Francis Bacon is famed for his raw, powerful paintings of blurred, distorted bodies. In his works, hallucinated visions of screaming figures materialise not only collective cultural anxiety of post‐war Europe but also Bacon’s intimate emotional struggles. Among his most influential works are his ‘Crucifixion’ triptychs (1933‐65), his ‘Popes’ series (1949‐71) and his ‘Black Triptychs’ of the 1970s. Blurred, intense and seemingly eternal, Bacon’s emblematic screams and anatomical contortions have been associated to his childhood recollections, tortured love stories and memories of war. This combination of the collective and personal suggestions continues to make Bacon’s works remarkably powerful to this day.
Francis Bacon changed the art world with his raw, powerful images of abject bodily distortions. The figures that populate his paintings express not only collective cultural anxieties of post‐war Europe, but also Bacon’s intimate emotional struggles.
Born in Ireland to English parents, Bacon was cast off by his family due to his homosexuality. This prompted his move to London in 1926, arriving with no formal education and a modest weekly allowance. The following year Bacon travelled to Berlin where his visit to an exhibition of drawings by Picasso at the Galerie Paul Rosenberg kindled his interest in art. It was perhaps this first encounter that inspired Bacon’s renderings of the human body as a permeable, malleable matter on which he could project raw and often grotesque emotions. Another site of inspiration of the Berlin years is Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film ‘Battleship Potëmkin’, which resurfaced constantly over Bacon’s oeuvre.
Bacon did not produce his first original work until his ‘Crucifixion’ of 1933, which was followed by an unparalleled experimentation in painting. His transformative subjects combine formless accumulations of flesh and bodily metaphors of human suffering. Paintings such as ‘Head I’ from 1948, based on Diego Velázquez’s 1650 painting ‘Portrait of Pope Innocent X’, exemplify the figures that populate Bacon’s images, strange bodies reduced to their bare essentials. Focussed expressions, grotesque details that exaggerate human anatomy (including his celebrated screaming mouths) and a restricted palette of greys and blacks are features that resurface in important paintings such as those from the ‘Popes’ series.
The silent screams emblematic of Bacon’s paintings have generated lively debates in art historical scholarship. Blurred, intense and seemingly eternal, the screams have been associated with Bacon’s reminiscences of his authoritarian father, his tortured love stories, memories of war and even sexual climax. It is precisely this combination of collective and personal references that makes Bacon’s works so powerful and suggestive. Tensions and frustrations, fears and desires merge into disturbing figurations that are both horrific and alluring.
By the late 1950s his reputation was international, later elevating it in 1962 with his influential ‘Three Studies for a Crucifixion’. Yet, over the course of the next decade Bacon’s pictorial language became increasingly simplified. In the 1970s, Bacon projected personal loss, the suicide of his lover George Dyer, into his so‐called ‘Black triptychs’, characterised by a bleak and sombre simplicity.
In late paintings he started producing enigmatic, intellectual landscapes, however, he never stopped exploring the human body. Bacon progressively reduced the body to parts and even turned it into residues, employing new tools to expand the communicative potential of his images. These include innovative techniques such as spray paint, which produces a tactile, granular surface suggestive of physical traumas such as bruises or cuts.
International exhibitions of Bacon’s paintings have continued since his death in 1992 as he remains one of the most important British painters of the 20th century. The tactile‐like quality of Bacon’s pictorial subjects finds a counterpart in their emotional intensity. He attempted to unveil the trail that emotions leave in the human body, translating it onto the canvas and revelling in its repulsiveness. The pulsating energy of his grotesque forms speaks to us of both life and death. Through their blurred limbs and open mouths, these bodies present us with primordial urges in which pure feeling, be it the deepest sorrow or the most intense enjoyment, can be expressed.
Francis Bacon’s ‘Crucifixion’ paintings experiment with the manipulation of visual frames in order to project his most intimate feelings and sensations. Between the 1940s and the 1960s, Bacon produced three major ‘Crucifixion’ iterations through which this theme can be read.
‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’ (1944) is inspired by the ancient Greek tragedy Oresteia and is considered by critics to be Bacon’s first mature piece. A radical contribution to the post-war art world, it constitutes a reflection on classical and Christian narratives of pain and redemption, interpreted through late Cubist bodily transformations. This painting depicts three anthropomorphic creatures twisting against a flat orange background. If, in the classic iconographies of crucifixion, wailing figures are depicted at the feet of Jesus’ cross, here the religious element is discarded and the focus is on the suffering, bulbous entities, fleshy but resolutely non-human.
In ‘Three Studies for a Crucifixion’ (1962) Bacon combines religious motifs with metaphorical depictions of slaughterhouses. There is no particular narrative in these scenes, which are tied together only by the violent uniformity of colour. In 1965, he produced his final ‘Crucifixion’ triptych, which shows, three different scenes of violence. Butchered, bandaged figures are splattered on beds and hanging upside down on hooks like animal carcasses.
The 1962 and 1965 triptychs are remarkably similar in terms of mood, colour and form, but while the first conveys a specific sense of urgency and struggle, the latter shows defeat and hopeless bodily destructions. All the ‘Crucifixion’ paintings, however, constitute a pained meditation on human sorrow and alienation.
While Francis Bacon rose to fame with his contorted humanlike bodies and blurred portraits, in the mid to late 1950s he dedicated a series of about 12 paintings to animals. His fascination with this subject perhaps originated in the fact that animals, unlike humans, are believed to behave in a more instinctual, spontaneous way. Wanting to depict immediate, raw emotions, Bacon looked at animals in order to find what exists beyond the rules of social civility.
As with his portraits, Bacon avoided working from nature and preferred finding inspiration from photographs. This method, he believed, allowed his canvases to retain a creativity and truthfulness that could not coexist within the constraints of likeness. For his ‘Animals’ series, he often consulted Eadweard Muybridge’s time lapse photographs ‘Animals in Motion’ (1899), as well as Futurist paintings (notably Giacomo Balla’s ‘Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash’ from 1912) and pictures from zoological parks.
In his paintings ‘Study of a Dog’ (1952) and ‘Man with Dog’ (1953), the blurred animals seem to be alternatively cowering in fear or ready to attack. The figuration is purposefully left unclear and open to interpretations, conveying a mysterious sense of impending doom. If dogs are generally symbols of loyalty and familiarity, Bacon transformed the subject into a scene full of tension and fear.
Bacon was also particularly interested in the similarities between apes and humans. In ‘Study of a Baboon’ (1953) and ‘Chimpanzee’ (1955), inspired by Marius Maxwell’s 1925 book ‘Stalking Big Game with a Camera in Equatorial Africa’, he reflects on the disparity between free and captive animals. Bacon’s forceful brushstrokes and dark colours seem to evoke the ape’s raw power and violence, alluding to man’s animalistic tendencies. Like his paintings of screaming figures, these works confront viewers with their own crudest, most brutal emotions.
STUDY FOR A PORTRAIT OF
Fascinated by van Gogh’s self-portrait ‘The Painter on the Road to Tarascon’ (1858), in the late 1950s Francis Bacon produced a series of eight paintings that pay homage to the Post-Impressionist artist. He found this painting particularly compelling, stating that ‘the haunted figure on the road seemed just right at the time, like a phantom of the road, you could say’. He was perhaps also inspired by the celebrated film ‘Lust for Life’ (1956), which presented van Gogh as a lonely genius, a tragic martyr for art.
Bacon was possibly also intrigued by the fact that the painting, destroyed by wartime bombings, now existed only in photographs and it was possible for him to reinterpret it in his own terms. In line with his artistic philosophy, Bacon always refused to work from life, believing that his art’s goal was not to represent nature but to produce new, creative worlds.
Portraying van Gogh as a misunderstood artist, emarginated from society, in his ‘Study for a Portrait of van Gogh’ paintings he isolated the figure in a progressively abstract background, made of bright, acid colours and long shadows. As it was customary for Bacon, he painted quickly, mirroring not only van Gogh’s dense brushstrokes and vibrant colour palette, but also his rich textures and emotional power.
As a whole, Bacon’s series can be understood as a ghost, a faint trace of the original. In this series, the subject is not the original self-portrait by van Gogh, but Bacon’s intellectual understanding of it, a collection of visual reverberations that, by destroying form, capture the essence of the individual.
PORTRAITS OF JOHN EDWARD
Francis Bacon’s artistic practice, a mirror of the artist’s tumultuous personal life, is known for his series of portraits of his friends, family members and lovers. One of these series is dedicated to his lover John Edwards, whom he met in London in 1976 and remained, until the artist’s death in 1992, his closest companion and source of inspiration.
Edwards was portrayed in more than 20 paintings, reproduced exclusively either from photographs or from memory. Sharing Bacon’s philosophy, the two began collaborating as Edwards discovered photography and took shots of himself, which the painter would later use for his works. Among the most famous portraits of this series are ‘Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards’ (1984) and ‘Portrait of John Edwards’ (1988).
The 1984 triptych shows Edwards sitting on a stool, his right leg over his left knee, surrounded by a pastel blue background and a faint architectural structure. Now one of Bacon’s most famous compositions, it aims to capture the straightforward, down to earth personality of Edwards as well as convey the artist’s feelings for the loving artistic and romantic partnership they created. This moment of tenderness manifests in an unusually bright style. Some critics, highlighting the sentimental qualities and vibrant colours of these paintings, have compared Edwards’ portraits to Matisse’s late paintings.
In all his portraits of Edwards, Bacon attempted to reflect his sitter’s warm and genuinely human qualities. It is likely that for this reason these paintings are set apart from the rest of Bacon’s oeuvre, which dug into the rawest, most intimate elements of human experience. Perhaps, he believed he found the truths he was searching for in Edwards.