Francis Bacon Life and Art Periods

"An illustrational form tells you through the intelligence immediately what the form is about, whereas a non-illustrational form works first upon sensation and then slowly leaks back into the fact."

SYNOPSIS

Francis Bacon produced some of the most iconic images of wounded and traumatized humanity in post-war art. Borrowing inspiration from Surrealism, film, photography, and the Old Masters, he forged a distinctive style that made him one of the most widely recognized exponents of figurative art in the 1940s and 1950s. Bacon concentrated his energies on portraiture, often depicting habitues of the bars and clubs of London's Soho neighborhood. But his subjects were always portrayed as violently distorted, presented not as sociable and charismatic types but as isolated souls imprisoned and tormented by existential dilemmas. One of the most successful British painters of the twentieth century, Bacon's reputation was elevated further during the widespread return to painting in the 1980s, and after his death he was viewed by some as one of the world's most important painters.

KEY IDEAS

Biomorphic Surrealism shaped the style of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), the work that launched Bacon's reputation when it was exhibited in London in the final weeks of World War Two. The work established many of the themes that would occupy the rest of his career, namely humanity's capacity for self-destruction and its fate in an age of global war.
Bacon established his mature style in the late 1940s when he evolved his earlier Surrealist style into an approach that borrowed from depictions of motion in film and photography, in particular the studies of figures in action produced by the early photographer Eadweard Muybridge. From these Bacon not only pioneered new ways to suggest movement in painting, but to bring painting and photography into a more coherent union.
Although Bacon's success rested on his striking approach to figuration, his attitudes toward painting were profoundly traditional. The Old Masters were an important source of inspiration for him, particularly Diego Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X (c.1650) which Bacon used as the basis for his own famous series of "screaming popes." At a time when many lost faith in painting, Bacon maintained his belief in the importance of the medium, saying of his own working that his own pictures "deserve either the National Gallery or the dustbin, with nothing in between."
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FRANCIS BACON BIOGRAPHY

Childhood

Born in Dublin, Francis Bacon was named after his famous ancestor, the English philosopher and scientist. His father, Edward, served in the army and later took a job in the War Office during World War I. In an interview with critic David Sylvester, Bacon attributed the connotations of violence in his paintings to the turbulent circumstances of his early life. A British regiment was stationed near his childhood home, and he remembered constantly hearing soldiers practicing maneuvers. Naturally, his father's position in the War Office alerted him to the threat of violence at an early age. Returning to Dublin after the war, he came of age amidst the early campaigns of the Irish nationalist movement.

Young Francis had little formal education due to his severe asthma and the family's frequent traveling for Edward's post. Bacon's mother, Christina, lived the life of a socialite, and with his father away at work, Francis was often left to his own devices. Although he had four siblings, Bacon had a close relationship with his nanny, Jessie Lightfoot, who later came to live with him in London.

Family relations became increasingly tense as Bacon dealt with his emerging homosexuality. He was finally expelled from the house in 1926 after his father caught him trying on his mother's clothing. Surviving on a small allowance, Bacon lived the life of a vagrant, traveling around London, Berlin and Paris. Despite his father's hopes, the change of scenery only freed Bacon to further explore his sexual identity; his time Berlin proved particularly important in this regard and was later remembered by him as one of emotional awakening.

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Early training

Bacon moved into a London apartment in the late 1920s and became involved with interior and furniture design. One of his patrons, the artist Roy de Maistre, became a mentor to Bacon and encouraged him to take up oil painting. Bacon modeled his early work after Picasso and the Surrealists, whose work he had seen on a trip to Paris. In 1933, Bacon exhibited Crucifixion, a skeletal black and white composition that already radiated the overtones of pain and fear that would become typical of his later work. The painting was simultaneously published in Herbert Read's book Art Now, and was quickly purchased by Sir Michael Sadler. Encouraged by his success, Bacon organized an exhibition of his own art the following year, but it received little attention. His paintings were also surveyed for inclusion in the International Surrealist Exhibition, organized by Herbert Read, but were rejected for not being surrealist enough. Discouraged, Bacon returned to a drifter's lifestyle and only painted sporadically between 1936 and 1944. He destroyed the majority of his work from before 1943, and only fifteen pieces from this early period have survived.

Francis Bacon Biography

Due to his asthma, Bacon was unable to join the armed forces during WWII. He was accepted as a member of the Air Raid Precaution sector, which involved non-military search and rescue, only to be discharged when he fell ill from the dust and rubble. "If I hadn't been asthmatic, I might never have gone onto painting at all," he admitted. After the war, he took up painting with a renewed passion, regarding Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) as the true beginning of his work. The long necks, snapping mouths and contorted bodies featured in the painting express horror and suffering, a forceful commentary on the aftermath of the war. Bacon modeled the figures after photos of animals in motion, showing an early interest in the movement of the body that became a strong theme in his later painting. During its exhibition at Lefevre Gallery critics were mostly shocked by the blatant imagery, but the numerous reviews put Bacon into the spotlight.

Mature period

His breakout success at the 1944 exhibition gained him further opportunities to show with Lefevre. Graham Sutherland, a friend and fellow exhibitor, also recommended him to the director of Hanover Gallery, where Bacon had his first solo exhibition in 1949. For this show Bacon painted a series entitled Heads, significant for being the first series to introduce two important motifs: the first was the scream, derived from a film still drawn from Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin in which an injured schoolteacher is shown screaming [in pain?]; the second is Diego Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X (c.1650), a painting Bacon only knew through reproductions (and which he would always maintain never to have seen in the original). The Heads series also made greater use of enclosing devices that suggest a pervasive sense of claustrophobia and anxiety, in this instance a shallow cage-like outline which Bacon had also employed in Three Studies from 1944.

In 1953, Hanover held an exhibition of Bacon's paintings that included Two Figures, a depiction of two men embracing in bed, an image that created a huge scandal. The composition was based upon photographs of wrestlers taken by the Victorian photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904). Bacon preferred to work from photographs, relying on his friend John Deakin to take pictures of his subjects, but he was fascinated by Muybridge's attempts to capture and record bodies in motion. Bacon kept a collection of Muybridge's books in his studio as a constant source of reference, and even suggested that his intensive study of these sequential photographs triggered his own interest in working in series.

Bacon's tendency to derive inspiration from personal experiences also attracted him to portraiture. He often painted close friends (Lucian Freud, Isabel Rawsthorne, Michel Leiris), and the results convey a striking emotional and psychological intensity. One of Bacon's most famous subjects was his friend and lover George Dyer, who he met in 1964. During the course of their relationship, Bacon executed numerous portraits of Dyer that juxtaposed a strong musculature with a feeling of vulnerability, as in Portrait of George Dyer Crouching (1966), suggesting an affectionate yet protective attitude toward the younger man. Dyer suffered from alcoholism and episodes of depression, ultimately committing suicide on the night before Bacon's first retrospective in France in 1971.

Francis Bacon Photo

Late years and death

After the Paris exhibition Bacon moved increasingly toward self-portraiture, claiming, "people around me have been dying like flies and there is nothing else to paint but myself." Continuing to work steadily, he completed a number of paintings in tribute to Dyer's memory. Many of these took the form of large format triptychs, including the well-regarded "Black triptych" series that recounted the details of Dyer's passing. In 1973, Bacon became the first contemporary English artist to have a major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. His work was exhibited internationally throughout the later years of his life, including retrospectives at the Hirshhorn and the Tate Gallery. In the mid 1970s, Bacon met John Edwards, who replaced both Dyer and Deakin as Bacon's constant companion and photographer. In his last years, Bacon retreated from his formerly boisterous social life, focusing on his work and the platonic relationship with Edwards. He died of a heart attack in Madrid at the age of 81.

LEGACY

Bacon's unique interpretations and the intensely personal nature of his work make it difficult to visually trace his influence in contemporary art. Nevertheless, his paintings have inspired some of the most standout artists of this generation, including Julian Schnabel and Damien Hirst.

John Edwards, who inherited the estate, played an important role in promoting Bacon's work until his death in 2003. He was responsible for the donation of Bacon's studio to the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin, and this was turned into a permanent exhibition and research archive.

Original content written by The Art Story Contributors
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FRANCIS BACON QUOTES

"I'm greedy for life; and I'm greedy as an artist. I'm greedy for what I hope chance can give me far beyond anything I can calculate logically. And it's partly my greed that has made me what's called live by chance - greed for food, for drink, for being with the people one likes, for the excitement of things happening. So the same thing applies to one's work."

"I'm working for myself; what else have I got to work for? How can you work for an audience? What do you imagine an audience would want? I have got nobody to excite except myself, so I am always surprised if anyone likes my work sometimes. I suppose I'm very lucky, of course, to be able to earn my living by something that really absorbs me to try to do, if that is what you call luck."

"what once looked entirely of the moment has turned out to be timeless, and what once rang out like an individual cry of pain has been taken up, all over the world, as the first oboe's 'A natural' is taken up by the whole orchestra."
- John Russell speaking about Bacon's work

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon Influences

Interactive chart with Francis Bacon's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

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Eadweard Muybridge
Eadweard Muybridge
Born on April 9, 1930, Eadweard Muybridge was an English photographer who spent most of his life in the United States. He is famous for his pioneering work on animal locomotion, particularly horses. He performed these studies by using multiple cameras and his zoopraxiscope, a device for projecting motion pictures that predated the flexible perforated film strip that is used today.

Modern Art Information Eadweard Muybridge
Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso
Picasso dominated European painting in the first half of the last century, and remains perhaps the century's most important, prolifically inventive, and versatile artist. Alongside Georges Braque, he pioneered Cubism. He also made significant contributions to Surrealist painting and media such as collage, welded sculpture, and ceramics.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Pablo Picasso
Diego Velazquez
Diego Velazquez
Diego Velazquez was a Spanish artist, court painter for King Philip IV, and one of the leading figures in the Baroque period. Known as a master of detail and light, Velazquez's work has been a significant influence on generations of artists and movements, from Realism to Surrealism.

Modern Art Information Diego Velazquez
John Deakin
John Deakin
John Deakin was an English photographer, who today is best known for documenting the social circle of artist Francis Bacon, which included the likes of Patrick Swift, Lucian Freud and George Dyer, among others. Because of these associations, Deakin is a much celebrated figure in the Soho arts scene of 1950s London. Deakin excelled at portraits of leading figures in literature, art, theater and film, and enjoyed a successful but brief career with British Vogue.

Modern Art Information John Deakin
George Dyer
George Dyer
George Dyer was an English bon viveur and the lover of Francis Bacon for close to 8 years. Dyer and Bacon were said to bring out the best and worst in one another, as both men had penchants for hard living and drinking. Throughout the 1960s, Dyer would be the subject of several paintings by Bacon and a photographic study by John Deakin. Eventually, Dyer's alcoholism and compulsive behavior won out, and he committed suicide in 1971 in Paris, on the eve of Bacon's largest retrospective to date.

Modern Art Information George Dyer
John Edwards
John Edwards
John Edwards was a close friend of artist Francis Bacon and the sole beneficiary of Bacon's estate, which included paintings and other property, with an estimated worth of $17 million. Although both Edwards and Bacon were gay, the two men were never romantically involved. Following the death of Bacon's lover George Dyer, Edwards's friendship was considered a deep comfort and source of creative inspiration for the artist in his final years.

Modern Art Information John Edwards
Cubism
Cubism
Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Cubism
Expressionism
Expressionism
Expressionism is a broad term for a host of movements in early twentieth-century Germany, from Die Brücke (1905) and Der Blaue Reiter (1911) to the early Neue Sachlichkeit painters in the 1920s and '30s. Many German Expressionists used vivid colors and abstracted forms to create spiritually or psychologically intense works, while others focused on depictions of war, alienation, and the modern city.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Expressionism
Surrealism
Surrealism
Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Surrealism
Lucian Freud
Lucian Freud
Lucian Freud is a German-British painter, and the grandson of Sigmund Freud. Freud's career began in 1940s England, after escaping Nazi Germany, with muted surrealist paintings. In later years Freud devoted himself almost entirely to portraiture, applying richer colors and impasto brushstrokes. In 2000 he was commissioned to paint England's Queen Elizabeth II.

Modern Art Information Lucian Freud
Damien Hirst
Damien Hirst
Damien Hirst is a British installation and conceptual artist, and in the 1980s was a founding member of the Young British Artists (YBAs). His best known work is Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), comprised of a dead tiger shark suspended in a vitrine of formaldehyde.

Modern Art Information Damien Hirst
Julian Schnabel
Julian Schnabel
Julian Schnabel is an American painter, interior decorator and filmmaker. In addition to being a major figure in the Neo-Expressionist movement, he is most well-known as the director of such films as Basquiat and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Julian Schnabel
Michael Peppiatt
Michael Peppiatt
Michael Peppiatt is a British art critic, curator, author and historian, best known for penning the definitive biography of the artist Francis Bacon. On a broader scale, Peppiatt has enjoyed a successful career as a European correspondent for The New York Times, The Financial Times, ARTnews and Art International. He is also the former arts editor for Le Monde, and has curated many modern art retrospectives for the School of London.

Modern Art Information Michael Peppiatt
David Sylvester
David Sylvester
David Sylvester was a British art critic and curator, best known for celebrating the work of artists Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, among other twentieth-century modern artists of note, including Giacometti and Hamilton. Throughout his career, Sylvester wrote regularly for the Tribune, The New Statesman and The Observer. Sylvester is also credited with coining the term "kitchen sink," referring to the Kitchen Sink Realism movement of the 1950s and 60s, led chiefly by artist John Bratby.

Modern Art Information David Sylvester
Neo-Expressionism
Neo-Expressionism
Neo-Expressionism began as a movement in German art in the early 1960s with the emergence of Georg Baselitz. It gained momentum in the 1970s, with the addition of painters such as Anselm Kiefer, Markus Lüpertz and Eugen Schönebeck. Drawing inspiration from German Expressionism, many of its practitioners focused on the country's troubled modern history. In the 1980s, it inspired many successful painters across the world, including Julian Schnabel.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Neo-Expressionism
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Herbert Read
Herbert Read
Herbert Read was an English poet and art critic. As an idealist, he considered external reality to be a construct of the mind and was strongly influenced by Existentialism. Despite the fact that he was an anarchist, he was knighted for his contributions to English literature.

Modern Art Information Herbert Read
Michael Sadler
Michael Sadler
Michael Sadler was a British historian, educator and university administrator. Most notably, Sadler was president of the avant-garde Leeds Arts Club, a modernist collective of radical artists, theorists and writers in the early part of the twentieth century. Sadler contributed much to the Club, including impressive modern art collections that included works by Kandinsky and Gauguin. Sadler also became a co-founder in 1912 of the Leeds Art Collections Fund.

Modern Art Information Michael Sadler
Graham Sutherland
Graham Sutherland
Graham Sutherland was a twentieth-century British painter, illustrator and designer. Initially a surrealist-inspired painter during the Great Depression years, Sutherland eventually converted to Catholicism, which informed his later work. Working with canvas (mostly portraits and landscapes of a religious nature), glass and fabric design, poster art and tapestries, Sutherland became a well known British artist, but was far from a groundbreaking modernist.

Modern Art Information Graham Sutherland
Sergei Eisenstein
Sergei Eisenstein
Sergei Eisenstein was a Soviet auteur and theorist, and is commonly referred to as the "Father of Montage." Eisenstein's best known silent films, which include Strike, Battleship Potemkin, and October, are among the early twentieth century's best examples of pioneering cinema and modern film. Eisenstein's greatest contribution to the medium was the montage, a unique form of film making that relies almost wholly on editing.

Modern Art Information Sergei Eisenstein
Isabel Rawsthorne
Isabel Rawsthorne
Isabel Rawsthorne was a twentieth-century British painter and designer, and a leading figure in the European avant-garde. In addition to her own art, which focused mainly on human and animal figures, informed by her fascination with natural history, Rawsthorne frequently sat as an artist's model for such luminaries as Derain and Picasso. Although relatively unknown in the canons of modern art, Rawsthorne was a close associate of some of the century's greatest modernists.

Modern Art Information Isabel Rawsthorne
Michel Leiris
Michel Leiris
Michel Leiris was a French author, anthropologist, ethnographer and theorist, and a leading figure in twentieth-century French literature. Leiris is commonly associated with the French Surrealist movement of the 1920s and '30s. Much of Leiris's work was informed by his deep fascination with jazz and poetry. Among his impressive collection of theoretical and biographical writings, Leiris is well known for his critical texts on artists he admired, a list that included Francis Bacon.

Modern Art Information Michel Leiris
John Russell
John Russell
John Russell was an art historian and critic who wrote for the London Sunday Times from 1950-1974, then for the New York Times from 1974-1990, coming on board immediately after the departure of John Canaday. Although seldom cited in the annals of Abstract Expressionist history, Russell's work as a critic was crucial to the continued enthusiasm for modern art well into the 1970s and 80s.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information John Russell
Crucifixion
Crucifixion

Title: Crucifixion (1933)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Crucifixion is the work that first launched Bacon into the public eye, long before the much greater successes of the post-war years. The painting may have been inspired by Rembrandt's Slaughtered Ox (c.1638), but also by Picasso's Surrealist style (perhaps sensing this latter connection, Herbert Read, in his book Art Now, illustrated Crucifixion adjacent to a Picasso Bather). The translucent whiteness painted over the bodily frame in Crucifixion adds a ghostly touch to an already unsettling composition, introducing Bacon's obsession with pain and fear. Exhibited at a time when the horrors of the First World War were still remembered, Crucifixion spoke of how brutality had changed the world forever. At the time of writing the picture is owned by Damien Hirst, an artist who has acknowledged a large debt to Bacon.


- Murderme collection, London

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion
Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a
      Crucifixion

Title: Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Three Studies launched Bacon's reputation in the mid 1940s and shows the importance of biomorphic Surrealism in forging his early style. Bacon may have originally intended to incorporate the figures in a crucifixion, but his reference to the base of such a composition suggests that he imagined them as part of a predella, the scenes at the bottom of a traditional altarpiece. The twisted bodies are all the more frightening for their vaguely familiar human-like forms, which appear to stretch out toward the viewer in pain and supplication. The perspective lines in the background create a shallow space, alluding to captivity and torture. The figures are based upon the Furies, goddesses of revenge from Greek mythology that play an important role in the Oresteia, a three-part tragedy by Aeschylus. Bacon may have been drawn to the play's themes of guilt and obsession. The piece profoundly influenced images of the body in post-war British art.


Oil on board - Tate Gallery, London

Painting
Painting

Title: Painting (1946)

Artwork Description & Analysis: The layered images of this enigmatic painting blend into each other, giving it a dreamlike (or nightmarish) quality. From the top, the outstretched wings of a bird skeleton seem to be perched upon a hanging carcass, the latter motif influenced, like Bacon's Crucifixion from 1933, by Rembrandt. In the foreground, a well-dressed man under an umbrella sits in a circular enclosure which might be decorated with more bones and another carcass. The strange, collage-like composition of this work reveals Bacon's method. "The one like a butcher's shop, it came to me as an accident," he once said of the picture. "I was attempting to make a bird alighting on a field. And it may have been bound up in some way with the three forms that had gone before, but suddenly the lines that I'd drawn suggested something totally different, and out of this suggestion rose the picture. I had no intention to do this picture; I never thought of it in that way. It was like one continuous accident mounting on top of another."


Oil and pastel on linen - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Study after Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X
Study after Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent
      X

Title: Study after Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Although the figure in this picture derives from a 1650 portrait of Pope Innocent X by Diego Velazquez, Bacon avoided viewing the original painting, preferring to work from reproductions. Once again, he deploys a cage-like frame that surrounds the pope, but also introduces vertical brushing across the surface of the painting, an element he described as a curtain, relating the figure to a precious object requiring a protected space. However, the linear strokes are destructive to the image, and seem more like the bars of a jail cell. The lines almost seem to vibrate, and complementary shades of purple and yellow add to the tension of the composition. About his famous scream, Bacon says, "I didn't do it in the way that I wanted to.... I wanted to make the mouth, with its beauty of its color and everything, look like one of the sunsets or something of Monet."


Oil on canvas - Des Moines Art Center, Iowa

Two Figures
Two Figures

Title: Two Figures (1953)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Due to its homosexual overtones, the inaugural exhibition of Two Figures caused an uproar. Drawn from studies of anatomical drawings and Eadweard Muybridge's motion photography, Two Figures is as much an exploration of the body in action as it is a representation of the physical act of love. The two figures entwined in bed are covered by Bacon's "curtain" of striated lines, which both obstructs the view and enhances the movement of the figures. Instead of evoking the romance of a nighttime rendezvous, the dark colors of the painting allude to a more sinister encounter.


Oil on canvas - Private collection, London

Portrait of George Dyer Crouching
Portrait of George Dyer Crouching

Title: Portrait of George Dyer Crouching (1966)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Bacon was in his 60s when he met the young George Dyer. Their relationship, although romantic, always had the sense of a father-son dynamic. Dyer was constantly in need of attention and reassurance, and the naked embryonic form kneeling precariously on a ledge expresses his vulnerability. The circular sofa, however, surrounds him in a protective embrace. Uncharacteristically, the coloring is light and subdued, although the red and green highlights hint at an inner struggle. Dyer suffered from a lifelong addiction to drugs and alcohol, which is alluded to by the painted figure looking downward into a central abyss.


Oil on canvas - Private collection

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.