Analytical essay on the work of Francis Bacon

Described once by Margaret Thatcher as “that man who paints those dreadful pictures.”, Francis Bacon is most well known for his unnerving art work that examines the darker side of the human condition. By the time of Bacon’s death in April of 1992, he was considered as not only one of the most well-established modern figurative painters of the 20th century, but also as one of the most controversial due to his turbulent personal life. Bacon was self taught and only gained recognition for his painting work in 1945. After visiting a Pablo Picasso exhibition in the Summer of 1927, Bacon struck with the idea of becoming an artist. He became inspired by the mark making of Picasso and shortly afterwards began drawing and painting watercolours. Bacon’s first notable success as a painter was in 1933 with Crucifixion. However, Bacon’s career faltered shortly after with his first solo painting exhibition in 1934 receiving negative criticism. Due to the negative criticism of his show he ruthlessly destroyed all the displayed paintings in an act of self-editing which recurred several times through his career as a painter. Bacon then only painted sporadically until the year 1945 in which critics began to show an appreciation for his work. It was in 1962 that Bacon began to paint in series of three, a style which permeated the rest of his artistic life. His first of these series paintings were ‘Three Studies for a Crucifixion’.
Bacon is best known for his large scale paintings showing writhing human forms and biomorphic surrealism. These paintings are often deemed obscure or horrific, however Bacon stated that it was never his intention to horrify, but instead to show the importance of mortality: ‘“If life excites you, its shadow, death, must also excite you,”
. This idea reflects beautifully in his paintings, which can often be hard to look at, but also excite and attract the senses. They are created from a crescendo of colour and lines that assault the sense, but attract the soul. There are many recurring themes in his work, these include claustrophobia, homosexuality, figures and medical images. Bacon often worked on one theme for a time, producing a series of paintings then moving on to a new theme. This is said to have happened due to Bacon finding difficulty in focusing on one topic for too long without becoming bored of it. The only theme which is considered to have remained throughout his painting career is the theme of human emotion. Bacon has cited many artists as inspiration, the most dominant being Picasso, however other artists have included Vincent van Gogh and Rembrandt.


Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X’ 1953 is Bacon’s most iconic painting. It is Bacon’s version of the painting ‘Portrait of Innocent X’ painted by the Spanish artist Diego Velázquez in 1650. It is a vibrant, yet violent expression of human emotion. The pope is seen as screaming, however Bacon used a series of accelerated lines as a veil to prevent and sound from escaping the scream. The painting is full of emotion and the use of the vivid yellow and purple contrast starkly with black void of the background. The image is full of movement and brutality that is only accentuated through the scale of the painting. Despite the painting being of the pope, Bacon denies the painting has political implements and simply suggests that ‘When talking about the violence of painting, it’s nothing to do with the violence of war. It’s to do with an attempt to remake the violence of reality itself.’


Study for Portrait on Folding bed’ 1963 is a prime example of the biomorphic 

surrealist style of painting that Bacon mastered. The figure is distorted almost to the point where it is illegible. The tones of the paint used to describe the shape of a body and a head are visceral and bold, creating the appearance of flesh or meat. The body in the picture takes an organic form using no straight lines to describe itself. The dribbles and droplets of black paint suggest bodily fluids, suggesting towards violence. The figure is placed in a background that is given shape through geometric shapes and block colours. The blue colour used the the painting of the bed was used in other paintings of the same period, as well as the stripes on the mattress, this domestication alongside the vastness of the background could refer to Bacon’s personal existential struggle and feelings of isolation at the time. Art historian David Mellor, proposes the idea that such pictures familiarise with Walter Sickert’s Camden Town paintings of prostitutes on beds: ‘where gross, abject matter was well to the fore’. This theory ties in with not only Bacon’s interest in the lurid side of life, as well as the black paint splatters on the canvas.


Towards the later half of Bacon’s career, he focused on a series of self portraits. The most well recognised from this series is “Self-portrait”, 1971. Bacon said of painting portraits: “I have been reduced to doing a lot of them recently,” he says, “because all my friends are dead.” This frankness is shown in his work through the absence of a background, leaving the head floating in a black void. The gnarled and twisted form of the head references back to Picasso’s portraiture. There no notable expression on the face, yet there is a visible numbness and a melancholy. Bacon has left the eyes of the face black. As the eyes are what a person naturally looks at first in a portrait, the lack of pupils and iris show a distinct lack of intimacy and attachment in the face. This gives a feeling of alienation. Bacon used a sweeping, softness in the brush strokes which is similar to the way in which he created the ghostly looking figures that appear in the backgrounds of his earlier paintings, the use of white and blue also reference this. The image is not supposed to be aesthetically pleasing or beautiful, but it is meant to surpass that and look at the emotion painted into the portrait. This is a common theme which recurs in many of his paintings.


In ‘Second Version of Triptych 1944’ 1988 we are once again familiarised with the beasts first seen in ‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.’ 1943-44. The main difference between two series of paintings is that the orange of the original background has been changed to a blood red colour, which could suggest a violence which is prevalent in a large amount of Bacon’s paintings. David Sylvester has also referred to this as ‘a metaphor for violence by one which was literally the colour of blood’.The space behind the figures has also been expanded, creating an even larger void for the creatures. The three creatures are said to represent the vengeful Greek furies from from Aeschylus’s Oresteia, however they have been placed into a Christian context, due to the crucifix, which is another theme seen a lot during Bacon’s work. The bodies of the creatures have a softness and the haziness that is especially visible on the third creature is ghost-like. The first creatures colours are fleshy and raw, whereas the two other creatures seem to have more of a mechanical feeling, especially due to the two screws on the neck of the second creature. The detail on the mouths and the teeth can be traced back to an obsession Bacon had with oral interiors after purchasing a book on diseases of the mouth in 1935 that haunted him for the remainder of his life.

Paul Moorhouse has referred to the importance of ‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’ as ‘a key image in the consciousness of the postwar generation’ and relates it to the idea of mortality.

Bacon’s paintings examine the human condition in a way which is often left undiscussed in todays society. His work not only harks back to the greats, but also helped to breathe new life into the modern art movement of the 20th century. Although not all critics would agree with this opinion, it is hard to deny that Bacon rattled the cages of art at the time. His works will be consistently relevant throughout time as they mimic human emotions such as anxiety and despair that are experienced by everyone at one point or another. The vulgarity and violence shown through his work will always have a human presence attached to it which is extremely attractive. Without Bacon’s influence, the art world would surely suffer, and not in the way he would have intended.


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