E-3 Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon is one of the influential artists that of the mid and latter parts of the 20th century. Taking cues from Picasso and other important artist of the early modern art movement, Bacon became one of the most influential figurative painters. Bacon, though he was not painting consistently till his mid 30s, was able to leave a permanent mark on the art world before his death.
Bacon was able to use his skills as a painter to, in a figurative way, show the world as it really is. He was described as an “apolitical, good for nothing gambler with no principles to blind him from reality” (Jones, “Beast Within”). He was one of the few artists to, at the end of WWII, to fully acknowledge the failure of humanity. He was able to acknowledge the real meaning of the atrocities whose photographic evidence appeared all over the world with the defeat of Germany (Jones, “Beast Within”). In addition, like Picasso, Bacon has a sculpture’s imagination. Looking at his various paintings, he never repeats himself; none of his disfigurements of the human forms are used twice. He understood how to manipulate space, and manipulate it in multiple ways, like Picasso.
Bacon had a clear style that followed a number of themes. One of the themes he was best known for was the scream. Bacon called the image of a screaming mouth the catalyst for his work (Bacon and Russell 26). Art critic Michael Peppiatt said, “it would be no exaggeration to say that, if one could really explain the origins and implications of this scream, one would be far closer to understanding the whole art of Francis Bacon” (Peppiatt 24). Bacon’s introduction to the scream may have happened when he saw Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film The Battleship Potemkin. An image from the movie, a nurse in the Odessa Steps scene, was believed to hang in his studio. The image shows the panic of a wounded nurse whose smashed glasses are spread across her blood-covered face. This scream his reflected in many of his works, such as Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X and Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.
Another theme found in many of Bacon’s works is early Christian imagery. More specifically, the Crucifixion and Triptych format are often found in many of his works. Art critic John Russell wrote that the crucifixion in Bacon’s work is a “generic name for an environment in which bodily harm is done to one or more persons and one of more other persons gather to watch” (113). An interesting aspect of Bacon’s paintings, as it relates to Russell’s quote, is how they were framed. The paintings were put behind heavy glass in antique frames (114). This creates a subtle interaction between the painting and the viewer. The person must look at their reflection while looking at the painting. For the paintings with the crucifixion theme, the person observing the painting is also observing himself or herself observing the crucifixion.
The Triptych format, seen in his Three studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, is another important theme. A Triptych is a painting composed of three spate ‘scenes,’ each in its own frame. The format was popular in early Christian work and throughout Christian work in the Middle Ages (Spector). Bacon may have had a few reasons for using this theme. By having extremely secular subjects in a religious format would be viewed as an act of desecration. This, in turn, would amplify the shock value and emotional response of his images. Bacon said, “I see images in series. And I suppose I could go on long beyond the triptych and do five or six together, but I find the triptych is a more balanced unit” (Artfactory, “Francis Bacon”). By having three images in a row, Bacon could create a narrative between the paintings.
Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion is Bacon’s 1944 masterpiece that helped propel him into the world of art. The painting, using the triptych form, displays three grotesque figures. The first figure seems to be sitting on a table or a bench and looks miserable. The second figure seems to be a chair or, more likely, a stool and looks defeated and in shock. The mouth of the second figure may have been based, at least partially, on the expression of the Nurse from the Battleship Potemkin. The third figure seems to be sanding on a table or bench. The mouth of the third figure is an example of the more classic “scream” face from Bacon’s latter work. The background of the painting has what looks like a burnt or rusted landscape.
The work was meant to shock and was consequently met with wide criticism over its horrific imagery. The three figures in the painting are mutations of the human form meant to be the Eumenides of Greek mythology. The Eumenides, also known as the furies, are the goddesses of vengeance who were charged with punishing crimes that were beyond human justice. The Crucifixion is being represented by the public display of the pain of the Eumenides. The scream theme is also found in the painting and is the representation of the Eumenides’ pain.
This painting was done at the end of WWII, as the new of Nazi atrocities and death camps was beginning to emerge to the general public. The painting was done in the Triptych form, composed of three separate panels. The Tate explains that the title of the work and the Triptych form relates the horrific beasts in the painting to the saints traditionally portrayed at the foot of the cross in many religious paintings. The three deformed figures were meant as to represent the deformity and corruption of the human spirit (Tate). It also might be a metaphor for the artist’s revulsion at mans inhumanity towards man.
Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, Francis Bacon’s 1953 work based on Diego Velázquez’s 1650 painting. Velázquez’s painting showed the pope in his golden thrown, covered in red and white clothing, on a crimson red background. Bacon’s version of the painting showed the same pope in the same style of clothing and in the same style of throne. The colors, atmosphere, and emotion in the painting are entirely different. Even the personality of the pope is different. The contumacious expression on his face is gone, replaced by the scream. The background has become black with blue tones.
Velázquez’s portrait is an impressive work, showing the power of the pope while showing the real pope at the same time. Innocent X was rumored to say it was too real when it was originally shown (Famiglia Doria Pamphilj). Bacon’s variation of the painting, alternatively, shows a tormented pope. His throne, a sign of his power in the original, is now an instrument of his torture. He is paralyzed with fear and pain, being shocked from his own throne. The face of the pope shows signs of his inspirations. The pope in Velázquez’s painting has no glasses. The pope in Bacon’s painting has glasses that not only look like the glasses of the Nurse in the Battleship Potemkin, but they are spread out on her face in a way that is similar to the Nurse’s glasses.
Bacon’s childhood and his experience of living during WWII led to his opinion of the church. Bacon grew up in a reasonably strict Irish Catholic family (Peppiatt 4-5). Arguments with his father about his sexuality led to Bacon leaving his home and eventually living with his uncle in Germany. He latter moved to Paris and, before WWII, to the SOHO district of London (Peppiatt 32). It is known that the Catholic Church did not speak out against the atrocities of the Italian and German governments despite the fact they had some knowledge of them. Bacon’s painting of Innocent X may be showing the inner pain of a church that did little to nothing to help people.
In addition to having a sculpture’s imagination, similar to Picasso, he was also inspired by Picasso in a number of other ways. Bacon once said, “Picasso is the reason why I paint … Picasso was the first person to produce figurative paintings which overturned the rules of appearance … he suggested appearance without using the usual codes” (Artfactory, “Francis Bacon”). Bacon respected Picasso’s work on figurative painting and figurative form. He was inspired by Picasso’s ability to show a subjects appearance without remaining true to that subjects form. Bacon took the comparatively subtle figurative painting style and brought it to a new level with paintings like Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X. Rather than just having the figurative appearance, the entire painting is figurative. Less similar to Picasso, Bacon did use colors to represent something deeper. He used bold, expressive color in addition to a beautiful paint surface. Bacon used texture as a representative form. He went so far to get texture the way he wanted that he often used the back, unprimed side of the canvas.
Bacon, Francis, and John Malcolm Russell. Francis Bacon. Reprinted. ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 2001. Print.
“Francis Bacon.” ArtFactory. N.p., 13 Feb. 2011. Web. 8 Dec. 2011. <http://www.artyfactory.com/art_appreciation/portraiture/bacon/francis_bacon.htm>.
“Galleria Doria Pamphilj.” Famiglia Doria Pamphilj. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2011. <http://www.doriapamphilj.it/ukinnocenzox.asp>.
Jones, Jonathan. “The Beast Within.” The Guardian [Edinburgh] 9 Aug. 2005: n. pag. Edinburgh Festival. Web. 7 Dec. 2011.
Peppiatt, Michael. Francis Bacon: anatomy of an enigma. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1996. Print.
Spector, Nancy. “Three Studies for a Crucifixion.” Guggenheim New York. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2011. <http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/collections/collection-online/show-full/piece/?search=Three%20Studies%20for%20a%20Crucifixion&page=&f=Title&object=64.1700>.
“Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.” Tate Collection. N.p., 16 May 2007. Web. 8 Dec. 2011. <http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?workid=674>.