Progression of Art
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 Bacon's 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 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
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
Although the figure in this picture derives from a 1650 portrait of Pope Innocent X by Diego Velázquez, 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." Bacon's own connections to earlier masterpieces are picked up by the reviewer Mary Abbe who wrote: "[F]or all their nastiness and brutality, there is something undeniably beautiful, even serene in these paintings.. Bacon .. achieved a kind of lyricism that makes even his most horrific subjects compatible with the drawing rooms in which many of them hung. Backgrounds of boudoir pink, persimmon, lilac and aqua combine with the calligraphic grace of his fleshy figures in images of stylized elegance."
Oil on canvas - Des Moines Art Center, Iowa
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. Moreover, it is widely believed that Bacon was a masochist (potentially as a result of his father's early cruelty) and he often painted the abuse that he was exposed to in his aggressive relationships.
Oil on canvas - Private collection, London
Portrait of George Dyer Crouching
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