Thursday, August 19, 2010


Francis Bacon was one of the most interesting painters of the 20th Century. His work was bold and emotionally raw, creating a disturbing and powerful effect on the viewer. Bacon was a figurative painter, but abstracted the human form with slashes of paint that blurred the imagery. Usually, the figures are isolated and encased in glass or steel cages and the backgrounds are usually flat color fields.

His breakthrough came in 1944 with the triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. He is also known for his Screaming Pope series and his portraits and self-portraits that display his idiosyncratic style. There is a dark and bleak quality to his work that reflects the horrors of the 20th Century.

Bacon was born in Dublin to British parents. In 1935, he purchased a book on diseases of the mouth that contained high quality color plates of open mouths which haunted him and became his obsession. He was also moved by Eisenstein's  The Battleship Potemkin, especially the close-up shot of the nurse screaming on the Odessa steps. Many of his works have figures with screaming or open mouths.

At times the work is more overtly horrific and frightening as with Three Studies where the human form has been reduced to a twisted torso with an appendage of a screaming mouth. Red and black are the dominant colors and contribute to the painting's emotional power.

The Screaming Popes, or Studies After Valazquez, emerged in the 1950s. The Pope sits at his throne obscured by a veil all done with Bacon's quick violent slashes of paint. The Pope is not calm, but trapped and screaming almost as if he is in an electric chair. Bacon often alluded to other artists from the past, also creating work based on Van Gogh and the photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Bacon took the lessons of these great painters and reconfigured them in a post-photograpic world.

Bacon met George Dyer in 1964 which started a tumultuous relationship. Dyer was younger than Bacon and from a tough East End London background. He had a strong physical presence, but was also vulnerable. He was also an alcoholic like Bacon. At this point Bacon's work became more personal and he started painting portraits of his friends and figures in domestic interior spaces. They were somewhat less overt than the earlier work, but still the figures and faces were in motion and twisted with conflict. Dyer was a mess when drunk, but withdrawn when sober and wasn't liked by many of Bacon's other friends. Their relationship deteriorated and Dyer died of an overdose of barbiturates in 1971. This affected Bacon greatly, and he now felt stalked by grief, guilt, and loss. Bacon painted three Black Triptychs about the death of Dyer. Triptych, May - June 1973 is considered the strongest and depicts the moments right before Dyer's suicide.

Some of Bacon's later paintings are less consciously horrific. The self portraits concentrate on anatomy and movement - almost giving an inner and outer view simultaneously. Some of the later paintings depict figures in chairs or interiors with less distortion and for me these are very strong paintings. 

Francis Bacon's work is beautiful and tragic while depicting the darkness and the struggle of everyday existence.

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