29 September 2009


Francis Bacon was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1909. Bacon was one of five children, and in 1914 moved with his family to England to avoid the oncoming war. His childhood was riddled by asthma and allergy attacks, and his asthma continued to be a hindrance to him later on in life. When Bacon grew to adolescence, his homosexuality surfaced, deeply discomfiting his father. He was kicked out of his house for wearing his mother's clothes, and in 1926 began a life of his own in London. For some time Bacon worked in interior design and furniture, During this time period he went to Berlin and Paris, exalting in the night scene as well as attending art exhibits. He was very impressed by Picasso's exhibit (1927) in Paris. It was then he began to draw and paint, and continued to do so when returning to London. His early work went widely unrecognized and poorly reviewed, to which he responded by destroying his pieces, until his 1944 exhibit of the triptych "Study for the Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion." Though he received mixed reviews, this piece was an overall success and the beginning of a remarkable career.

"Three Studies for Figure at the Base of the Crucifixion," 1944, Tate

Bacon was able to avoid the draft for WWII due to his asthmatic condition, and formed a friendship with a group of burgeoning artists during the 40s in London, including but not limited to Lucien Freud, John Deakin, Isabel Rawsthorne and Dan Sutherland. Through Sutherland Bacon formed a contract with the Hanover Gallery. He was living, interestingly enough, in a house formerly owned by Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais, which he occupied from 1943-1951 along with his childhood nannie Jessie Lightfoot. MoMA purchased their first painting of his in 1946, (Painting 1946), depicting a postwar violent image of a man isolated in the center of the painting, dressed in a suit, with a graphic cow carcass hanging behind him. The majority of his head is covered, save a grimacing mouth. The image is co
ncomitantly haunting and provocative. MoMA notes Bacon's image of a carcass being a reference to his fascination with butcher shops as a child; distinct allegorical, memory derived images like this reappear in later work. 

"Painting 1946," MoMA

"Head VI," 1948

"Figure in Frame," 1950

Jessie Lightfoot died in 1951, scarring Bacon and prompting him to sell the Millais House. Despite the rough start, the 1950s was a particularly prolific time period for Bacon. He pursued the imagery of trapped figures in suits, emphasizing portraiture with chilling expressions. Bacon's series on the Pope also emerged at this time with his study of Velasquez's Pope Innocent X. The Tate describes his choice in subject matter, "The paintings of Popes, which established his reputation, alternated with those of contemporary figures in suits who were similarly entrapped; however, following a trip to Egypt and South Africa (1950) a lighter tonality emerged in paintings of sphinxes and of animals."  His visit to Egypt, as well as his growing relationship with partner Peter Lacey, inspired an animalistic portrayal of sexual encounters. His subjects have been called homoerotic, disturbing, and powerful, and are certainly unusually compelling. Bacon's work speaks to our psychological depths, provoking our own disturbing subconscious. 

"Study for a Portrait I," 1952

"Study of a Baboon," 1953

"Number VII from Eight Studies of a Portrait," 1953, MoMA

Study for Portrait II (after the Life Mask of William Blake)  1955

I found the Tate's description of this image really interesting: 
This is one of a series based on the life mask of poet and painter William Blake. Bacon first saw the mask at the National Portrait Gallery in London, but he also used photographs and, at some point, he even acquired a cast of it. His response to the source is typical of his preference for a mediated image of the body. The painting is more complex than it seems: it is built up with delicate layers of paint against a rich black ground. One commentator wrote, ‘broad strokes of pink and mauve, with which Bacon establishes an equivocation between waxen mask and human flesh, drag pain and loneliness and imperturbable spirit in their wake’.

Bacon's work shifted into raw color and an expressive style in the 1960s. He took on a new lover, George Dyer, a man with a turbulent demeanor. Dyer was known for his criminal past and his avid drinking. The relationship was tumultuous, and in 1971 Dyer committed suicide, the night of Bacon's first retrospective. This event haunted many of Bacon's future paintings, including the triptych (1972) shown far below. In 1974, Bacon developed a lasting relationship with John Edwards, the subject of some of his last paintings. 

"Three Studies for the Portrait of Henrietta Moraes" 1963

Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne  1966

"Study for the Head of George Dyer," 1967

"Studies from the Human Body," 1975

The triptych became Bacon's preferred approach to painting towards the end of his life. Bacon said his triptychs were "the thing I like doing most, and I think this may be related to the thought I've sometimes had of making a film. I like the juxtaposition of the images separated on three different canvases." (MoMA) Following an archetypal Christian religious triptych, he often left the center panel for the object of devotion. This can be seen in his final triptych done before his death shown below, currently held in MoMA's collection. 

"Triptych, August 1972" Tate
"Second Version of Triptych 1944," 1988, Tate

"Triptych," 1991, MoMA

Francis Bacon died in April of 1992 from pneumonia that was worsened by his asthma. He was the recipient of a number of retrospective exhibits, during his lifetime and after. The Tate held two, the Guggenheim one, and there was a recent retrospective held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I was lucky enough to walk through this past June. The Met's retrospective included sketchbooks of his, photographs used as references in his work, and a wall size reproduction of Bacon's studio, shown below.

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