Francis Bacon created some of the most crucial images of the wounded and traumatised humanity seen in post-war art.
Following the success of our LookingforU series on Instagram, Unit London are proud to present U-Greats, our celebration of modern masters of visual art, from across the globe, who have preceded and inspired the next generation of emerging creative talent. U-Greats will cast a weekly spotlight on iconic creators who, over time, have informed and inspired both our represented artists and the team here at Unit London.
This week we present to you Francis Bacon.
With a reputation as the masterful chronicler of the bleak human condition throughout the 20th century, his canvases remain unmistakable to this day for their chaotically arranged, highly grotesque and contorted depictions of the figure.
Francis Bacon,Three Studies of Lucian Freud, 1969
Frequently enclosed in dark, claustrophobic geometric-like spaces and set against undetailed flat backgrounds; Bacon’s figures are frequently alone – their heads a composite of two or three separate views, “I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail leaving its trail of the human presence… as a snail leaves its slime,” he once said. His signature motifs include popes, crucifixions and screaming disfigured heads characterised by a blurred sense of motion – derived from his sporadic use of photography, film and most importantly, his own memory as reference material. In an interview with David Sylvester in 1966, Bacon stated that the presence of a sitter ‘inhibits’ him, as his subjects generally perceive distortions as injury, and are generally distressed by the uncomfortable truth Bacon unveils in his paintings. ‘They inhibit me because, if I like them, I don’t want to practise before them the injury that I do to them in my work. I would rather practise the injury in private by which I think I can record the fact of them more clearly.’ Bacon described the screaming mouth as a catalyst for his work. His obsession with depicting the mouth drew on several sources, including a book he purchased in Paris in 1935 on the anatomical diseases of the mouth and an iconic still of a screaming nurse from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin. ‘I like, you may say, the glitter and colour that comes from the mouth, and I’ve always hoped in a sense to be able to paint the mouth like Monet painted a sunset.’
“I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail leaving its trail of the human presence… as a snail leaves its slime”
Francis Bacon, Three Studies For A Crucifixion, 1944
Mostly self-taught, Bacon has drawn influence from an inexhaustible list of artists including Vincent Van Gogh, Eadweard Muybridge, Rembrant, Masaccio and Diego Velázquez. With the authority of an old master, whilst belonging very much to the present, Bacon’s influence can be seen amongst a host of contemporary artists including the Young British Artists – Jake and Dinos Chapman, Jenny Saville and Damien Hirst.
Born to an English family in Dublin in 1909, Bacon was the son of Christina Firth, a steel and coal heiress and Edward Bacon, a race-horse trainer and Boer war veteran. Bacon’s childhood was plagued with a sense of displacement; his family moved house frequently between England and Ireland and as an adolescent Bacon frequently ran away from his school in Cheltenham. After learning about his homosexuality Bacon’s father, imperious and overbearing, threw him out of the family home. With little formal schooling Bacon arrived in London in 1926 with a weekly allowance of £3 from his mother’s trust fund.
Bacon’s formative years were spent in Europe- indulging in Berlin’s nacreous underworld and taking in the captivating wonders of Paris’ art scene. Without formal teaching in art, Bacon instead weaved his own self-directed education. Although Bacon did start to paint and draw by attending free academies in Paris in his early 20s, he subsequently drifted for several years as an interior decorator, bon vivant and gambler. Bacon’s first painting to garner public attention, Crucifixion (1933), was unfortunately very poorly received. Dejected and disheartened, Bacon abandoned painting for nearly a decade.
With the coming of war in 1939, Bacon was exempt from military service in account of his asthma and after spending time with both Lucian Freud and Graham Sutherland in the early 1940s, Bacon gained confidence and began creating works that were later marked as the true beginning of his career as an artist. Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) are generally considered Bacon’s first mature pieces and were first shown at the Lefevre Gallery in 1945 to unease and acclaim in equal amounts. Remarking on the cultural significance of Three Studies, critic John Russel observed in 1971 that “there was painting in England before the Three Studies, and painting after them, and no one … can confuse the two.”
Francis Bacon, Second Version of Triptych, 1944
The early 1950s saw a period of huge success for Bacon. His first post-war solo exhibition included works inspired by Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1950). These paintings of Popes, were later punctuated by paintings of entrapped figures in suits and followed by images of sphinxes and animals inspired by a trip to Egypt and South Africa. The exhibition of paintings after Van Gogh (Hanover Gallery, 1957) lead to a departure from monochromatic works towards those with a broader range of colours. In 1961 Bacon settled in Reece Mews in South Kensington, and in the following year the Tate organised a major retrospective of his works, which saw the resurrection of the triptych, which would later become his characteristic format. Bacon’s international reputation was then cemented after a major retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1963. In the 1970s, Bacon travelled regularly between Paris and New York and his exhibitions became ever more wide-ranging: spanning Marseilles, Madrid, Barcelona and Tokyo. Following a second retrospective at the Tate in 1985, Bacon was hospitalised with pneumonia exacerbated by asthma and died on 28 April. In a landmark event in 2013 , Bacon’s Triptych (1969), which depicts Lucian Freud perching on a wooden chair, set the record for the most expensive work ever sold at auction at a staggering $142.4 million.