Slaughterhouse Earth
The crucifixion of Francis Bacon
By John W. Whitehead

From Gadfly March 1998


I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail, leaving a trail of the human presence.
Francis Bacon, 1955

"We are potential carcasses. If I go into a butcher's shop I always think it's surprising that I wasn't there instead of the animal," Francis Bacon confided in a remarkable set of interviews with David Sylvester. To Bacon, planet earth seemed a slaughterhouse on the verge of annihilation at any moment.

Bacon was an enigma to many. He was fiercely atheistic, believing life was futile and meaningless. But he said, "You can be optimistic and totally without hope." Bacon was acerbic and difficult but kind and generous to friends and relatives. Gay with a sado-masochistic bent, he was predominantly right-wing in his thinking (although too individualistic to classify politically or otherwise).

Bacon, who died in 1992, had a despairing and often sarcastic sense of humor, along with a total disdain for convention. Indeed, he once booed a member of the British royal family who had decided to sing before a crowd at a ball. Publicly hissing at Princess Margaret may have been cruel and shocking, but it also demonstrated his honesty and sense of criticism. She was, in fact, singing off-key. Bacon had a way with words as well. When a member of the royal family asked him what he did for a living, "I'm an old queen," he replied.

Bacon's honesty and enigmatic personality translated to the canvas. Where at times Picasso was clearly playing an art game, Bacon's work always spoke of a different message. Bacon might very well be the greatest post-World War II painter. He inspired awe with his paintings of twisted body parts and distorted animalistic human faces which seemed intensely concerned with the torn and alienated human condition.

Bacon's paintings portray an intense loneliness, despair and inner turmoil. He saw violence, hatred and human degradation as essential elements in the parade of life.

Bacon expected his paintings to assault the viewer's nervous system. He strove to "unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently." Toward the end of his life, he was delighted to hear that a woman viewing one of his paintings in Paris had closed her eyes and crossed herself.

The great painter became who he was through many influences and experiences. A primary influence was his childhood.

"I think artists stay much closer to their childhood than other people," Bacon once remarked to a friend. "They remain far more constant to those early sensations."

The aspects of Bacon's childhood that most strongly affected his art were his aberrational family relationships, his war-time childhood, his life-long struggle with asthma and his introduction to homosexuality.

BACON: My relationship with my father and mother was never good. We never got on. They were horrified at the thought that I might want to be an artist.

The enfant terrible was born in Dublin in October 1909 to English parents who were continually moving between Ireland and England or from mansion to mansion in Ireland. Francis would later say, "My father and mother were never satisfied with where they were." This rootlessness would set the course for much of his adult life.

Bacon was a frail, sensitive child, often life-threateningly ill with attacks of asthma. His upbringing in Ireland would prove to be so traumatic that in later years an attempt to return to Ireland would bring on such a severe case of asthma that he came near to choking to death.

Although luxurious, his home life and childhood were characterized by dysfunctional relationships, and Bacon later spoke of his family with bitterness.

His father, Anthony Bacon, a veteran of the Boer War, was at least fourteen years older than Francis' mother, Winifred Firth, an heiress to a steel business and coal mine, who brought to the marriage a comfortable dowry.

Anthony was a soldier and horse trainer, and he raised his sons as if they were army horses, becoming violently outraged if anything went wrong. He gambled frequently, sometimes sending Francis to the post office to place a bet by telegram before the "off." Anthony regularly estranged his friends by his quarrelsomeness and was no better at getting along with his children. Francis later described him as "an intelligent man who never developed his intellect at all."

Domineering and prone to fits of rage, Anthony had Francis viciously horsewhipped by their Irish stable boys on at least one occasion. He also forced the boy, who was sensitive to pain and terribly allergic to horses and dogs, to go fox hunting—-a traumatic experience that brought on Francis' asthma. The father was also antagonistic toward Francis' homosexual leanings and banished him from the house at the age of 16 after discovering the boy dressed in his wife's underwear.

BACON: I disliked him, but I was sexually attracted to him when I was young. When I first sensed it, I hardly knew it was sexual. It was only later, through the grooms and the people in the stables I had affairs with, that I realized that it was a sexual thing towards my father.

Francis' mother was more gregarious by nature. She kept the house immaculate and was more easy-going than Anthony. However, in later years Francis would speak of her with resentment, claiming she seemed more concerned over her own pleasures than his needs as a child.

Francis had two brothers, the younger of whom died of tuberculosis as a child, prompting the only tears Francis ever saw his father weep. He also had two much younger sisters, born shortly before he left home.

In the face of his father's outright rejection and his mother's more subtle rejection, one person Francis truly loved was his lively, strong-willed maternal grandmother. She was a flamboyant and forceful woman who loved people and gave grand parties. "My grandmother and I used to tell each other everything," Bacon recalled. "I was a kind of confidant for her, I suppose, and I used to take her to the hunt balls and other things that went on when I was an adolescent."

Francis was terrified of his grandmother's second husband, Walter Loraine Bell, however. Cruel and sadistic, Bell was known as "Cat" Bell for his habit of hanging cats while he was drunk and of throwing live ones, trapped in bags, to his hounds. Among other cruelties, Bell put Francis' mother, uncle and grandmother on unbroken horses, forcing them to ride in terror for their lives. Francis' grandmother eventually divorced Bell for cruelty, but he made a lasting impression on Francis.

When his grandmother married a third time, Francis continued to spend much time with her at Farmleigh, her new home in Ireland. Bacon's new step-grandfather, Kerry Supple, was the Kildare District Inspector of the Royal Irish constabulary. As such, Supple drew the wrath of the new Sinn Fein, the Irish army rebelling against the English. In later years, Francis would recall the frightening days at Farmleigh when the windows were sandbagged against invaders, and snipers waited at the edges of the fields. But the rooms that overlooked the garden were beautiful—semicircular with bay windows—a theme later reflected in the curved backgrounds of some of his triptychs.

The violence prevalent in Bacon's work also had some of its roots in World War I and the Civil War in Ireland, both of which occurred during his childhood. As a youngster in Ireland, Bacon lived near a British cavalry regiment that trained close to his home. Sometimes the soldiers galloped up the driveway of the Bacon mansion, carrying out maneuvers. And, in the dead of night, the family could sometimes hear bugles in the forests as the troops practiced.

Bacon would later remark, "Just the fact of being born is a ferocious event.... I was made aware of what is called the possibility of danger at a very young age." And Bacon carried a sense of annihilation with him the rest of his life which, according to biographer Michael Peppiatt, sharpened "his appetite not only for pleasure but for every aspect, however banal, of what he called 'conscious existence.'"

BACON: I remember that when there was a blackout they used to spray the Park with something phosphorescent out of watering cans, thinking that the Zeppelins would suppose it was the lights of London and drop bombs on the Park; it didn't work at all.

When the war began, Anthony Bacon was appointed to the War Office in London and the whole family moved there, introducing the 5-year-old Francis to black-outs, charred remnants of homes, the whine of bombs and the stealthy approach of the Zeppelins. By day, Francis collected shell fragments and shrapnel in a nearby park. At night, searchlights raked across the dark sky looking for an airborne enemy, impressing upon the child the idea that death might drop at any instant. The distorted human figures that loom from the frightening night in Bacon's paintings may have their ancestors in the Londoners who would suddenly appear from the dark and disappear again, continuing on their way through the shadowy streets.

The most long-lasting influence of that stay in London was the impression of the newsreels and photographs of actual trench warfare, a far cry from the exhibition trenches dug in Kensington Gardens. "From that awareness," wrote biographer Andrew Sinclair, "he would often choose the monochrome and the snapshot as an insight into reality rather than the many-colored surface of what he could see, which might be only propaganda." Later in life, Bacon painted mainly from photographs and newspaper clippings rather than from real life.

After the Armistice, Anthony Bacon returned to Ireland with his family, at the onset of the Irish Civil War. In 1919, the Irish Republican Army formed, and armed bands of guerrillas began to roam the Irish countryside during Francis' formative years. "I suppose all that leaves some impression," Bacon said later. "You can't separate life from suffering and despair."

As English gentry in an Irish land, the Bacons were, in many respects, the enemy. Anthony Bacon frequently cautioned his children about what they should do if the IRA attacked their home during the night. Francis would visit his grandmother in fear, their car dodging snipers on the corners of her fields. Police barracks were torched, bodies hacked to pieces with axes, men hunted with bloodhounds and women shot for consorting with the British.

One night, a military guard dispatched to guard the home of Bacon's grandmother was ambushed. The men were shot as they tried to climb over the locked iron gates and left to hang there. The image would probably later influence Bacon's paintings of dead meat in butcher shops such as Painting (1946) which shows a split carcass suspended like a human body crucified.

The military transports soon were caged with wire netting in an effort to protect the soldiers from grenades, just as similar steel netting had been erected in London during the war to protect buildings and monuments. The cage theme later appeared in many of Bacon's works, for example around the figure of a screaming pope.

The theme of stalkers and their victims also found its way into Bacon's work. Some were more obvious, such as figures which appear to be in mortal combat. Other paintings seem to contain figures, writes Michael Peppiatt, who simply watch, either for "sexual excitement or—like the hidden snipers—the desire to destroy."

There was a genuine trauma in living through two wars, but many children suffered the same wartime experiences. Peppiatt has noted that the dramatic effect upon Bacon may have been due to his desire to seek out the strong sensations of fear and dwell upon them. Bacon, perhaps fueled by a need for high drama, was fond of describing his childhood in desolate and harsh terms, and it tainted everything within his reach.

Another element of Bacon's character which profoundly impacted his art was his homosexuality. The point when his leanings toward homosexuality began is difficult to determine, but at one fancy-dress party, Francis arrived as a flapper with an Eton crop, dressed in a backless gown and sporting long earrings, much to the amusement of the ladies and the disgust of his father.

At some point in his adolescence or earlier, Francis had sexual encounters with the Irish grooms at his home, possibly the same grooms who carried out the horsewhippings ordered by his father. The pain and humiliation of the horsewhippings, combined with the sexual attraction for the grooms and his father, no doubt gave rise to some of the violent sexual imagery in his artwork, as in Two Figures in the Grass (1954). Bacon felt that the subject of human coupling was limitless: "You need never have any other subject, really," he remarked. "It's a very haunting subject."

At age 16, Francis was banished from the family home and left to support himself, with a weekly allowance from his mother. Having concluded that instinct and chance were the driving forces of life, he set out to see where life would take him. He went at first to London where he took on a series of odd jobs to supplement his income and, according to Peppiatt, entered the gay underworld and frequently earned extra money by being picked up by wealthier gay men.

It was while in London that Bacon read some of Nietzsche's work, lost the last vestiges of any religious belief and came to the conclusion that life was futile unless he could somehow do something "extraordinary" with it.

After some time, Anthony Bacon again made an attempt to "straighten out" Francis, this time by entrusting him to the care of a distant family relative traveling to Berlin. However, things did not go the way his father planned, as it was only a short while before Francis and the "uncle" were in bed together.

In Berlin, Francis found himself in a luxurious and violent world of gay cabarets, transvestite clubs and nude dancing—an environment that offered any sexual experience he could desire. As a "pretty" young man, he had no trouble getting picked up and getting money.

In Berlin, Bacon also discovered the functional art of the Bauhaus movement which influenced the design of the furniture he began to build a few years later.

Eventually, Bacon's uncle moved on, and at 17, Francis set off for Paris. In Chantilly, a French woman and her family took him in, and he learned French and saw the sights. Eventually, he moved out on his own and entered the gay circles in Paris.

BACON: I went to Paris then for a short time. While there I saw at Rosenberg's an exhibition of Picasso, and at that moment I thought, well I will try and paint, too.

In Paris, he saw a work that deeply stirred his imagination, Poussin's Massacre of the Innocents (1630-31), which showed a mother trying to defend her child from a soldier's sword. The scream of the victim so affected him that he later referred to it as "probably the best human cry ever painted," and the human scream became one of his most painted subjects. Perhaps, as Peppiatt suggests, this is because it "corresponded to the release of a tension so deep within him."

In either Berlin or Paris, Bacon viewed Eisenstein's classic film The Battleship Potemkin (1925). He was especially stirred by the image of a nurse shot on the Odessa steps. Her face is bloodied, her glasses shattered and her mouth open in a terrified scream. He later credited the film as an important catalyst to his work, and he used the idea in Study for the Nurse (1957).

The impact of Massacre of the Innocents and Potemkin led him to purchase a medical book on diseases of the mouth. It contained hand-painted illustrations, and Bacon used it constantly when he painted. He once commented, "I've always been very moved by the movements of the mouth and the shape of the teeth. People say these have all sorts of sexual implications, and I was always very obsessed by the actual appearance of the mouth and teeth... I like, you may say, the glitter and colour that comes from the mouth."

In 1927, Bacon attended a Paris exhibition of Picasso's work, something he often mentioned later. Picasso's attempts to allow the subconscious to flow into the conscious and his use of chance to produce uncalculated results particularly impressed Bacon. The exhibit inspired him to begin drawing and making watercolors on his own. Six years later, his first recognizably Baconian image, Crucifixion (1933), reflected Picasso's influence. However, where Picasso's 1930 Crucifixion was made of bones, Bacon reduced his to an X-ray of a wraith-like figure.

Bacon repeated on various occasions that he saw the Crucifixion in terms of a "self-portrait," but, as Peppiatt notes, he did not elaborate on "the astonishing implications" of this concept—-a concept he projected in many of his other paintings. "For over half of his career," writes Peppiatt, "Bacon's work revolved around two of the most potent images of the Christian faith, the body on the cross and the Pope on his throne."

Other influences at this time included artists Soutine, de Chirico, Arp, Picabia and Dali, the art magazine Cahiers d'Art, and Luis Buñuel's film Un Chien Andalou. Bacon was also influenced by the review Documents which contained photographs of a screaming mouth and pictures of bloodied animal carcasses and Positioning in Radiography, a reference book which had photographs showing the position of the body for X-rays to be taken and the X-rays themselves.

Around age 20, unable to make a living in Paris, Bacon returned to London, carrying with him images of violence and anger—carcasses and screams that would impact the rest of his life. In London, he took up residence with Roy de Maistre, a man he saw as both father-figure and lover. De Maistre had money, which enabled Bacon to spend time designing and manufacturing furniture. De Maistre was also a painter, and the two held a joint art exhibit in their garage. It was during this time that Francis painted several crucifixions which would later lead to his Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), perhaps inspired by de Maistre's convictions as a convert to Roman Catholicism.

Bacon himself was antagonistic toward religion, perhaps partly as a reaction to his dictatorial father whom he found both terrifying and attractive. As a boy Francis claimed to fear the Bible, the law and his father's verdict. Although his entire family had attended a Protestant church, Bacon saw this as primarily a public protest against Catholicism in the Irish country where civil war brewed. In addition, the Catholic Church condemned sodomy and homosexuality. Bacon, however, would later deny that religion played any role in his Crucifixion paintings and claim that he simply found the elevated human figure intriguing.

After a failed art show a few years later, Bacon was so discouraged by the lack of response to his work that he destroyed most of the works he had displayed and painted very little for the next ten years. He parted ways with de Maistre and took up a wandering lifestyle again, making a living through petty theft, running a roulette wheel, doing odd jobs and occasionally receiving requests to design furniture. "I think I'm one of those people who have a gift for always getting by somehow," Francis would later muse. "Even if it's a case of stealing or something like that, I don't feel any moral thing against it."

During this time gap, World War II broke out, and Bacon again found himself in a torn and violent landscape. Yet the bodies and bombed-out buildings intrigued him. His father died, and the relief Bacon felt after that "release," in addition to the exhilaration of the war, sent him back to his brushes. He began to paint again, and by 1945 his first famous work, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, was on display.

BACON: I've always been very moved by pictures about slaughterhouses and meat, and to me they belong very much to the whole thing of the Crucifixion. There've been extraordinary photographs which have been done of animals just being taken up before they were slaughtered; and the smell of death. We don't know, of course, but it appears by these photographs that they're so aware of what is going to happen to them, they do everything to attempt to escape. I think these pictures were very much based on that kind of thing, which to me is very, very near this whole thing of the Crucifixion. I know for religious people, for Christians, the Crucifixion has a totally different significance. But as a nonbeliever, it was just an act of man's behaviour, a way of behaviour to another.

Bacon, an atheist, believed life was futile, a "mere spasm of consciousness between two voids." However, in a perverse way, he was one of the most deeply religious painters of the century.

As Peppiatt puts it, "A fetish force appear[ed] to draw him back repeatedly to religious themes

all through the earlier part of his artistic development, as if he had to make a belief out of his nonbelief, using structures of established religion to proclaim his distance from them." And use them he did. Bacon, notes Peppiatt, pillaged "the central truths of both the Greek and the Christian faith: only there, he was convinced, could he find the structure to convey the extent and the implications of his own drama."

Bacon had reached a position not only of unbelief but also of despair for anything beyond what one can actually see or experience: "Man now realizes that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without purpose, other than of his own choosing." On another occasion he remarked: "We are born and we die and there's nothing else. We're just part of animal life." His paintings express modern man's condition—a dehumanized humanity dispossessed of any durable paradise, supernatural or otherwise. This outlook, along with Bacon's homosexuality, would greatly affect his canvases.

The importance of Bacon's homosexuality to his life and vision, as Peppiatt recognizes, cannot be overstated: "One might reasonably say that, along with his dedicated ambition as an artist, his sexuality was the most important element in his life." Bacon said he painted to excite himself. And, despite his atheism, he seemed to identify his own suffering from his homosexuality with the anguish of the Crucifixion. "Homosexuality is more tragic and more banal," Bacon said, "than what is called normal love." Indeed, he had always been plagued by an acute sense of guilt "caused," as Peppiatt records, "in part by his homosexuality and the way it had made him an outcast from his own family." Moreover, Bacon "openly regretted it on occasion. 'Being a homosexual is a defect,' was the way he put it in certain moods. 'It's like having a limp.'"

As Andrew Sinclair, another Bacon biographer, notes, "He feared exposure and expulsion and even imprisonment. Especially sensitive and observant, he particularly felt as an adolescent the four crosses of the homosexual at that time—isolation and illegality, insecurity and guilt."

In a hypocritical world that condemned his acts, Bacon could see little hope. Perhaps in this vein, the flesh often crucified in Bacon's paintings may be the great painter's own. Peppiatt muses, it is possible "that Bacon identified with Christ on the Cross." Indeed, Bacon referred to the whole theme of the Crucifixion "as a kind of self-portrait conveying deeply personal truths."

David Farson in his book on Bacon notes of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944): "The forcefulness with which these three Greek Furies... hurl their misery and rage at us proves the extent of his own loss of faith."

Clearly, with Three Studies Bacon's work began to epitomize the nihilistic spirit of twentieth century thinking. He once said: "Nietzsche forecast our future for us—he was the Cassandra of the nineteenth century—he told us it's all so meaningless we might as well be extraordinary."

Several other important subthemes underlie Three Studies. One is sexual, and relates to Bacon's interest in the open mouth. The pleading figure in the middle panel reflects the concept of "penis dentatus." This may be a variation on the Surrealists' concept of "vagina dentata" or the combination of sex and mouth.

In addition, artistic influences may have led to the gloomily phallic Three Studies. Bacon had a good knowledge of art history, and it is logical that Grünewald's crucifixion paintings would have influenced him. There is little doubt that the idea for the cloth bandage above the snarling mouth in the central figure of the triptych was inspired by Grünewald's Mocking of Christ (1503). Grünewald had also influenced Picasso's earlier Guernica (1937).

BACON: One of the pictures I did in 1946, the one like a butcher's shop, came to me as an accident. I was attempting a bird alighting on a field.... I had no intention to do this picture; I never thought of it in that way. It was like one continuous accident mounting on top of another.

Bacon's public breakthrough was with Painting (1946). Although it was hardly seen before it was bought for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, it is generally the painting by which he is best known all over the world to this day.

At just under 40 years of age, Bacon had arrived as one of the dominant figures in the art of his day. Painting (1946), as art analyst Lawrence Gowing writes, "brought the ominous incongruities, the dramatic fall of light around the umbrella and the catastrophic implication all together for the first time." The scene might be in a butcher shop where the carnivorous protagonist, no more a butcher than a priest or judge, awaits his prey among the sides of meat displayed around him.

Bacon's concern with the human condition may be a clue to this work and his other paintings. As he told David Sylvester, "the greatest art always returns you to the vulnerability of the human situation." Shortly before Painting (1946) was completed, 70,000 people had been slaughtered and approximately that same number died later of the new manmade death, radiation sickness, from the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in April 1945. The umbrella looks suspiciously like a mushroom cloud, and the judge or priest with the carnage of meat surrounding him is the perpetrator of mass death.

Painting (1946) also shows Bacon's fascination with blood and carnage. It is a gruesome replacement of the ornate throne of the traditional state portrait. Bacon combines three of the major themes of his time—war, the dictator and dead meat—and suggests the bomb's sinister impact on mankind's future.

While it may be true, as Bacon said, that "you only need to think about the meat on your plate" to see the general truth about humankind in his paintings, no modern artist has hammered at the twentieth century human condition with more repetitive pessimism. Painting (1946) also reflects Bacon's view of life as an accident and a spasm of brutality, "suffering what cannot be explained because it has no meaning."

BACON: I think that man now realizes that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without reason.

Bacon was a realist who tried to force viewers to shed their shallow belief in the euphemisms of a glittering neon culture that merely provides a distraction from the reality of nonmeaning.

Bacon's fascination for the irrational is evident in his imagery of the abnormal and the impaired, which underscores a darker view of humanity—a humanity only partially evolved from an ignoble, animal condition.

His paintings after the photos of Eadweard Muybridge such as Study for Crouching Nude (1952) and the more explicit Paralytic Child Walking on All Fours (from Muybridge) (1961) reduce human beings to an ignominious animal state and suggest evolutionary regression.

BACON: I realized when I was seventeen. I remember it very, very clearly. I remember looking at a dog-shit on the pavement and I suddenly realized, there it is—this is what life is like. Strangely enough, it tormented me for months, till I came to, as it were, accept that here you are, existing for a second, brushed off like flies on the wall.

Bacon's 1953 Man with Dog, as contrasted with his Study for Self-Portrait—Triptych (1985-86), shows the artist in a hunched, tortured posture with legs coiled. Not only does this reflect the crouching dog but it also seems to imply a connection with his crouching nude of 1952. Bacon himself, thus, is a regressed animal like us all, except that as an artist he was aware of his status and could record it for the world to see.

Bacon's distorted and idiosyncratic images bear eloquent witness to the events of the post-World War II period and more generally to twentieth century humanity's capacity for mass violence. Bacon, the artist as prophet, is the extreme voice of despair in which people are totally dehumanized, blurred, decrepit banshees. Robert Hughes writes: "In his work, the image of the classical nude body is simply dismissed; it becomes, instead, a two-legged animal with the various addictions: to sex, the needle, security, or power."

BACON: I am unique in that way; and perhaps it's a vanity to say such a thing. But I don't think I'm gifted. I just think I'm receptive.

Bacon emphasized the chance element in his work, but when discussing it he unavoidably spoke in religious terms. Like Duchamp and other artists, Bacon saw himself as a "medium": "I always think of myself not so much as a painter but as a medium for accident and chance."

Speaking in much the same way as a painter like Rembrandt, who within the Judeo-Christian tradition could readily accept the divine hand on his work, Bacon would say: "I think that I have this peculiar kind of sensibility as a painter, where things are handed to me and I just use them." It's Bacon's choice of words—"handed to me"—that implies a personal force outside of himself that he was quick to deny.

This is interesting and mystifying when one realizes that much of Bacon's work dealt with religious icons and subjects, such as Velasquez's portrait of the Pope. Bacon did not believe in an afterlife but thought that art gave substance to life. That is how he expressed his chaos of emotions and came to terms with life's confusion.

BACON: I've always thought that this was one of the greatest paintings in the world, and I've used it through obsession. And I've tried very, very unsuccessfully to do certain records of it—distorted records. I regret them, because I think they're very silly... because I think that this thing was an absolute thing that was done and nothing more can be done about it.

Bacon's Study After Velasquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953) turns Diego Velasquez's powerful portrait of Pope Innocent X Pamphili into a "screaming Pope." Bacon executed the painting from a photograph. Study introduced an element of dislocation from the primary image, a concept that greatly influenced modern art.

The Pope in Study seems a snare and a threat. He is held in a skeletal cube—a boxed hell without escape. "The picture assaults the power of the Church: it is blasphemous," Sinclair notes. "It represents Bacon's heresy and protests against the rule of the organised religion which he had known in Ireland." This is a derisive view of the Catholic religion that Bacon probably inherited from the Surrealists.

It is clear that the image of the Pope touched a deep division in Bacon. On the one hand, he was fascinated with the man set above all others. On the other hand, there was a desire to tear away at the pomp and pretense of the high office of Supreme Pontiff—a self-protective illusion that Bacon believed was at the core of all religious belief.

Bacon, thus, seems to project anxiety concerning his own mortality as well as rage against authority in his portrait of Pope Innocent X. "Painting," Bacon said, "is the pattern of one's own nervous system being projected on the canvas." Moreover: "One of the problems," Bacon said, "is to paint like Velasquez, but with the texture of a hippopotamus skin."

With his 1962 Three Studies for a Crucifixion, Bacon again returns to the subject of the crucifixion. Three Studies (1962) literally reeks of blood and was painted under a tremendous hangover from drinking. "It's one of the only pictures," Bacon later said, "that I've ever been able to do under drink. I believe that the drink helped me to be a bit freer."

Sinclair notes that the "figures in the three canvases were joined in the theme of the violence that men did to one another by the power of sex and hatred. The body on the right, lying head down, suggested an inverted crucifixion by Cimabue, which Bacon thought was like 'a worm crawling... just moving, undulating down the cross.'"

With Three Studies, a self-generating quality of painting began to emerge, which Lawrence Gowing believes changed the character of art. Until 1962, the date of Bacon's first exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London, most of his paintings had been devoted essentially to simple embodiments. From this point on in his work, figures are more often concerned together in a simple episode or in an identifiable setting—a landscape or a townscape or a habitable interior. The subjects are more often actions, whose purpose we may or may not be allowed to construe. As Gowing writes: "Pictures like this extended Bacon's art and his reading of human drama into a region of instinct and unknowing, nervous awareness, a region seemingly unknown and unknowable, which was quite new to modern figurative art."

BACON: There are very few paintings I would like to have, but I would like to have Rembrandts.

Bacon understood the importance of art history. To this end, he paid tribute to Rembrandt—"abstract expressionism has all been done in Rembrandt's marks."

Rembrandt, however, lived in an age saturated with Christian beliefs to which Rembrandt himself subscribed. This can be seen in his classic crucifixion painting, The Raising of the Cross (1633). Here we see Rembrandt at the base of the cross with his eyes fixed on Christ. The message is that Rembrandt saw himself as one of the many fallible people who had forced Christ to the cross.

Bacon's retort was that Rembrandt painted at a time when people were still "slightly conditioned by certain types of religious possibilities, which man now, you could say, has completely cancelled out for him." In other words, Rembrandt's culture believed in the existence of a personal God who provided a solution—the Crucifixion—for humanity's problems.

That hope, to Bacon, had been lost and man must "beguile himself." "You see," Bacon said, "all art has become completely a game by which man distracts himself." Distracted from what? The futility of existence, of course.

"We are born and we die," Bacon proclaimed, "but in between we give this purposeless existence a meaning by our drives." Sex, food, body functions, the will to create—these all give some meaning, although varied, to human existence. Maybe this explains in part Bacon's Triptych Inspired By T. S. Eliot's Poem Sweeney Agonistes (1967). Bacon had been reading Eliot's verse dramas and the famous three-part summary of the human situation:

That's all the facts when you come to brass tacks:
Birth, and copulation, and death.

The center panel, with its lonely futility, was left unpeopled while that on the right, derived from Muybridge's wrestlers, offered Bacon's customary formulation for sexual passion.

In 1988, a few years before his death, Bacon revisited the original Three Studies with a fresh, more defined look at the crucifixion in Second Version of Triptych (1944). The figures are still bound and appear to be only the projections of certain body parts that he had defined in such works as Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus (1981). An uneasy sense of cruelty and despair resonates from these late works. "Anything in art seems cruel," he said, "because reality is cruel."

BACON: We nearly always live through screens—a screened existence. And I sometimes think, when people say my work looks violent, that perhaps I have from time to time been able to clear away one or two of the veils or screens.

In the deepest sense, Bacon's paintings are about his knowledge that the inhabitants of his world are alive. To understand Bacon the man, you must know the private damage and demons that drove him to paint his form of despair and that even today drive onlookers to their knees.

Bacon projected his nervous system onto his canvases, and his scream is the scream of twentieth century humanity that has debunked its past, tradition and values. Bacon's crucifixion of himself on canvas expresses the pain and torment of guilt that seems to endlessly plague modern humanity.

Bacon could feel the cold winds blowing across the wasteland and he knew, or believed he knew, the only alternatives. He sincerely believed we are all damned in the slaughterhouse of life.

BACON: I think that most people who have religious beliefs, who have the fear of God, are much more interesting than people who just live a kind of hedonistic and drafting life.... I can't help admiring but despising them.... But I do think that, if you can find a person totally without belief, but totally dedicated to futility, then you will find the more exciting person.

In one of his later interviews, David Sylvester asked Bacon, "Don't you think that any believing Christian who felt that he was damned would prefer not to have an immortal soul than to live in eternal torment?"

Bacon replied: "I think that people are so attached to their egos that they'd probably rather have the torment than simple annihilation."

Sylvester then asked: "You'd prefer the torment yourself?"

Quick to reply, the great painter said, "Yes, I would, because, if I was in hell I would always feel I had a chance of escaping. I'd always be sure that I'd be able to escape."