The British artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992) was one of the most original and powerful painters of the twentieth century. He was noted for the immediacy and paradoxical nature of his work. Bacon achieved fame and notoriety for his disturbing figures and his preoccupation with bare flesh, wounds, fluids and the persistent interest in the human condition. His imagery conveys loneliness, violence and deterioration. At its best it often does in an extraordinarily grotesque manner.
Bacon was born October 28, 1909, in Dublin. At the age of 16, he moved to London and subsequently lived for about two years in Berlin and Paris. Although Bacon attended no art school, he began to draw and work in watercolor about 1927. Picasso’s work decisively influenced his painting until the mid-1940s. Upon his return to London in 1929, he established himself as a furniture designer and interior designer. He began to use oils in the autumn of that year and exhibited a few paintings as well as furniture and rugs in his studio. His work was included in a group exhibition in London at the Mayor Gallery in 1933. In 1934, the artist organized his own first solo show at Sunderland House, London, which he called Transition Gallery for the occasion. He participated in a group show at Thomas Agnew and Sons, London, in 1937. Bacon painted relatively little after his solo show and in the 1930s and early 1940s destroyed most of his works. He began to paint intensively again in 1944. His work gained prominence only after World War II. By this time he painted the human figure, subjecting it to extreme distortions that made it look bizarre and disturbing (Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944). His first major solo show took place at the Hanover Gallery, London, in 1949. From the mid-1940s to the 1950s, Bacon’s work reflected certain influence of Surrealism. The pictures that made his reputation were of such subjects as an opened-mouth figure bending over and partly covered by an umbrella (Figure Study II, 1946) and a vaporizing head in front of a curtain (Head II, 1949). These startlingly original works were considered to be powerful expressions of anguish, remarkable because of the grandeur of their presentation and unusual painterly quality. By the 1950s Bacon had developed a less elusive treatment of the human figure and based his work on clippings from newspapers and magazines or from the ninethinth-century photographs of humans and animals in movement by Eadweard Muybridge. He also drew on such sources as Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1649–50), Vincent van Gogh’s The Painter on the Road to Tarascon (1888), and Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925). The combination of motifs drawn from completely unrelated sources was usual in Bacon's imagery. At the same time contemporary imagery was given a grandeur presentation akin to that of Baroque masterpieces. Bacon's first solo exhibition outside England was held in 1953 at Durlacher Brothers, New York. In 1950–51 and 1952, the artist traveled to South Africa. He visited Italy in 1954 when his work was featured in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. His first retrospective was held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, in 1955. Bacon was given a solo show at the São Paulo Bienal in 1959. From the 1950s through the end of Bacon's painting career and life, in the early 1990s, the recurrent theme of his work was the isolation and anguish of the individual. He often painted a single figure, usually male, seated or standing in a windowless interior and framed by a geometric construction, as if confined in a private hell reminiscent of Sartre's Huis clos. His subjects were his friends and lovers, and himself. Working almost without preliminary sketchs, Bacon used expressive deformations to convey every possible nuance of feeling and tension. His painting technique consisted of using rags, his hands and whorls of dust along with paint and brush. In 1962, the Tate Gallery, London, organized a Bacon retrospective, a modified version of which traveled to Mannheim, Turin, Zurich, and Amsterdam. Other important exhibitions of his work were held at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1963 and the Grand Palais in Paris in 1971; paintings from 1968 to 1974 were exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1975. Although Bacon had consistently denied the illustrational nature of his paintings, the facts of his life led art critics and historians to draw links between the personal life of the artist and the subject matter of his paintings. An example of this was the suicide of his model and lover George Dyer.1 Bacon's impressive Triptych May-June 1973 evokes Dyer’s suicide and shows him shadowed in a door frame, vomiting into a sink and dying hunched fetus-like on a toilet. Bacon admitted this painting to be a most personal work and one which verges on illustration. Yet, he also kept each panel of the triptych framed individually and arranged it so to alter a logical sequence and to avoid storytelling. In a period dominated by abstract art, Bacon stood out as one of the greatest figurative painters. Often large in scale, Bacon's works bring back traditional themes but in an iconoclastic way, which is often double-edged. Retrospectives of Bacon's work were held at the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1989–90 and at the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, in 1996. The artist died of heart failure brought on by asthma in Madrid, on April 28, 1992.
1. Dyer's death, the result of ingesting a mix of drugs and alcohol, occurred just before the opening of Bacon's major retrospective in Paris in 1971.