that, inevitably, the viewer cannot help but identify to some extent with what a picture shows. The distortion of the body's ordinary appearance in a painting can make us cringe with a new and discomforting sense of how human flesh and bone are constituted. With Bacon, the figure often appears at the edge of dissolution, just prior to becoming unrecognizable. The painter concentrates all the violence of the brushstroke in the human form, using the agitated pictorial material to embody the convulsions of the flesh. To achieve this effect, Bacon at times hurls handfuls of paint against the canvas, forming it subsequently with his hands, the paintbrush, or other direct means. In these ways he affirms his presence in all its "brutality of fact."


An Enclosed Space

In contrast, the space surrounding the figures is rigorously orthodox: the spatial boxes around the figures or the curves bending behind them are extensions of the viewer's own space. Critics have often attempted to see these boxes as an existentialist metaphor of anonymous, desolate places, like sordid rooms in cheap hotels, or prison cells; however, Bacon's painting resists any symbolic interpretation. Instead, the spaces he creates enclose the viewer along with the figure; they cast the viewer in the role of voyeur, looking in on some obscure private ritual. The settings are painted with flat, brilliant colors against which the pieces of furniture and banal objects—a light bulb, a switch—are placed like the actual objects in a Cubist collage. To Bacon, these items are "certainties": they are easily recognized bits of familiar reality that, by their corroborative presence, make the horror of the contorted figures true to life.


The Picture and the Viewer

The way that the pictorial space draws the viewer in is accentuated in the triptychs, a format virtually reinvented by Bacon for modern art. Different from traditional triptychs, where the sequence of panels often tells a story, Bacon made of them an involving space extending around the viewer, forcing us into intimate contact with the figures, pushed toward us from their bare enclosures.

"Real imagination ... is in the ways you think up to bring an event to life again. It is in the search for the technique to trap the object at a given moment." Thus Bacon sums up his pictorial strategy, which renounces any type of symbolism. His canvases signify no abstract ideas, generate neither icons nor emblems, only images for which interpretation, in the strict sense of the word, is inappropriate. We come upon them as if upon an accident. Their impact is overwhelming, like some obscene fragment of existence before which it is impossible to remain distant and aloof.


Francis Bacon  /1909-1992/

Francis Bacon in his Studio


Although he was born in Dublin and spent most of his childhood in Ireland, Francis Bacon must be considered an English painter, for that was his family's origin. His father trained racehorses in Dublin until he entered the War Office and moved with his family to London at the outbreak of World War I. Until 1925 the Bacon family moved frequently between England and Ireland. The continual moves, along with the fact that he suffered from asthma, prevented the young Bacon from attending school regularly, and he received his education mostly from tutors.

Becoming an Artist

In 1925, Bacon left his family and settled in London. After a brief sojourn in Berlin, he spent two years in France, part of the time near Chantilly. There he frequently visited the Musee Conde and saw Nicolas Poussin's Massacre of the Innocents (1630-31). The figure of the mother crying out when her child is torn from her greatly impressed Bacon, to the point of becoming a recurrent image in his first paintings. So did another famous cry, that of the wounded nurse with shattered eyeglasses in the scene on the Odessa Steps from Battleship Potemkin (1925), the renowned film by Sergei Eisenstein.

Picasso's exhibition at the Paul Rosenberg gallery in Paris in 1927 decided Bacon on a career in painting. The work of the older artist revealed to him that within the human form was a new, unexplored world whose inner drama could be brought to the surface. This would become Bacon's pictorial world.



Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud in Soho, 1974


Early Career

Settling definitively in London in 1928, Bacon soon earned a certain reputation as an interior decorator and furniture designer. Painting, which he began as a self-taught student, gradually gained more and more importance until it became his only activity. Little is known of his works from the 1930s, since Bacon himself destroyed most of them. In 1936 he submitted a picture to the "International Surrealist Exhibition," but it was rejected, perhaps a premonition that his work belonged not to the world of dreams and fantasies, but to the experience of the material world. In 1945 he established himself with the exhibition of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, which explores the format of the triptych, and Figure in a Landscape. He was associated at that time with other contemporary English figurative painters, like Graham Sutherland and Matthew Smith, as well as with the sculptor Henry Moore, and showed with them in several exhibitions. However, his incorrigible individuality was already apparent in canvases introducing his characteristic concerns. The primal scream he discovered in the work of Nicolas Poussin and in the scene from Eisenstein gave rise to works such as Head VI, Study after Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X (plate 3), and Study for a Portrait. These were among the most outstanding compositions he had produced by the early 1950s.


Photograph of wrestlers by Edweard Muybridge that gave rise to several of Bacon's paintings.

Photograph of wrestlers by Edweard Muybridge, 1887


Still from Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Poemkin, 1925, a source of the shrieking figures in Bacon's early paintings.


Portraits and Figures

Bacon began to use X-ray photographs in his work to give a sense of flesh-and-blood realism to his portraits and figure paintings. As part of his quasi-scientific search for the reality of the body, he also made use of the photographic studies of figures and animals in motion realized by Ead-weard Muybridge at the end of the nineteenth century. These sources became points of departure for many of Bacon's canvases. Another major concern was the relationship between the figure and the pictorial space, a relation that became more sharply defined; there appeared linear cubes that isolated the figures from their surroundings like transparent cages.

Bacon's international career was launched with his first solo show in New York in 1953 and his selection the following year, along with Ben Nicholson and Lucian Freud, for the Venice Biennale. In the 1960s, Bacon reached a new level of artistic achievement. Returning to the format of the triptych, he created Three Studies for a Crucifixion in 1962 (plate 5), transforming one of the central themes of his artistic career.

Additionally, the impact of his painting became more immediate, as can be seen in his portraits. Bacon painted persons from his circle of friends: their faces and names are now familiar to all devotees of the artist's painting, and they include Isabel Rawsthorne, Henrietta Moraes, Lucian Freud, and George Dyer. Bacon said that he never painted portraits of anyone except those close to him, since "if they were not my friends, I could not do such violence to them." Dyer was the most frequent model in the canvases of the 1960s, and his death in 1971 would weigh heavily on the artist.

The striking effect of Bacon's paintings and the carnal connotations of many of them extended his fame in this period beyond strictly artistic circles. The many exhibitions throughout the world devoted to Bacon's work consolidated his reputation, especially the retrospectives at the Tate Gallery, London, in 1962 (a second exhibition would be held there in 1985), and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1963.

A Solitary Path

Francis Bacon was one of the most powerful figurative painters of this century. His achievement is all the more remarkable since he emerged from an artistic setting that was, during the 1940s and 1950s, dominated by abstract art. Though postwar British art produced a number of important creators—Graham Sutherland, Lucian Freud, R. B. Kitaj, David Hockney—the implacable independence of Bacon's work resists all academic classification. As with other great figurative painters of his time—the Frenchman Balthus, the Spaniard Antonio Lopez, or Bacon's friend Lucian Freud—his was a solitary path, difficult for imitators to follow, but leading to a unique view of the spirit of the age. Francis Bacon remained active until the last year of his life. He died during a visit to Madrid in 1992.


Francis Bacon by D. Kasterine, 1979

Francis Bacon



Myth and Tragedy


In the evolution of Francis Bacon's art, especially in its initial stages, several motifs are repeated frequently. Some of them come from specific paintings of the past, such as the portrait of Pope Innocent X by Velazquez, the Eisenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grtinewald, or the Crucifixion by Cimabue. Others come from myths recounted in literature, as with the themes taken from the Greek tragic poet Aeschylus or from T. S. Eliot. When Bacon uses such materials, it is not a question of retelling their stories or giving a literal re-creation of earlier pictures, but rather of stripping those original structures down to their essential human content. If Bacon used themes from those sources to surround his work with an aura of tragedy, he did so in order to suggest what evoked the primal scream shown in his early canvases—the intimate violence of real things. These recurrent motifs therefore function as meeting points between one's individual life experience and a larger sense of myth—that ancestral repository which has managed to preserve forms of representation appropriate to complex, difficult subjects throughout the ages. The Crucifixions, the bullfighting scenes, and the references to tragic literature selected by Bacon thus have in common an urge to deal with conflicting feelings and unknown forces—an urge, indeed, toward catharsis. Beyond the individual interest of each work, these canvases provide the key to the type of relationship Bacon sought to establish between viewers and his paintings, something similar to the attitude we might assume before a ritual whose meaning is unknown to us.


Head VI
The first trace in Bacon's work of the portrait of Pope Innocent X by Velazquez.
The primal scream is the outstanding motif of these first canvases,
where nearly the entire face disappears in shadow,
leaving only the mouth that utters the cry.
The background is a sort of curtain of shadows from which the figure emerges.


Imaginary Portrait of Pope Pius XII

Study for Head of Cardinal with Glasses


Pope I


Pope II

Pope VII

Portrait of a Cardinal I

Study after Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X
The veil placed between the viewer and the figure of the Pope crying out derives
from the textures of X-ray plates that Bacon often utilized in those years.
The open mouth can be understood also as the result of a relaxing of the jaw that occurs in cadavers,
which would well suit the spectral aspect of this figure.


Study after Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X

Study after Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X

Study after Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X

Study for a Pope III

Study for a Pope III

Study for a Pope III

Study for Portrait I

Study for Portrait II

Study for Portrait III

Study for Portrait IV

Study for Portrait V

Study for Portrait VI

Study for Portrait VII

Study for Portrait VIII

Study after Innocent X
A later version of the Velazquez theme where the cry no longer appears.
The color has become lighter, and the spatial arrangement already characteristic of Bacon is present in all its elements:
the transparent cage, the perspectival space that leaves the foreground empty, drawing the viewer in.
Finally, the papal throne has been synthesized into simple volumes.


Study of Red Pope

Landscape after Van Gogh
Studies for Portrait of Van Gogh

Landscape after Van Gogh
Studies for Portrait of Van Gogh
Throughout the year 1957, Bacon completed several variations on the painting by Vincent van Gogh
called The Painter on the Road to Tarascon (1888); they are rare attempts in Bacon's
career to present an integrated treatment of figure and natural sunvundings.
Unlike his reminiscences of Velazquez, Rembrandt, or Muybridge,
here the painter starts from something like the pictorial and chromatic character of the original.


Van Gogh dans un paysage
Studies for Portrait of Van Gogh

Studies for Portrait of Van Gogh II

Studies for Portrait of Van Gogh III

Studies for Portrait of Van Gogh IV

Studies for Portrait of Van Gogh V

Studies for Portrait of Van Gogh VI

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