Francis Bacon

"Art is a method of opening up areas of feeling rather than merely an illustration of an object..I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail, leaving a trail of the human presence and memory trace of past events as the snail leaves its slime."

- 1964

Francis Bacon was one of the most influential figure painters of the twentieth century. Through his highly personal paintings, especially the male portraits of his contemporaries, Bacon  expressed an astonishing range of emotions, from reverence to horror to mockery, which suggests that his obsession with the subject had deeper psychological roots. However complex and mysterious the imagery in Bacon’s works are, the pictures were not intended to have a precise meaning but, in Bacon’s own words, to ‘trap reality’ with the greatest possible intensity without falling into illustration.

Born of English parents, Bacon was brought up in Ireland and arrived in London in 1925. Although largely self-taught, severe bauts of asthma precluded him from attending school, he was widely read and of great independence of mind. In 1927, at the age of 17, he left home to spend eight weeks in Berlin, before moving to Paris. For a year and a half, he visited the Parisian galleries which stimulated an interest in painting. In 1943, exempt from military service because of his asthma, Bacon turned to painting as a full-time activity.

During his first decade as a painter, from 1943-53, Bacon absorbed a great deal of visual information from photographs, surrounding himself in the studio with news photos, reproductions of Old Masters, and scientific studies, including the human figure engaged in simple actions such as walking, jumping or wrestling and animals in motion by the 19th-century photographer Edward Muybridge. He was inspired by Muybridge’s practice of photographing sequential phases of movement to paint several series of pictures in which a single figure is shown in successive stages. Calling himself a "pulverizing machine," he drew freely from these various sources in his search for images that could reveal some deeper truth about the human subject. His early work made him the most controversial painter in post-war England.

Starting in 1953, Bacon began to develop a less distorted style that was more directly based on images of contemporary life and sometimes on specific friends or acquaintances. A characteristic subject at this time was the man in blue series: an executive seated in a darkened room of inky blue in front of curtains or venetian blinds, with flesh colours delicately smeared and smudged on to the stained background. This technique sometimes gave the figures an insubstantial, almost ghost-like character.

Bacon had the greatest admiration for the painterly quality of the work of the Spanish painter Diego Velázquez. He admired Velazquez’s ability to combine grandeur and humanity in his portraits, especially the portrait of Pope Innocent X, a source for many of his paintings- including Study for Portrait No. 1, 1956. The black field of the large canvas engulfs the figure of the Pope, which he distorts with paint, giving the image an impression of being conjured out of nothing.  It also demonstrates his use of sequencing which suggests the traces of time.

Bacon favoured the large scale triptych format, and the placement of his figures behind a space frame, a device Bacon often employed to isolate his figures even further. Another device was the open mouth, based on the image of the screaming nanny in Eisenstein's film The Battleship Potemkin or could have been inspired by a second-hand book owned by Bacon on the diseases of the mouth containing plates of open mouths and oral interiors, which both haunted and obsessed Bacon for much of his life.

Bacon’s later work of the seventies was intimately connected with his personal life. The paintings consisted mainly of self portraits and portraits of particular people he knew well. He chose to paint from memory or from photographs rather than from life because the process of painting, as he conceived it, involved doing great violence to the image in order to intensify it, and he found it easier to do this in the absence of the model. In order to break away from standardized procedures and to open up new possibilities, Bacon believed in chance methods, such as throwing a splash of paint at the canvas. He saw these processes as a sort of risk-taking related to his love of gambling, particularly roulette.

However much his reputation grew in later life, Bacon never lost his capacity to surprise nor his willingness to risk failure. His taste for strangeness remained firmly in evidence even in his late work.

Francis Bacon had his first retrospective exhibition in 1965 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London and a second big retrospective in 1985-86 at the Tate Gallery, London. Between these dates he had many international solo exhibitions.