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
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
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).
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.
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
paintings portray an intense loneliness, despair
and inner turmoil. He saw violence, hatred and human
degradation as essential elements in the parade
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.
great painter became who he was through many influences
and experiences. A primary influence was his childhood.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
luxurious, his home life and childhood were characterized
by dysfunctional relationships, and Bacon later
spoke of his family with bitterness.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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
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
with bay windows—a theme later reflected
in the curved backgrounds of some of his triptychs.
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.
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.'"
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.
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.
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
"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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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).
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."
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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
Peppiatt puts it, "A fetish force appear[ed]
to draw him back repeatedly to religious themes
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."
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
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.'"
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."
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
Indeed, Bacon referred to the whole theme of the
Crucifixion "as a kind of self-portrait
conveying deeply personal truths."
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."
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."
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
This may be a variation on the Surrealists' concept
of "vagina dentata" or the combination
of sex and mouth.
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).
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.
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.
just under 40 years of age, Bacon had arrived
as one of the dominant figures in the art of his
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
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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,
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
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
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.
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."
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.
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."
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
implies a personal force outside of himself that
he was quick to deny.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.'"
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."
There are very few paintings I would like to have,
but I would like to have Rembrandts.
understood the importance of art history. To
this end, he paid tribute to Rembrandt—"abstract
expressionism has all been done in Rembrandt's
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.
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
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.
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
all the facts when you come to brass tacks:
Birth, and copulation, and death.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?"
replied: "I think that people are so attached
to their egos that they'd probably rather have
the torment than simple annihilation."
then asked: "You'd prefer the torment
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."