British painter Francis Bacon is one of art history’s most celebrated ‘bad boys,’ who painted a wild, expressive and haunting brand of figuration that continues to shock audiences today. A drifter and runaway, he found success during the 1940s, and became recognized as a leading figure in the postwar School of London alongside Frank Auerbach and Lucien Freud. Along with these artists, Bacon demonstrated the emotionally arresting power of figurative painting as a tool for addressing a collective trauma following the devastations of war. We take a closer look at some of the key facts surrounding his life, for which he is best-known.
Francis Bacon Painted Collective Trauma
From early in his career Francis Bacon made paintings with a strange, eerie, and haunting quality, documenting the artist’s obsession with portraying fear, pain, horror and trauma. It is hard to ignore the fact that his depictions of brutally contorted human bodies and screaming faces emerged following two world wars that tore apart society and unveiled some of humanity’s darkest traits. His paintings became a visual expression for the anguish and pain that many were feeling at the time, expressing widely felt collective trauma.
Bacon first exhibited his breakthrough triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion in 1944, as World War II was coming to an end, and the true extent of human suffering and loss was beginning to be revealed. The painting’s eerie, twisted figures, set against a stark red backdrop caught public imagination for their ability to express something internal and intangible that was being felt around the world.
He Was a Surrealist
As much as his paintings teased out dark, disturbing themes, Bacon was also a surrealist with an uncanny ability to take real references and contort them in surprising and unexpected ways. Bacon cited Pablo Picasso as one of the greatest influences on his work after experiencing his art during a trip to Paris, particularly Picasso’s distorted and faceted human forms. In many of Bacon’s paintings human-like, biomorphic forms are stretched and distorted, merged with animal parts, or invested with violent and aggressive elements to resemble the bizarre surrealist creatures of Hans Bellmer, Alberto Giacometti, Dorothea Tanning and Leonora Carrington.
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Francis Bacon Captured Movement in Painting
One of the greatest influences on Francis Bacon’s art was the sequential photography of the pioneering American early photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who first captured the sensations of movement on camera. Like Muybridge, Bacon was fascinated with ways of conveying movement in a two-dimensional image, and he often painted bodies or faces caught mid-action, sometimes with overtly sexual overtones, as seen in Two Figures, 1953.
In his London studio Bacon had a collection of Muybridge books which he often referenced in his artworks, and he even noted how his interest in working with serial, sequential paintings came from Muybridge. Movement was a means for Bacon to further distort the human body, but it also reflected his fascination with the relationship between painting and photography; Bacon often asked his friend, the photographer John Deakin to document his subjects on camera, and give him the photographs to paint from.
He Re-Evaluated Art History for a New Age
Throughout his career Bacon was fascinated by art history, and particularly the history of painting. Some artworks made direct reference to art historical sources, such as his Crucifixion, 1933, which nods towards Rembrandt van Rijn’s Slaughtered Ox, 1638, and the later, infamous Study After Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953, which takes Diego Velazquez’s stirring Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1650 as a starting point, transforming the once statesmanlike figure into a screaming monster in a gilded cage. Bacon also played a pivotal role in reviving the art of expressive, figurative painting at a time when it was deemed unfashionable by many, along with a series of other painters associated with the School of London.