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."





Portraits of Friends


The human presence is basic to all of Bacon's work. Thus it is not strange that portraiture comprises the most abundant genre in his production. Yet there is something unexpected about his painting portraits: in the pictorial tradition, the portrait has often been seen as a second-class form, and its principal function, moreover, was illustrational. A portrait painter is generally expected to illustrate the social or professional condition of the subject. Bacon transformed what a portrait could be. In the 1960s his closest friends became his models. In another unusual step, Bacon customarily employed mundane snapshots as a reference rather than have his models present. Painting from photographs helped Bacon maintain a certain objective distance. Yet paradoxically, his freedom from the subjects' actual presence allowed him to re-create them with remarkable immediacy. He said, "In trying to do a portrait, my ideal would really be just to pick up a handful of paint and throw it at the canvas and hope that the portrait was there."


Study of George Dyer


Portrait of George Dyer Talking


Portrait of George Dyer Riding a Bicycle

The figure exhibits many of its dynamic possibilities:
the direction of the bicycle, the positions of the leg pedaling
and the face viewed bothfrontally and in profile.
The resultant whirlwind frozen in motion lends intensity
to a seemingly innocuous image.


Study for George Dyer


Study for Head of George Dyer


Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror

From the early 1960s until his death in 1971,
George Dyer would be the portrait subject most frequently painted by Bacon.


Portrait of George Dyer Crouching


Geogre Dyer


Three Studies of Lucian Freud
The triptych multiplies the visual possibilities in the interplay between figure and surroundings.
The turning of the spatial prism encasing the figure in each panel generates a sequence of facial distortions.
In the left panel, the different facets of the prism produce the faceted presentation of the face,
shown in both frontal and profile view simultaneously, as Picasso had done.


Study for Head of Lucian Freud


Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne
The small portrait triptychs were inspired by police mug shots.
What really interested Bacon, however, was the formulaic
repetition of the head in different views— different
attempts to capture the essence of the subject's face.
Despite the deformation of the features, the face
always remains recognizable, and is never reduced to a mask.


Study for Head of Isabel Rawsthorne


Study for Head of Isabel Rawsthorne

Study for Portrait (Isabel Rawsthorne)


Study for Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne


Study of Isabel Rawsthorne


Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho

 Bacon rarely places his figures in an exterior setting.
When he does, the theatrical artifice of his painting becomes more evident.
In this painting, the street is suggested by means of a kind of backdrop behind the linear box.
However, the scene does not lose its immediacy from this, and perhaps because
of that tour deforce the canvas always remained one of Bacon's favorites.


Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne

 The sequence of images seen in the triptychs is here condensed
into a single panel, with a separate rectangular area for each face.
One of the three studies is presented as a picture pinned to the wall.


Three Studies for Henrietta Moraes

Three Studies for Henrietta Moraes

Retrato de Henrietta Morales


Henrietta Moraes


Study of Henrietta Moraes laughing


Three Studies for a Portrait of Peter Beard
Beard was the most frequent model for the portraits completed after the death of George Dyer.
The circle superimposed on apart of the face is here also a means to distort its mass,
as though part of the jaw or cheek were seen through a magnifying glass.
These enlarged details probe the person's physical presence.


Three Studies for a Portrait of Peter Beard

Portrait of Peter Beard


Portrait of Jacques Dupin


Portrait of Michel Leiris


Portrait of Michel Leris

A marked spatial break along one axis—
generally the curve of the nose or the arch of the eyebrows—
is one of the typical means employed in Bacon's portraits in order
to disrupt the features of a face.
This is no doubt a lesson he learned from the Picasso compositions
of the twenties and thirties that Bacon had first seen in his youth.


Study for Portrait of J.H.

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