BLUE: Portrait of Van Gogh III (study).
By ARTHUR C. DANTO
Grammar makes certain sentences available to us that are useless for any
purpose other than philosophical jokes. "I am screaming" for example, is
what philosophers term self-stultifying: The conditions under which it
could be true are inconsistent with its being uttered, so it cannot but
be false if said or even written. Thus the lie is transparent to all but
the writer when the hateful and ludicrous Fanny Squeers, in Nicholas
Nickleby, puts into a letter "I am screaming out loud all the time I
write" as an excuse for mistakes. One cannot scream and write letters at
the same time, in part because the circumstances that explain the scream
rule out the possibility of concurrent rational action. The scream
ordinarily implies some loss of will, something the screamer cannot help
despite resolutions of silence, as in the torture chamber or the pit in
hell. But that does not leave the will free for other pursuits. Or, if
we can imagine someone knitting and screaming, it would have to be
someone mad, and the scream, like the lunatic's laugh, disconnected from
the network of circumstances in which either expression has the meaning
of terror, say, or mirth.
Much the same considerations apply to cases in which an artist paints a
scream. It is always a reasonable inference in such cases that the
scream cannot be the artist's own, for the mere fact that the
representation is clear enough to be recognized as of a scream is
inconsistent with that. Painting, in whatever way it facilitates the
expression of emotions, cannot be a kind of scream if it is in fact of a
kind of scream. This is an important truth to keep in mind when viewing
the painted screams of Francis Bacon.
Bacon's images of screaming popes are among the great defining images of
twentieth-century art, and certainly they were taken, in the early
postwar years when they first appeared, to be artistic summations of an
era of unspeakable agony and horror. And they affect us even today, and
against the body of Bacon's far less compelling subsequent work, perhaps
because we cannot be indifferent to screams-not even when we know, for
example, that someone is only practicing for a part that requires him to
scream, just because that particular sound, issued through a human
mouth, must trigger in us reflexes over which we have as little control
as screamers themselves are supposed to have at the moment of impulse.
And a painted scream comparably summons up associations through which it
is vested with moral meaning. This is especially so when, as with
Bacon's popes, there is no context, within the painting, to account for
the scream. When Poussin paints a woman screaming in his Massacre of the
Innocents (a painting frequently cited as among Bacon's early
influences), her scream is a natural response to the butchery of
helpless children. When Eisenstein shows the screaming nurse in Battleship
Potemkin (another source unfailingly cited for Bacon), there is, in
the massacre on the steps, all the explanation we need for the grimace
of impotence and despair and pain condensed in the shape of her mouth.
Seen just as a frame, clipped out of the film, the scream of
Eisenstein's nurse still implies a narrative which the shattered glasses
and shot-out eye enable us to fill in. There is no available narrative
for Bacon's screaming pontiff, all the less so when we appreciate that
the painting is itself a modified appropriation of the celebrated
portrait by Velázquez of Innocent X. The occurrence of the word
"innocent" in two of Bacon's acknowledged sources is possibly worth
keeping in mind, though the papal name, in the case of this particular
bearer of it, was one of the great examples of ironic nomenclature in
the history of mislabeling. Velázquez's portrait simply shows the wily
churchman, in white lace and red silk, enthroned in a curtained chamber,
wearing an expression that rules out screams.
Everyone in fact admires the psychology of Velázquez's portrait, and the
larger meanings to which the psychology must contribute. Innocent is
looking up from some document held loosely in his left hand, and looks
out at us beaming authority, power, mercilessness, guile, defiance,
resolution and contempt from his terrifying eyes. It is the look a
shepherd might direct to his sheep only if his mind were fixed on
mutton. Innocent may have been indifferent to the expression Velazquez
gave him, or possibly he was pleased by it as an outward sign of a man
dangerous to trifle with, but one cannot, today at least, refrain from
drawing lessons from the fact that this highest position in the
universal church should have been occupied by a man whose character was
so at odds with the charity and love that ought to be emblemized
physiognomically. It is a tension not easily rationalized, though in its
own right it may express a deep truth of Catholicism. Bacon's pope has
no psychology to speak of, since the scream leaves no space for other
expressions and is in any case not really an expression of someones
character. A scream implies an absolute reduction of its emitter to
whatever state it is that the scream outwardly expresses. There are no
wry screamers, no crafty screamers. The scream is a momentary mask.
Still, the fact that it is a pope who screams raises some delicate
questions of interpretation. In the language of symbols, the image of
the pope carries the obvious meanings that flow from his position as
Christ's surrogate on earth and intercessor for the salvational needs of
mankind. The question is why someone with the extreme moral weight of a
pope should be shown screaming when, within the canvas, there is nothing
that accounts for the act.
It must of course be decided whether the pope is screaming at something
whether there is an object-or whether, like the screams of the damned
and the tortured, he cannot help screaming because of unendurable pain.
There are screams of horror, after all, where the witness is overcome by
something seen or heard. The pope's scream cannot be objectless, one
feels, since he is seated in his throne or on his palanquin (which is
one way of reading the yellow curves in Bacon's painting), unless he is
supposed insane, like a crazy in the park. He could, if this were an
internal symbol for Christians, be screaming at Christ's agony, or in
grief, like one of the Marys so often shown at the base of the cross.
Whatever the object, it must be commensurate with the stature of the
pope as pope. Think, for contrast, of the famous screamer in Munch's The
Scream, of 1895. A woman (one assumes) is shown running toward us,
over a bridge, with a couple in the distance walking away, as if
indifferent to her anguish. The screamer's object (if there is one)
must, one is certain, be some fraught personal situation she finds
unendurable: The image is a depiction of personal extremity. And this
fits with Munch's work-his themes are sickness, jealousy, bereavement,
madness, sexual torment-as well as what we know of his character and his
life. But none of this would fit with the screamer's being a pope, all
got up in ecclesiastical regalia. Neither, in truth, does it fit with
Bacon, from what we know of him as a person. And the assumption would
have been, in the postwar years, that the pope was screaming as the only
appropriate moral response to the fallenness of mankind and the world as
slaughter-bench. As such, it could not but be a powerful image, even if
somewhat crudely painted, save for the lavender capelet. Somehow, if a
message, it must have seemed too urgent to be conveyed through a piece
of elegant painting. The powdery white, the swipes of yellow and the
vertical slashes that are vestigial reminders of Velazquez's drapes,
though they also suggest a deluge, are secondary marks of the moral
lamentation of the howling prelate. One would have wanted to scream in
sympathy: And with that cry I have raised my cry," as Yeats writes.
All of Bacon's work in those years, whether or not of popes, appears to
be of screams or to call for screams. In his, painting, of 1946, an
early acquisition by the Museum of Modern Art, which is honouring Bacon
with a retrospective exhibition (until August 28), the screamer is in a
business suit, a yellow boutonniere in his lapel and the upper half of
his face cast in shadow by his umbrella. He is surrounded by butchered
meat, including, behind him, an immense gutted carcass hung by its legs.
The carcass of beef, in Rembrandt's painting of one, seems to connote
helplessness of a nearly cosmic order and comes across as a symbol of
suffering, as it does in a bloody painting by Soutine. There is a harsh
contrast in Bacon's image between the regular rhythm of bones and teeth
and that of torn flesh and a world torn by the scream of the man, whose
umbrella is an affecting symbol of ineffective protection, certainly
against the forces that rend flesh, eviscerate bodies, consume in pain
and flame. Painting, in context, had to have conveyed some political
message and, to use the irrepressible word from those days, existential
mood. And there are several images of heads that bear out this heavy
inescapable reading, for they seem to have no discernible features other
than toothed cavities, as if their owners had died, beaten to some pulp,
with a terminal scream on their lips. In some cases, the screamer is
seated, as the pope is, but in such a way and in such a space that it
could be the electric chair they are in. And in all or most of these,
the vertical lines rain down, cleansing perhaps, purging, or just adding
to the agony, having no connection to the vertical fall of drapes
So, if not strictly Bacon's screams, these depicted screams seem to
entitle us to some inference that they at least express an attitude of
despair or outrage or condemnation, and that in the medium of extreme
gesture the artist is registering a moral view toward the conditions
that account for scream upon scream upon scream. How profoundly
disillusioning it is then to read the artist saying, in a famous
interview he gave to David Sylvester for The Brutality of Fact.-
Interviews With Francis Bacon, " I've always hoped in a sense to be
able to paint the mouth like Monet painted a sunset." As if, standing
before one of those canvases, Bacon were to say, "Well, there, I think,
I very nearly got a screaming mouth as it should be painted. Damned hard
to do." Or to read that "Horrible or not ... his pictures were not
supposed to mean a thing." So Cezanne painted apples, Renoir nudes,
Monet sunsets, Bacon screams. To paint a scream because it is a
difficult thing to paint, where the difficulty is not at all emotional
but technical, like doing a human figure in extreme foreshortening or
capturing the evanescent pinks of sunrise over misting water, is really
a form of perversion. As a perversion, it marks this strange artist's
entire corpus. It is like a rack maker who listens to the screams of the
racked only as evidence that he has done a fine job. It is inhuman. As
humans, however, we cannot be indifferent to screams. We are accordingly
victims ourselves, manipulated in our moral being by an art that has no
such being, though it looks as if it must. It is for this reason that I
hate Bacon's art.
Bared teeth and exposed bones play a referential role in some of Bacon's
later works, particularly in two triptychs, one of which, Three Studies
for a Crucifixion, shows the victim hung upside-down in the right panel,
like an emptied carcass, with his head lying in what one supposes must
be his own spilled viscera. But by this stage in his development, Bacon
had begun to treat his figures virtually as viscera, as lumps and
gobbets and tubes of flesh, not easily identified anatomically, pink and
red and white, as if his subjects were what was left when skin and bones
were removed. So shapeless are they, as piles and puddles of scraped and
squeezed paint, that one is grateful at times for the mouths, as
dentated wounds, to serve as some point of orientation. In the middle
panel of this triptych, for example, a figure lies, like a pile of guts,
on an elegant chaise longue, blood splattering the pillowcase and
rising, like red bubbles, up past the black window shade in some
piecemeal ascension. The teeth locate us in the gore, so we can identify
eye sockets and a neat wound in one foot. In the left panel stand two
uncrucified figures-witnesses, perhaps, patrons, executioners-one of
them in a business suit, which could be Bacon himself, the other a blob
in what might be black leather. The three panels, paradoxically in view
of their content, are done in cheerful decorator colors, apart from the
figures themselves: flat planes of pompeian red and cadmium orange, with
black window panels. One cannot help thinking of Auden's great poem on
art and suffering, as the old masters showed it: "how it takes
place/while someone else is eating or opening a window or just/walking
dully along:' Auden went on, marvelously, "They never forgot that even
the dreadful martyrdom must run its course/anyhow in a corner, some
untidy spot/where the dogs go on with their doggy life."
How appropriate, one thinks, that the crucifixion should transpire in a
tasteful salon, amidst the sort of fin de siecle color scheme
Odette de Crecy would have favored when Swann at last found his way to
her body. After all, the act of love, thrashing bodies and flashing
teeth and animal hoots, also takes place in those ornamental spaces.
(Bacon, who had some success as a decorator and designer of Art Deco
furniture, also likes to paint coupled figures smeared against one
another in damp intercourse.) Or one thinks of the crucifixion as a
metaphor for terrible interrogations that took place behind shuttered
windows on quiet boulevards that the screams couldn't reach. There is a
certain insight in Nietzsche that it is not suffering so much as
meaningless suffering to which the human mind is opposed, so that it
was, in Nietzsche's view, the genius of Christianity to have made all
suffering meaningful. Certainly, we stand before works Uke this-or the
Triptych Inspired by the Orestia of Aeschylus-compelled, despite our
will, to cover the brutalized bodies with a balm of interpretation, a
redemptive coating of allegory, if only to comfort ourselves. So again
one feels oneself to have been manipulated in some way when the artist
disowns any meaning whatever, and draws our attention, in his
interviews, just to paint, almost as if he were some sort of Abstract
Expressionist with no antecedent view of what he was going to do when he
faced the canvas. Why is he then not an abstract painter-why choose
these charged images only to elicit, as involutarily as a scream, an
interpretation he rejects, categorically, as beside the point? We cannot
see gore as just so much scraped red pigment, cannot disinterpret a
writhing limb as simply a marvelous wipe of white paint. And this stance
is reinforced by the fact that we cannot succeed in giving meaning to a
lot of what Bacon does in his portraits and figure studies, where the
subjects are liable to distortions that ought to have an explanation in
the world to which the figures belong but which will standardly be given
an explanation from the world in which painting takes place-as something
that happens not in meaningful spaces but on meaningless surfaces.
There is one absolutely marvelous painting in the show, worth anyone's
time to see. This is Study for Portrait of Van Gogh III, of 1957.
It shows us what Bacon could have done had he given to the whole
painting what he instead gives to isolated faces and figures. He shows
Van Gogh as Van Gogh might have shown himself in a world that looks the
way he represented it in paint-as if the world were made the way
paintings are-trees of black paint squirming up out of fields of red
paint, past fields of yellow paint and green paint. The artist stands on
heavy feet, the kind that belong in his famous shoes, in a field of pink
mud, casting blue shadows. He has a black all-purpose face; it could be
the face of a horse as well as a human, or even of a fish. The face does
not matter: It is the world according to Vincent, and we are seeing it
from within. For its allusiveness, its power, its brilliance, its total
engagement with its subject, it makes the rest of the show look like
posters for some avant-garde guignol of yesterday. The portrait of Van
Gogh is an homage, a celebration of the only values Bacon allows himself
to mention, the values of painting as painting. It shows what his
deflected talent is capable of when his heart is in his subject.
Eminent outrage - British painter Francis Bacon
By JAMES GARDNER
AUGUST 6, 1990
IN HIS MOST recent avatar at the Museum of Modern Art, Francis Bacon
appears before us defanged and declawed. The primal rantings now sound
like a petulant whimper. The spastic gestures and maimed movements now
savour almost of balletic adroitness. And yet nothing has changed in the
heart or mind of this octogenarian artist, the elder statesman of the
British art world. The latest paintings in this retrospective manifest
the same unyielding, implacable anguish that has been his hallmark for
almost fifty years.
Rather it is we who have changed. For the past two generations at least,
we have been assailed on all sides by art works of such calculated
grotesqueness that we have lost all power to be genuinely shocked by
anything. We analyze the forms or assay the political correctness of the
artifact, depending upon our orientation. Sometimes we even go through
the motions of outrage. But we know that ultimately it is only art.
Anything Bacon can pitch, we can catch.
Yet, by any reasonable computation, Francis Bacon is as great an outrage
as any generation should have to endure. And if the eminent artist has a
sense of humour, as I suspect he does not, he must be chuckling heartily
at the public's eagerness to embrace each festering and deformed carcass
he throws at it.
Though Bacon was born in 1909, he becomes relevant to us and to himself
only after 1943. That was the year in which, through a negation verging
on self-parody, he studiously destroyed almost all of the art he had
made up to that date. That was the year in which he was reborn as the
shrill, tormented sociopath the art world loves. Since that time, Bacon
has evolved remarkably little. His art has consisted in endless
variations upon a closely circumscribed canon of themes and forms. Bacon
was and remains a surrealist, an unrepentant irrationalist. But whereas
others of that strain turned to Freud and to the dream world of the
unconscious mind, Bacon reverts with a vengeance to Darwin and to the
jungles of instinct. Whereas the other surrealists never lost their
grounding in the man-made world, Bacon voids his paintings of most human
traces, filling them with shrieking gibbons, salivating dogs, and
subhuman apemen cast against a chillingly blank field.
His earlier works, it is true, are busier than that, overladen as they
are with props: umbrellas and whole sides of beef, densely patterned
Oriental rugs and landscapes whose nervously thin lines reveal a
lingering debt to British modernists like Henry Moore and John Piper. A
few later works, such as Sphinx II and Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh
III, represent slight departures as well. But by the late Forties, with
the "Head" series, Bacon had defined the highly idiosyncratic style in
which he would work for the rest of his life. Emerging from a blackness
qualified only by those wiry perspectival lines that have become
something of the artist's signature, a massive, disembodied head
appears. An ear floats absurdly to the side, perhaps torn away. The
ill-defined eyes are shut in suspended rage; the mouth-like orifice is
fixed in a noiseless ululation, exposing molars and fang-like canines.
Were is there an end of it/The soundless wailing?" asks T. S. Eliot. For
Bacon there is no end. That wailing, bitter, gnashing, self-consuming is
the sound of life itself. All other sounds are lies.
Everything Francis Bacon depicts he distorts. And yet every depiction,
even if we cannot describe or name the thing depicted, has the
infallible ring of truth. An indescribable biomorph hangs down from a
wire cage. A boneless, quivering mass of gelatinous flesh drowns in a
sink or sits huddled over a toilet. Bacon is obsessed with movement
within suspension, and with the suspension of movement. An
expressionless face decomposes before our eyes into a psychotic
omelette. A violent jet of water is frozen and immobilized as it streaks
across the canvas.
To glance even cursorily at these paintings is to understand why they
have come to seem the quintessential, unequivocal statement of the modem
mood. But precisely for this reason it is too early to tell how good
they really are. We shall need to be well out of the twentieth century
before we can finally say whether Bacon was ever really on to something,
or was merely a cantankerous, maladjusted misanthrope. Formally, his
brilliant, stylish works are closer to masterpieces than anything else
being done today. If some of the colouristic choices are of debatable
merit, his way with a laden brush comes very close to perfection. What
is wrong with the larger, spiritual dimensions of these sixty paintings
at the Modern is their one-sidedness. To Bacon's binary mind, man,
because he is not an angel, can only be a beast. In this belief Bacon is
surely not alone in contemporary culture. Rather he is the foremost
embodiment of the prevailing trend, the regnant humbug of the age. This
is the wilful fallacy which, in an age more happy than our own, may one
day qualify the esteem in which we hold Francis Bacon and everyone like
By MICHAEL LEVEY | ART NEWS | SUMMER 1990
En masse, the way [Francis] Bacon’s pictures are painted takes visual
priority over what they depict—which is what should always happen,
though we cannot help our conditioned impulse to look for what the areas
of paint are “about.” Bacon might be accused of being something of a
tease in this matter, for despite his understandable protests about his
art neither illustrating nor narrating, he frequently alludes to
circumstances of his own life that are bound to pique human curiosity.
But to enter a room of his pictures is to encounter paint first. It is
the large-scale areas of applied pigment, often semiabstract in form,
that make what can be a lasting impact: a curved
pink-and-biscuit-colored expanse of a blackish brown rectangle slotted,
half-Mondrian-like, into a far bigger rectangle of fawn. Such shapes
have their own tautness and vitality. Although it may be that they have
been added by the painter as backgrounds to his figures, they often
appear fundamental to the composition. The surfaces of his paint read as
though they were expanses of fabric stretched tightly over some
invisible drum. In fact, they are much less formal than anything in
Mondrian. Nor do they have anything of the sensuousness, in color and in
shape, of Matisse. Color is altogether where Bacon’s art is least sure.
yet there is a clean-cut, clear-cut feel to these sweeping fields of
They may well be indications of austere interiors, with bare floors and
blank windows. Fashionable analogies hover, prompting commentators to
mention the constriction of urban modern life or even of prisons. But
looked at directly, without literary overtones, they fail to be
oppressive or claustrophobic. In much the same way, the paint in the
foreground crisply defining a complex human shape, can enchant the eye
before it resolves itself into the unpromising suggestions of mutilation
The apparent paradox between form and content brings one to the artist
himself. It is difficult to think that he has experienced any particular
disgust at the style of images he has created, or that he means his
images to shock. There is neither horror nor pity in his pictures.
Bacon’s art is not likely to produce a Guernica. It is too sealed in,
within a narrow circle of self-reference merging into self-regard. His
work partly draws its power from that concentration. After all, an
artist is not necessarily a social commentator—or a social worker. There
is no guarantee that the good artist will be a good citizen. Bacon can
be seen as admirable in his refusal to be anything but an artist,
refusing to let society have claims on him and scrupulously refusing to
make claims on it. Such an uncompromising and isolated position has its
romantic aspect. It may encourage the idea that the resulting art is
bleak, severe in its emphasis on the individual, and finally pessimistic
about the human condition.
Nevertheless, in what is perhaps the clinching paradox at the heart of
Bacon’s art, there is about his pictures a sensation profoundly more
positive than negative.
Museum of Modern Art
VOLUME 29, NUMBER 3
The revelation of this carefully selected, historically
self-conscious retrospective of the work of Francis Bacon is the
progression over the course of the artist's career from a loaded, murky
painterliness, to a spare, even linear, handling. This evolution toward
an evanescent thinness, even when colour is boldly uniform, goes hand
and hand with his schematization of format and figures. Usually
considered vitally and uniquely individual, Bacon's grimacing faces and
tortured bodies, his general sense of the sickness of human existence,
his ironic secularization (profanation?) of the traditional format of
the sacred triptych, his spontaneous appropriation of high art and media
images, guided by inner necessit
makes him look contemporary (if eccentrically excited) in this age of
studied appropriations—seem secondary issues. Here Bacon's signature
tortured subjects progressively reveal themselves as tropes, even
clichés, of stylized suffering.
Is the late economy of means successful? Certainly it is another way of
the expressionist attitude at a time when its language
of direct expression seems to betray it. There is the sense that the
dryness of the late works may not be the result of a diminution of
—did Bacon become habituated to his own psyche, and
thus less overtly mad, more sane?
—but simply the exhaustion
of artistic means with which to articulate it. Indeed, the late works
look redundant, as though Bacon is pedantically driving home the
predictably painful lesson life inflicts on those who expect comfort
from it. The late works seem less visionary, as though Bacon, having
grown accustom to his insanity, now saw it with mundane eyes. The least
that can be said is that Bacon seems tired
—of himself? Of
the habit of making pictures? In contrast to the compulsive early works,
in the last paintings he may be taking himself, and art, for granted.
But perhaps his reduction of everything in his oeuvre to a
predictable pattern is the indication of a new compulsion. With age,
according to some theorists, one is supposed to see life less
experimentally and more abstractly, that is, to finalize and order it.
There is no sense, however, of a grand summing up in Bacon's last works,
no sense of wisdom—visual or existential—distilled from all the year of
labor. At the same time they hardly constitute the whimper that T. S.
Eliot thought came with the end. Rather, Bacon has become a mannerist of
himself. His late works index his earlier works, but they look like a
table of conten
paintings that were never made. That's the way an artist signals he's at
the end of his tether, has nothing more to say: his works begin to look
like an index to themselves, an index easily confused with a table of
contents. Why, one wonders, is there no living work to read, and only
the denuded text?
Home thoughts from an incurable surrealist
Absorbed by his art; he scorns decoration; in fear of death, he is
fascinated by the macabre.
Bacon, master of the incongruous, talks to Richard Cork. Photograph by
ARTS THE SATURDAY REVIEW
Entering Francis Bacon's surprisingly Spartan bedsitting room in an
uncanny experience, like finding yourself inside one of his own
paintings. The walls are bare, and dangling from the ceiling are the
same naked light bulbs that swing like demented pendulums in his
pictures or bear down glaringly on a nude sprawled across a bed. Bacon's
preoccupation with reflections in many of his paintings is also echoed,
with a startling dash of he macabre, by a wall-sized mirror. Its surface
has been partially riven by a spectacular crack, as if somebody had
picked up the small electric fire perched on a near by chair and hurled
it straight at the glass. Rather than replacing the mirror, Bacon has
taped up the largest slivers to prevent them falling off. The crack's
explosive power has been preserved, almost as disturbingly as one of the
figures writhing in the immensity of a Bacon canvas.
When I remarked on the austerity of the room, with its single bed
flanked by an angle-poise lamp at the far end, Bacon replied: "My
surroundings simply don't interest me very much." In one sense, his
comment is understandable enough. The studiously neutral colour of the
walls implies an utter lack of concern for the niceties of decoration.
Two sofas, half-obscured by rows of clothes, likewise suggest that their
owner has no time for wardrobes. The interior looks like a student's
digs, inhabited by somebody who disdains bourgeois propriety and feels
impatient with the whole notion of possessions.
"I once had a very early Frank Auerbach," Bacon said, after I asked him
about the absence of pictures. "At one stage I also bought a Sickert of
a woman lying on a bed with a man seated next to her. But, like a fool,
I gave it to Lucian Freud. I wish I had it now." He spoke like a man who
lacked the financial resources to remedy his loss, and Bacon's home
certainly seems untouched by his ability to command millions of pounds
for a single painting. "Earning vast amounts of money doesn't affect me
one bit," he said. "I'd be quite happy going back to the income I had as
a young man, when I worked as a cook and general servant."
Looking round the room, I could see what he meant. There is nothing
fixed or settled about this interior, no hint of and expenditure having
been lavished on a place Bacon moved into 30 years ago. It resembles the
room of a man in transit, someone unshackled by any of the conventional
ties binding most people to their houses. Perhaps the truth is that
Bacon is so absorbed in thinking about his art, and reading the books
which festoon every available surface, that he has no time left for the
external details of life.
In another sense, though, the parallels between this strange environment
and his work indicate that it nourishes him as powerfully as the
life-mask of William Blake once did. He still keeps it, on a cupboard
next to an electric fan
very Baconian juxtaposition. Its blanched and enigmatic features
inspired a mesmerising sequence of paintings in the mid-Fifties. More
recently, it also prompted him to have his own life-mask taken, an
experience he regretted as soon as they started smothering his face with
plaster. Now Blake's life-mask presides over the room, mediating with
stoicism on the inevitability of his eventual demise.
What, I wondered, did Bacon feel about the prospect of death of death?
"Well, Picasso abhorred the thought of death: he loathed being reminded
of mortality so much that he didn't even want anyone to mention his
75th birthday when it arrived." Bacon, who refers to Picasso a great
deal and regards him as by far the greatest artist of our century,
understands exactly why he felt that way. "I hate the thought of death,"
he said. "I hate the thought of it all coming to an end." He paused,
stared out of the window for a moment, and then brightened with a
defiant rallying cry: "Shall we have some champagne?"
He leapt up with astonishing agility and, betraying no sign of an 81-yea
old's stiffness, disappeared into the kitchen. While he was away, I
reflected that anyone who retains o much energy is bound to regard the
whole notion of extinction as anathema. Within seconds he was back,
bearing a bottle which he uncorked with seasoned ease. The two stemmed
glasses he placed on the table were elegantly inscribed with the
initials FB in flowing script. They were the gift, apparently, of an
admirer in Germany, where his work is regarded with almost as much
veneration as in France.
Did he think that his paintings are appreciated more warmly over there
than in Britain? "Oh, they don't like my work here at all," he said
bluntly. "Maybe it's the savagery they find in it, or maybe it's the
homosexuality which I suppose is in my work. I don't go about shouting
that I'm gay, but Aids has made it all much worse, you know. People are
very, very odd about it. The other day a telephone engineer came round,
so I offered him a drink. He looked at me strangely and said: 'You're
gay, aren't you?' "
With characteristic honesty, Bacon has never made any attempt to hide
his homosexuality. Some of his finest and most erotic paintings depict
male figures embracing or making love. Moreover, he is intrigues by the
fact that his distant ancestor, the celebrated Elizabethan Lord
Chancellor Francis Bacon, was also homosexual. "It comes up in Aubrey's
he said, bounding up from the table again and moving swiftly over
to a pile of books on a cupboard near the bed. The search proved
done with it? I've thrown all my books away, you know, because I've got
no room for them."
I challenged his about the British perception of his work. He is, after
all, widely regarded as this country's most outstanding living painter,
and over the past 30 years the Tate Gallery has paid him the unique
honour of staging two great retrospectives. Now, in the Tate's latest
rehang, he has been given the accolade of a large room devoted solely to
his work. It is immensely powerful, and prompted me to telephone him on
impulse after I had visited the gallery. Bacon's line was engaged for
almost an hour, but then, quite suddenly, started ringing. He answered
at once, and I told him that I had been particularly impressed at the
Tate by his loan of a grand triptych, which he painted three years ago.
Bacon conceived it as a second version of a smaller and far more rasping
triptych called Three Studies Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.
Painted in 1944, it seemed at the time to encapsulate the horror
of war, by showing three monstrously deformed hybrids, half human and
half beast, yelling their despair against a vehement orange ground. This
disconcerting trio reappears in the 1988 version. But the two figures at
the sides now point inwards rather than outwards, seeming to direct
their anguish towards a blindfolded form with bared, vicious teeth in
the centre. This time the extra space around each figure intensifies
their isolation, and Bacon exchanges the parched, angry orange of the
earlier triptych for a sumptuous deep crimson.
Having mentioned my fascination with these two versions, I asked Bacon
if we might meet. To my surprise he agreed, and the next morning I went
round to his mews home, in South Kensington, armed with his warning that
its entrance had no name-plate to identify it. Although his work might
suggest that Bacon is a reclusive and difficult man, he could not have
been more convivial. Unusually for an artist, he is also very frank in
his criticism of the work he had produced. "I did that second triptych
because I'd always wanted to do a large version of the earlier one," he
said. "I thought it might work, but I think the first one is the best. I
should have reiterated the orange to give it a kick, because the red
dissolves. But I may had been dissuaded by the boredom of putting it on,
because mixing that orange paint with pastel and spraying it was a
terrible lot of work."
Why, I asked,
had he remained so obsessed with the crucifixion theme? "Well, I'm not
in the least religious," he said, "even though I was brought up in the
Protestant faith and went to church as a child. At my age, I've known
many people die or commit suicide and I've never thought they were
anything other than dead. I'm certain there's nothing after that, and I
like the finality of the American expression 'drop dead'. But I am
fascinated by the great crucifixions which have been painted in the past
by Cimabue and Gr
Lying on the table beside us, next to an assortment of bottles and a
Linguaphone course, was W. B. Stanford's book on Greek
Tragedy and the Emotions. It reminded me that Bacon's gruelling
interpretation of the crucifixion had been profoundly affected by his
love of Aeschylus. One of his most haunting late triptychs was
"suggested by" the Oresteia plays, and although he can only
read Aeschylus in translation, "the whole surrealism is there".
Picasso's paintings of bathers from the surrealist period likewise
influenced Bacon profoundly, to the extent of inspiring him to
start painting. "But I've been influenced by everything," he said, "even
the extraordinary colour photographs in medical text books, which I get
from a bookshop in Gower Street. I got one there recently on small
He rose again and returned this time with a well-thumbed, paint-smeared
copy of A Colour Atlas of Nursing Procedures in Accidents and
Emergencies. I flinched from the pictures of syphilitic sores and other
excruciating painful afflictions inside, all reproduced with glistening
vividness. But Bacon seemed captivated rather than appalled as he leafed
through the pages Why did he never even shudder at them? "I suppose when
I look at these photographs, I think: 'My God, I'm lucky I don't
have that," he replied, pointing at a particularly gruesome wound. "But
they don't alarm me in the way that they do other people. Once I was
driving through France with a friend, and we came across a terribly bad
motor accident. There was blood and glass all over the road. But I
remember thinking that there was a beauty about it. I didn't feel the
horror of it, because it was par of life."
Sensing that we were approaching the central reason why some people
still recoil from Bacon's art, I pressed him to speculate on the origins
of his preoccupation with the normality of violence. "Well, you musn't
forget that I was born in Ireland," he said, "where my English father
trained racehorses very unsuccessfully. I grew up there at a time when
Sinn Fein was going around. All the houses in our neighbourhood were
being attacked, and on all the trees you'd see the green,
white and gold of the Sinn Fein flags.."
Although Bacon's family moved to London at the beginning of the the
first world war, when he was almost five, the atmosphere of fear did not
abate. "We lived near Hyde Park, in Westbourne Terrace, and after the
bombing started they sprayed the park with a phosphorescent substance
from watering-cans. The idea was that the zeppelins would identify this
glow as the lights of the city, and drop their bombs there. Then we went
back to Ireland again, so I was brought up to think of life having this
Even today it
remains a powerful force driving his work. At an age when most men have
mellowed and lost some, at least, of their youthful fire, Bacon stays
close to his old obsessions. "I was planning this year to do a series of
paintings about places where murder has been committed," he said,
describing how there would have been, "one in a field, one on a
pavement, and one in a room. But I'm going to abandon the idea."
One of these canvases sat half-finished on an easel in his studio, a
modestly proportioned room reached by passing through a kitchen lined
with colour reproductions of his work. A grey upper area in the painting
led down to a central section spattered with blood. It had the rudiments
of an authentically chilling image. But Bacon, an inveterate and
ruthless destroyer of pictures he considers to be failures, said it was
no good. He seemed reluctant to show me any of the other
works-in-progress stacked against the wall.
Responding to my interest, though, he did allow me to explore the rest
of the studio. It was cold, probably because his anxiety about the risk
of fire prompts him to leave unheated the rooms he is not currently not
using. The walls, like the doors, were gaudily covered with
paint-splashes of every conceivable colour. As for the floor, it was
heaped to the point of outright congestion with books, paint pots,
squeezed-out tubes of pigment and smeared rags. How Bacon moves around
in such a cluttered space remains unfathomable, but I did manage to bend
down and retrieve a small canvas from the wreckage. The painted face it
once contained had been cut out with a few swift slashes of the knife,
leaving only a tantalizing vestige of a head behind.
In this cramped interior, lit by a skylight window which Bacon inserted
for the purpose, he manages even to work on even the largest of his
triptychs. When assembled, they must stretch across virtually the full
width of the room, but Bacon finds this restriction oddly stimulating.
"The best exhibition I've ever had was in 1977 at the Galerie Claude
Bernard, in Paris, where the spaces are all small and the paintings
looked more intense." So here, hemmed in by detritus in a studio which
most artists would find claustrophobic, the indefatigable octogenarian
repairs every morning. Unlike Lucian Freud, who painted a masterly
little portrait of Bacon from nocturnal sittings almost 40 years ago, he
prefers working in daylight. "I get up very early and paint in
here until 1 pm. Then I'm finished, I've had it. I hate afternoons, I
think they're absolutely revolting, they're a wash-out. But I feel
better again in the evenings."
HE looked spry enough as we talked, and while walking to a nearby
Italian restaurant for lunch his gait seemed positively jaunty. The
laced-up gym shoes, fawn pullover and corduroy slacks only accentuated
the inner vitality of a man whose enthusiasm for work, and eagerness to
talk about the artists and writers he admires most keenly, remains
"I've thought of doing dozens of things which I've never done," he said,
with an old man's acute awareness of the role played by temporality and
chance. "One's energy fluctuates, and there's never enough time. With
life passing so quickly, you can never talk in ultimate terms, never
plan for the future. It just happens." But, judging by the paintings he
continues to produce, Bacon's ability to seize the moment is still as
formidable as ever.
At home among the paintpots: "My surrounds simply don't interest me."
Post War and Contemporary Art
THURSDAY 5TH DECEMBER 1991
Property of a European Collector
Francis Bacon Lot 8
STUDY FOR PORTRAIT VIII, 1953
oil on canvas 152.5 by 117cm. 60 by 46in.
In the summer of 1953, Bacon painted the series of eight Studies for
a Portrait for his first American show at Durlachers in New York.
Although this series was started with the art critic David Sylvester as
the sitter, they soon became involuntarily studies of a Pope.
The static dignity of the first work of the series is characteristic of
the great portraits of Popes inaugurated by Raphael and Titian, and
mastered in Bacon's opinion by Velasquez whose Portrait of Pope
Innocent X was considered by Bacon as the ultimate rendition of a
public 'persona' defined by the trappings of power and wealth. Here,
however, the Popes are isolated in the undefined monocramatic background
of the raw and unprimed canvas, and articulated in the simplified
geometric structure of the elaborate armchair. Although not directly
influenced by any specific Muybridge photograph, the series is seen like
a sequence of stills from a film through which the Pope progressively
reaches a state of psychological disintegration. Bacon stated that 'art
is always a way of concentrating, reinventing what is called fact,
leaving away the veils'. This process is revealed and documented
step by step from Study for Portrait I until the convulsions of
the face coupled with the tension of the raised arms and clenched fist
climaxes in Study for Portrait VIII. John Russell described the
Pope as being, 'By turns resigned and petulant, now slumped in a posture
of complete regression, now gazing around him with something of formal
benignity, now gathered up as if to throw the thermometer at the next
person that comes around the door'.
Russell goes on to allude through the double meaning od 'Papa' (which in
Italian means father as well as Pope) to a possible analogy with 'an
anthology of paternal attitudes'. The Pope's rendering is far too
familiar and iconoclastic for the viewer to be limited in his
interpretation; 'Benefiting from tradition without submitting to it for
a moment. . .rendering the regal Popes and the defecating dogs in the
same broken paint. . .combining Velasquez painterly formula with the
optical and human data of photography. . .was a unique way to describe
the desperation felt under the unsupportably tyranny of the real
in the post-war world (Lawrence Gowing, Introduction to the Bacon
Exhibition Catalogue of the Hirshhorn R
Hanover Gallery, London
Hopkins Hensel and Channing Hare, Palm Beach (Sale Sotheby's
London, 7th December 1970, Lot 183)
New York, Durlacher Bros, Francis Bacon, 1953, no. 5
Palm Beach, Society of the Four Arts; Coral Gable, Lower Gallery,
University of Miami;
Havana, The Patronato de Bellas Artes y Museos Nazionales;
Alabama, Birmingham Museum of Arts, Contemporary British Painting,
1956, no. 3, illustrated in the catalogue (incorrectly titled)
London, The Royal Academy of Arts, British Painting 1952-1975,
1977, no. 25
In 'Art Digest', vol. XXVIII, 15 October 1953, p. 16, illustrated
In 'Art News', vol. LII, November 1953, p. 14, illustrated
Ronald Alley and John Rothenstein, Francis Bacon, London 1964, p.
75, no. 66, illustrated
Lorenza Trucchi, Francis Bacon, Milan 1975, p. 31, illustrated in
Francis Bacon, Study for
Portrait VIII, 1953
Francis Bacon, genius of the violent style, is dead
FRANCIS BACON died
today of a heart attack in a Madrid hospital after being taken ill on
The 82-year-old painter had been staying with friends in
Spain. He had complained of not feeling well and was admitted to
hospital where he died suddenly this morning, his London agent said. He
had suffered from asthma throughout his life.
His body will be flown back to England for a private funeral. Francis Bacon lived
a life divided between the gutter and the Ritz. Some said he was the
greatest British artist since Turner
considered his art obscene. All over the world sales of his work attract
top collectors and record prices. Yet Bacon lived
for most of his later life in a chaotic two-bedroom mews house in South
Born in Dublin in 1909, his English father was a retired Army officer
and went to Ireland to train horses. Bacon's relationship
with his parents was not good and they never really supported his
ambitions as an artist. At the age of 16 he was banished by his father
after he was found wearing his mother's underwear and caught having sex
with the grooms. First stop for Bacon was
London and then Berlin, where he indulged in sexual escapades, including
nights in transvestite clubs, and gambling sprees.
He returned to London in 1923 and began to design modernistic furniture.
However, Bacon -
who destroyed much of his early work with a razor
dated the start of his artistic career with the triptychs Three Studies
for the Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.
His triptychs, which launched his career at the age of 35, followed the
European tradition of altar pieces but his strong exciting images
reinvigorated the British art scene and became a symbol of renewed life.
At the outbreak of the Second World War he tried to enlist, but was
turned down because of his asthma, so joined the ambulance rescue squad.
Some critics believe this experience with death helped mould his violent
He had no formal training and used his fingers, scrubbing brushes and
rags, combining different images from different media to produce
Inspiration came from poets, photographs and even medical books. Some of
his most famous and striking pictures are the Screaming Popes. Here he
combined references from a still photograph from Sergei Eisenstein's
film Battleship Potemkin and Velasquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X to
produce an unforgettable image.
Aloof and alone when working, he could also be sociable, drinking in
Soho's Colony club where, as a struggling artist, the shrewd owner Mrs
Muriel Belcher paid him £10 a week to bring in 'good spenders'.
His famous love of champagne and oysters at Wheelers restaurant made him
legendary and he once agreed to a television interview provided it was
filmed there and his slate was cleared.
In 1971 he was given a retrospective in Paris's Grand Palais, an honour
rarely afforded British artists. Tragically his former lover and model
George Dyer committed suicide hours before the exhibition opened.
* CHANNEL 4 is screening a 1985 South Bank Show on Francis Bacon at 9pm
MIRROR OF OUR VIOLENT TIMES
By BRIAN SEWELL | FIRST
EDITION | THE EVENING STANDARD | WEDNESDAY, APRIL 29, 1992
IT IS an irony that Francis Bacon should die in Madrid,
the city of Velasquez, whose heir he was as the last in the line of
ancestral European painting. He was heir too to the grandeurs of the
Italian Renaissance and the bloodstained violence of German art,
ignoring the aesthetic nonsenses of abstract art and other late 20th
He took the Crucifixion, stripped it of all its Christian
implications, and invested it instead with the universal beastliness of
man and abattoir, running with blood, deafened with screams. As a
portrait painter he was not the friend with insight but the harsh
interrogator, the man outside the ring of light with lash and electrodes
close at hand. His prisoners, presidents, popes and old friends
He used the ideas of the trap, the cell, the cage, the
X-ray field and the heavy fall of light to imprison and torment his
subjects to distil the violence, and to assault complacent senses with
graceless nakedness on the lavatory pan and vomit in the wash basin.
Francis Bacon was born in Dublin in 1909 but did not stay there
long. Ill-at-ease with his middle-class parents, Bacon's adolescence was
spent alone in Berlin and Paris, designing furniture and rugs, and it
was only in 1929 that he turned to painting.
He was entirely self-taught, rejected by the English surrealists for not
being sufficiently surreal, and as no one else paid serious attention to
his early work, he destroyed it. After the war, the friendship and
support of Ruskin Spear and John Minton, and the use of a studio in the
Royal College of Art, gave his work new strength and impetus.
In 1945 he exhibited Three Studies for figures at the base of a
Crucifixion, now in the Tate Gallery, a benchmark for all subsequent
work, and in 1949 he was given a one-man exhibition in London. It was an
immediate success, and the first of many all over the world,
for Bacon broke all the timid rules of British art and forced it into
the European tradition. His work was eventually to be found in major
galleries all over Europe, Japan and America and was in such demand that
prices paid by private collectors often exceeded the £1 million mark.
He was held by Alan Bowness, former Director of the Tate Gallery and a
close friend, to be Europe's greatest living painter
of us thought him the greatest living painter in the world.
A very likeable man, a considerable drinker, he was in private life
unassuming, quick-witted and warm; he travelled by Tube as often as not,
did his own shopping, offered support to young painters whose work he
liked and was never formidable.
When interviewed by distinguished broadcasters and critics, he
invariably saved them from themselves, camouflaging the worst of their
idiocies with quick and reasonable answers to fumbling, incoherent
questions. Made into something of a guru by the media, his view of the
future of painting was deeply pessimistic.
Bacon took the vile, sexually and politically obscene, the
shudderingly visceral, and lifted them with paint so that we might
contemplate ferociously profane images of cruelty and despair and see in
them an inheritance from the great Renaissance themes of religious and
Titian, Rembrandt and Velasquez might not have cared for Bacon's work
but they would at once have recognised kinship in his astonishing
mastery of paint and the profound pessimistic atheism of his images. He
was the perfect mirror of the spirit of our age.
Francis Bacon dies of a heart attack at 82
By COLIN RANDALLL | THE
TELEGRAPH | WEDNESDAY, APRIL 29, 1992
FRANCIS BACON, the self-taught artist seen by admirers as Britain's
greatest 20th century painter but by Mrs Thatcher as "that dreadful man
who paints those horrible pictures", died yesterday after suffering a
heart attack while while on holiday in Spain. He was 82.
The conflict aroused by his work was prompted by his concentration on
sex and death, often violently expressed. He also adopted a colourful
lifestyle and was openly homosexual.
Mr Bacon lived to see his work command to prices. A 1973 triptych
fetched £3.75 million at Sotheby's in New York in 1989, and a portrait
was sold last December for almost £2 million at Sotheby's in London.
A life between the gutter and the Ritz
Was Francis Bacon, who died yesterday, Britai
a friend for 40 years, traces his unconventional life and, right,
Richard Dormnet assesses his work
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 29, 1992
FRANCIS BACON, who has died in Spain ages 82, was considered by many to
be the most important and original British artist of this century.
He was one of a few painters to receive critical if not public acclaim
during his life time. He was offered such honours as a knighthood and
the Order of Merit, but he quietly declined them.
Though constantly surprising, his work did not change drastically over
the years but but developed his theme of human pain, despair and
loneliness, depicted with a violence which may become symbolic of the
He was also one of the formidable figures of his time, a man who divided
his life, as he put it, "between the gutter and the Ritz". His bohemian
excesses are bound to make him legendary.
A heavy drinker and obsessive gambler, His stamina was exceptional and
he appeared 20 years younger than his age. He was a brilliant
conversationalist; his wit was spontaneous and his carefully measured
sentences and lilting intonation could make the mundane sound hilarious.
His presence was equally welcome in the clubs of Soho or the salons of
smart society, and he was at his ease in both.
Certainly, he had not time for the trappings of success and lived for
the last 25 years in a small mews cottage near South Kensington
which looked as if it was waiting for the furniture to arrive, with
blackened windows and naked light-bulbs. "I feel at home in chaos," he
Bacon directed his career with consummate skill while appearing to
ignore it, and he was careful not to be associated with any artistic
school or movement. He did not attempt to conceal his
homosexuality, but tended to his dislike of militant "gays"—though he
signed a petition against the Government's controversial Clause 28.
Increasingly, he resented Mrs Thatcher's standards while admiring her
strength. In her turn, when informed that Bacon was regarded as
Britain's greatest painter, she expressed dismay: "Not that dreadful man
who paints those horrible pictures!"
When a historic exhibition of his work was held in Moscow in 1988—an
extraordinary honour of an artist who was frequently accused of
"decadence" in the Western world—he claimed his asthma prevented him
from attending, though privately he confided that he felt he was being
Francis Bacon was born in Dublin of English parents on October 28, 1909,
and brought up in County Kildare where his father (a distant kinsman of
the late 16th early 17th-century essayist, Francis Bacon) had a training
When the First World War broke out, the family moved temporarily to
London, where his father worked for the War Office.
After repeatedly running away, Bacon was removed from a minor public
school in Cheltenham after a year and given a weekly allowance of £3 by
his mother at the age of 16. This marked the end of his education and
his family life, which he admitted was unhappy. His father opposed his
wish to become an artist.
At the age of 18 he went to Berlin. One explanation is that his father
was exasperated by his son's indolence and habit of dressing in his
mother's clothes, and hoped too make a man of him by entrusting him into
the care of a sporting uncle, who, as it turned out, shared his nephew's
inclinations. Two months later he moved to Paris, where he saw his first
In the years that followed Bacon drifted between menial jobs. Applying
for a job as a "gentleman's gentleman", he forged his references but was
given his notice when his "gentleman" saw him dining at the next table
at the Ritz on his evening off.
With his usual candour, Bacon admitted that he lived on his wits as
well: "I used to steal money from my father whenever I could and I was
always taking rooms in London and then disappearing
paying the rent. What's called morality has grown on me with age."
At the same
time he experimented as a decorator—his modernist furniture was
illustrated in The Studio in 1930 and even bought by R. A. Butler.
Self-taught, and never a draughtsman, he acknowledged several images
which helped him, such as the early photographs by Eadweard Muybridge
of The Human Figure in Motion and the film still of the screaming nurse
on the Odessa Steps, her glasses shattered, from Eisenstein's Battleship
Why, I asked, had he remained so obsessed with the crucifixion theme?
"Well, I'm not in the least religious," he said, "even though I was
brought up in the Protestant faith and went to church as a child. At my
age, I've known many people die or commit suicide and I've never thought
they were anything other than dead. I'm certain there's nothing after
that, and I like the finality of the American expression 'drop dead'.
But I am fascinated by the great crucifixions which have been painted in
the past by Cimabue and Grünewald."
Though he claimed that nothing in his work mattered until 1945, Bacon
was influenced by his close friend, the Australian painter, Roy de
Maistre, and particularly by Graham Sutherland. As early as 1934 he held
his own show in a Curzon Street basement; his painting of a crucifixion
(1933) was noticed by Herbert Read and reproduced in his book Art Now;
the publisher Sir Michael Sadleir bought it by telegram.
During the Second World War Bacon was exempt from military service
because of his asthma. Instead, he ran private gambling parties in
Millais's old studio in South Kensington, with his faithful nanny
looking after the hats and coats. It was now that he started to paint
"I do what I do to excite myself," he said, but claimed; "I have looked
at everything in art." Among the artists he admired were Rembrandt,
Grunewald and Velázquez, whose portraits of Pope Innocent X provided the
inspiration for Bacon's early series of Popes screaming in
In Monte Carlo immediately after the war, he resumed his friendship with
the Sutherlands, who witnessed a win at the Casino so large that Bacon
was able to rent a villa for a year and buy a year's supply at a
delicatessen, before returning to lose the rest. It seems undeniable,
though he tended to deny it, that Bacon gained from the encouragement of
the more experienced artist.
In 1944 Bacon's of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a
Crucifixion was shown in a mixed exhibition at the Lefevre that included
Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland. The considerable influence of
Picasso's abstract shapes in the 1927 Paris exhibition in instantly
apparent, but Bacon twisted them into figures which were almost human.
John Russell described their impact: "Visitors were brought up short by
images so unrelievedly awful that the mind shut with a snap at the
sight of them ... these figures had an anatomy half-human, half-animal
... They caused total consternation."
This was a turning pint and the studies were bought in 1953 by the Tate
Gallery. Though rivalry now entered their friendship and finally
eclipsed it, Sutherland remained supportive, introducing Bacon to such
patrons as the ship-owner Sir Colin Anderson, and to Kenneth Clark, who
left the studio murmuring "Interesting ... yes", whereupon Bacon
explained; "You see, you're surrounded by cretins."
That night Clark told Sutherland: "You and I may be in a minority of
two, but will still be right in thinking that Francis Bacon has genius."
Clark was proved correct. A period followed with some of Bacon's most
memorable paintings; Figures in Landscape, hinting at assassination, and
a series of Heads caught in the act of screaming.
was recognised by fellow Soho artists: John Minton, Lucian Freud,
Rodrigo Moynihan, Frank Auerbach and Michael Andrews. They met in the
Colony Room, run by Muriel Belcher, who became one of his few intimate
Outside this circle he remained virtually unknown and in spite of his
patrons he was glad to sell his pictures for negligible sums.
Bacon's life changed dramatically in 1958 when he joined the
Marlborough Gallery, whose initiative was instrumental in staging the
first retrospective at the Tate in 1962, when the critics accepted him
as a painter of extraordinary power.
This was the first of three landmarks, followed by the exhibition at the
Grand Palais in Paris (1971), and the second retrospective at the Tate
in 1985, when he gained new respect as "Britain's greatest living
painter", though there were dissenters.
But public triumph was accompanied by personal tragedy. After the first
Tate exhibition he opened a score of congratulatory telegrams, the last
of which informed him of the death of Peter Lacy, a friend whom he was
about to join in Tangier.
Then in Paris in 1971, as he waited at the Grand Palais to welcome
President Pompidou, word was brought to Bacon that George Dyer, his
close friend and model, had committed suicide.
But in his
final years Bacon had the support and companionship of a young East
Ender, John Edwards. These years were among his calmest, though his
energy seemed undiminished.
Benefiting from the boom in the art world, Bacon became a rich man. In
1987 a million pounds was paid at Christie's in New York for Study of
Portrait II, painted in the 1950s. Ever disdainful of success, he
recolied whenan accountant advised him to live in Switzerland: "What a
terrible prospect. All those fucking views!"
For a man who
enjoyed the best of life - food, drink and friendship - there is no
celebration in life as in the French Impressionists or Matisse. For a
man who will be remembered for his laughter, there is none of the zest
of Lautrec, and Bacon was adamant that humour has no place in art.—food,
drink and friendship—there
is no celebration of life as in the French Impressionists or Matisse.
For a man who will be remembered for his laughter, there is non of the
zest of Lautrec, and was
Like the greatest artists, he compelled you to look again at life and
see it differently. People constantly misinterpreted his objective,
finding sensation when he saw a terrible beauty. His attraction to raw
flesh was simple: "You've only got to go into a butcher's shop, like
Harrods food hall. It's nothing to do with mortality but it's to do with
the great beauty of the colour of raw meat."
In his first television interview in 1958, he told me: "Sometimes I have
used subject matter which people think is sensational because one of the
things I have wanted to do was the human cry - the whole coagulation of
pain and despair - that in itself is something sesnational." the
things I have wanted to do was record the human cry—the whole coagulation of pain and despair—and
that in itself is something sensational
Francis Bacon at his spartan studio in 1984: 'I feel at home in chaos,'
said the artist whose work sold for up to a million pounds
THE ART OF DESPAIR
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 29, 1992
admirers, Francis Bacon was the most instinctive and visceral of
20-century British painters, the one who communicated most forcefully
the grossness of human appetites and the emptiness that lies at the
bottom of their gratification.
was a world in which the concepts either of hope, or of the spiritual
life, did not exist. Among his subjects were sodomy, drug addiction,
anxiety and suicide. Voyeurism and violent death figure largely in his oeuvre.
No artist painted so many toilets.
To many, all this came perilously close to self-indulgence. And yet at
the 1985 retrospective at the Tate Gallery one understood what Alan
Bowness, then director, meant when he described Bacon as the greatest
living English artist. There was a grandeur in Bacon's art because his
theme was a terrible one: a revulsion against his own humanity. He
turned self-hatred into high art.
Indeed, the Tate retrospective revealed a much greater artist than many
had realised. Visitors were stunned by Bacon's ravishing sense of
At times it almost seemed as though he had discovered an alternative
rainbow made up of rich purples, shocking oranges, and artichoke greens.
Whether one liked his subjects or not, Bacon emerged as a grand,
dramatic painter with an innate sense of design. He had, too, a
wonderful feel for the sensual laying on of paint to canvas.
In British art he belongs to a line of painters that looks back to
Edward Burra and forward to Gilbert and George. He was an expressionist
of extraordinary power.
This year he
exhibited his reworking of his famous Three Studies for Figures at the
Base of a Crucifixion, using spray paint and considerably restricting
and darkening the original colour range.
The result looked to me like a deliberate and measured summing up of his
art, comparable in a way to the late works of other artists who stood on
the brink of death, particularly Titian.
What made Bacon's work so chilling was that there was no softening of
the despair, no diminution of the ferocious loathing for the human
WEDNESDAY 29 APRIL, 1992
I FIRST came across the work of Francis Bacon at school. I was just
becoming interested in "modern art" and was tremendously
stimulated by Herbert Read's Art Now. I don't know quite why the
reproduction of Bacon's Crucifixion (1993) struck me as forcefully as it
did, looking stronger in a way that the Picasso 1929 Baigneuse that it
faced, but I was captivated by the mysterious presence.
When I saw the 1944 triptych Study for Figures at the Base of a
Crucifixion that made him famous in the art world at least, it confirmed
my feeling that he was an entirely remarkable painter. Moderate horror
was expressed by the press at the time and Michael Ayrton wrote a
paragraph tying Bacon to Picasso's "Bone Period" and patronising them
both. But to others it was a miraculously energetic work, uncompromising
and offering great promise for the future.
It seemed that the confident radicalism of early-twentieth-century
European painting might have found a worthy exponent in Britain for the
first time. Graham Sutherland had been doing some of his best work (and
had actually been influenced by the entirely unknown Bacon in the
Thirties) but his pictures never gave one the confidence that they could
travel, while Bacon's have done so triumphantly.
The next masterpiece was, I thing, Painting, 1946. Picasso's work had
made Bacon want to be a painter when he saw a show in Paris in 1928 but,
though always acknowledging his debt, he was, with Painting, 1946,
now entirely himself. From then on his career started its inevitable
upward progress. The Bacon "scream" was born (derived mainly from the
nurses on the Odessa Steps in Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin) and
it appeared, though much less frequently than is thought, through
ape-like heads, a series based on Velasquez's famous portrait of Pope
Innocent X and several desperately isolated men in suits. Bacon always
insisted that the Popes were a mistake but a few of them are, I'm sure,
In 1953 he painted an outrageous picture which must surely be one of the
great figure paintings of the century. Bacon was, of course, homosexual
and, although he must have certainly enjoyed turning an Eadweard
Muybridge photograph of two wrestlers on their mat into Two Figures on a
Bed, he made it a mordant allegory of flesh and futility. Although
latterly his male figures became more "voluptuous", the earlier
apparently coupling ones seem equivocal and mostly tormented prisoners
of their human incarnation.
Lucian Freud, who was a close friend of Bacon's for some 30 years,
though later their relations became very cool, once told me that when he
first met Bacon in 1944 that he seemed "the wildest and wisest" person
he had ever met.
He has had something like that effect on many people. But when I met him
in 1948, when I was 20, it was his marvellously self-conscious charm
that impressed me because it seemed at the same time to be a natural
expression of vitality. His famous courtesy also increased with his
sense of well-being, along with his overflowing humour which, whether
malicious or not, was only to do with high spirits (he hated "jokes").
But on bad days his generosity became a defensive barrier and good
manners would come under threat, quite often turning into a daunting
asperity and more than that.
Afternoons out with him in Soho during the Fifties and Sixties were
mostly really exhilarating. To see him come into the French Pub around
12.30 (after having probably worked for six hours that morning) gave
one, when not obliged to work oneself, a sense that one's banal idleness
might soon be redeemed by irresponsible pleasure and conversation. The
bar staff and Gaston Berlemont were pleased to see him for reasons only
very loosely connected to commerce and, if one did go on to Wheeler's
for lunch, often with several others, the greeting from the staff and
management there was equally pleased and expectant.
Nearly everyone likes being bought champagne and lunch but the real
pleasure of these occasions was the spectacle of care being
banished with such élan.
Generally this feeling could be sustained all afternoon and evening, but
occasionally it crumbled, either slowly or spectacularly, at Muriel
Belcher's Colony Room. (Muriel, who had once paid Bacon £10 a week to
bring in affluent customers, was one of the few people he really loved,
and he made several paintings of her).
In the late Fifties, after producing at lightening speed a sensational
show at the Hanover Gallery of pictures based on Van Gogh's The
Painter on the Road to Tarascon, Bacon started painting portraits of
people he knew.
At first he tried working from the model, but then found he was less
distracted if he used photographs. (There is an interesting exchange
with David Sylvester and Bacon on this subject in that essential book of
conversations The Brutality of Fact.) The pictures were nearly always
taken by a brilliant photographer called John Deakin who was one of the
best British photographers of this century - if not quite the most
productive or consistent.
Bacon will be remembered for a large number of single images and at
least 20 of his large triptychs, but his portraits will be considered as
important as anything in his oeuvre, particularly those involving George
Dyer, Henrietta Moraes and Isabel Rawsthorne (as well as the constant
stream of self-portraits). Those of Lucian Freud are powerful paintings
but not so impressively "like" as the others. Isabel Rawsthorne, who
inspired several masterpieces conveying her extraordinary looks and
presence, said that, although they were done from photographs, she felt
she knew exactly "when and where" they were painted. And Frank Auerbach
has said that the best Bacon portraits seem "like risen spirits".
The Seventies and Eighties brought Bacon new triumphs on a world-wide
scale. The great series of the triptychs started in the Sixties was
continued with some of the strongest images he ever made, including the
ruthlessly poignant re-enactment of the death of his friend George Dyer.
For my taste the work of the Eighties is, with certain notable
exceptions, less convincing than that of earlier decades as it seems
done more for Bacon's private pleasure than the previous dramas acted
out on a larger and more public stage. His technical virtuosity however
was often as brilliant as ever. In 1988 a historic exhibition of Bacon's
work was mounted in Moscow and provoked tremendous interest. Opinion was
as polarised as ever, but the heroic element in the work was noted more
than usual by those in favour of it.
Bacon was a tormented person in many ways - particularly because of his
need for a kind of negative certainty about art and the human life. But
it must be always remembered that the artists he revered mostly either
possessed religious faith or embodied it in their work, like Rembrandt,
Michelangelo and Velasquez; or had abandoned it but preserved a
powerfully religious temperament, like Van Gogh; or had a strong sense
of social morality, like Seurat. Degas, Duchamp and Picasso were
exceptions, but perhaps in the end they have the least affinities with
him. His favourite poets, Eliot and Yeats, surely had very strong
religious and metaphysical leanings and Shakespeare of course had
I am reluctant to believe that he chose the iconography of the
Crucifixion simply because it was an example of "human behaviour".
Bacon's depth of feeling needed the spiritual intensity of the
traditional image, though Nietzsche was his guide. The critics who said
he lacked a "truly tragic dimension" only betrayed their limited notion
of tragedy, and disappointed seekers after "affirmation" failed to
realise that it is present in all real art, including Bacon's.
Bacon was a deeper and more driven man than he would admit - and always
determined to be the driver. Only he could have stayed the course he
took with such calculated recklessness. Apart from his personal and
intimate life, his gambling (and once the running of a dangerously
illegal gaming party) there was his drinking, which, together with his
work, continuously taxed his constitution. It all added up to near total
improvidence - unit age got as close as it could to catching up with
him. And writing as an agnostic I don't think that his "nihilism" can
harm anyone at all. I believe that his best work is testing in salutary
way and that it provides what all great art does - the sense of the
Francis could be a marvellously out going person but would also conspire
to make himself a lonely one. He was often simply kind. All manner of
people and surviving friends will miss his presence in the world, and so
An artist whose work has ravelled triumphantly: Francis Bacon in the
doorway of his studio, 1984
Photograph: Bruce Bernard
‘I would say I tend to destroy all the better paintings’
Francis Bacon talks to David Sylvester:
Interviews with Francis Bacon,
Thames & Hudson
‘When I was trying in despair the other day to paint that head of a
specific person, I used a very big brush and a great deal of paint and I
put it on very, very freely, and I simply didn’t know in the end what I
was doing, and suddenly this thing clicked, and became exactly like this
image I was trying to record. But not out of any conscious will, nor was
it anything to do with illustrational painting. What has never yet been
analysed is why this particular way of painting is more poignant than
illustration. I suppose because it has a life completely of its own. It
lives on its own, like the image one’s trying to trap; it lives on its
own, and therefore transfers the essence of the image more poignantly.
So that the artist may be able to open up or rather, should I say,
unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life
And when you feel that the thing, as you say, has clicked, does this
mean it's given you what you initially wanted or that it's given you'd
like to have wanted?
One never, of course, I'm afraid, gets that. But there is a possibility
that you get through this accidental thing something much more profound
than what you really wanted.
When you were talking earlier about this head you were doing the other
day, you said that you tried to take it further and lost it. Is this
often the reason for your destroying paintings? That's to say, do you
tend to destroy paintings early on or do you tend to destroy them
precisely when they've been good and you're trying to make them better?
I think I tend to destroy the better paintings, or those that have been
better to a certain extent. I try and take them further, and they lose
all their qualities, and they lose everything. I think I would say that
I tend to destroy all the better paintings.
Can you never get it back once it's gone over the top?
Not now. And less and less. As the way I work is totally now,
accidental, and becomes more and more accidental, and doesn't seem to
behave, as it were, unless it is accidental, how can I recreate an
accident? It's almost an impossible thing to do.
But you might get another accident on the same canvas?
One might get another accident, but it would never be quite the same.
This is the thing that can probably happen only in oil paint, because it
is so subtle that one tone, one piece of paint, that moves one thing
into another completely changes the implications of the image.
You wouldn't get back what you'd lost, but you might get something else.
Why, then, do you tend to destroy rather than work on? Why do you prefer
to begin again on another canvas?
Because sometimes it disappears completely and the canvas becomes
completely clogged, and there's too much paint on it - just a technical
thing, but too much paint, and one just can't go on . . .
people didn't come and take the away from you, I take it, nothing would
ever leave the studio; you'd go on till you'd destroyed them all.
I think so, yes.’
Francis Bacon in 1928
Obituary: Francis Bacon
formed in the blackness of the Blitz
WEDNESDAY APRIL 29 , 1992
FRANCIS BACON was the last of the major European expressionist painters
who came to prominence in the years after the war, and for nearly five
decades was a towering if somewhat remote figure in British art. He
belongs to no school and had no close followers. His pictures sat
uneasily in group exhibitions and often look out of place in museums.
For many of his admirers - and those who relished Bacon's art and
company extended in the social range from rent boys to minor
royalty - he was a truly existentialist painter, scornful of reward,
convention and personal satisfaction.
He came late to painting, abandoned work on canvas for years and had no
training whatsoever. Like his near contemporary Jean Dubuffet he was a
more challenging artist because he had never studied professional skills
and procedures. In the grand pomp of Bacon's most dramatic visions,
characteristically enclosed in the ornate old master frames that he and
his galleries preferred, there is always a trace of the amateur artist.
Not that he painted as a hobby, or to make a point or to earn his
living: he was an amateur because his work was the result of a personal
Bacon was born in Lower Baggot Street in Dublin in 1909, one of the five
children of an English racehorse trainer. His mother was well connected
on both sides of the Irish sea and during Bacon's childhood the family
lived between England and Ireland in a succession of grand, often
dilapidated houses. He had little formal education and later recalled
that his teenage ambition was "to do nothing". Thus he began the life of
drifting in European capitals that gave a cosmopolitan background to his
paintings' painful interior scenes.
By 1928 he was in Berlin and witnesses the last days of the Weimar
Republic. In Paris he saw his first Picassos. In 1930 he returned to
England and took a basement flat in South Kensington. The SW10 area was
Bacon's first home for the rest of his life. However, he spent long
periods in Monte Carlo and other places in which he could indulge his
passion for gambling, and made extended visits to southern Africa,
fascinated both by big game and the atmosphere of a doomed white
population. From the early seventies Bacon lived for part of each year
In Kensington in the early thirties Bacon set up a desultory practice as
a designer of rugs and art deco furniture. His drawings seem very much
of their date, but the steel-and-glass furniture and bold black-outlined
mirrors lingered in his imagination for tears, and may be seen in
many paintings of crouching, naked, suffering figures. The short period
when Bacon practiced as an interior designer was also the time when he
began to paint. Like a gambler, he had immediate success followed by
failure. A painting of a crucifixion was reproduced by Herbert Read in
his 1933 book Art Now and was bought by the connoisseur Sir Michael
Sadler. In the next year Bacon put on a private exhibition of his
painting in a house in Curzon Street. The show flopped and with the
exception of three canvases in a mixed exhibition in 1937, Bacon did not
exhibit again until 1945.
An asthmatic, Bacon did not serve in the war apart from a brief
enrolment in the ARP rescue service. He remained in London and had a
kind of relish for the darkness and violence of the Blitz. As he later
said, "We all needed to be aware of the potential disaster which stalks
us at every moment of the day." It is a neat encapsulation of his
personal muse, born as he stalked bombarded London in search of places
to gamble. Bacon now began to paint again, and most accounts agree that
at some point between 1940 and 1945 his work at the easel became
obsessive. He is the pre-eminent artist of post-war German angst and
disillusion, so it is appropriate that his real career as a painter
should have begun in fear, destruction - and lawlessness - of the
In every aspect of his temperament (though both men were united in
assurance of their personal greatness) Bacon was the opposite of that
other second world war artist, Henry Moore. Bacon's art is about risk,
catastrophe, murder and an abandoned but private sexuality. If Moore was
a humanist and a guardian of tradition in the modern world, Bacon was
the desperate maestro of immoderation and despair. Asked recently
whether he was going to celebrate his 80th birthday, he replied "I
celebrate every day". It was as though his daily intake of champagne
were the thin ice above deep seas of horror.
His exhibitions at the Lefevre Gallery in 1945 and 1946 established
Bacon as an individual, authoritative and notorious painter. The shows
also demonstrated the leading principle of his style, a manner that was
pretty much constant for years afterwards. Three Studies for Figures
at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), now in the Tate Gallery,
mingles Picasso with a use of photography as a source.
HISTORIANS will regard Bacon as one of the first important figurative
painters whose inspiration came primarily from photographs rather than
from human contact or close acquaintance with paintings by old or modern
masters. Of course his disregard for other art helped Bacon towards an
extraordinary personal licence: those vile background colours, slurred
or slovenly brushwork and feigned nobility. And photography also helped
him to be competitive. He could hardly have embarked on the series of
Screaming Popes, perhaps now his most famous work, had he studied their
source, Velasquez's 1650 Portrait of Pope Innocent X in the original.
While Bacon's public career is pretty accurately documented, his
personal life is often a matter of legend. His adolescent desire to "do
nothing" came true for years at a time. Nobody quite knows how he spent
his time in Monte Carlo, when he wasn't at the tables or in bed. Most
recent reports of Bacon's life stress his fondness for Soho, the French
Pub, the Caves de France and the Colony Club. This was the standard
Bohemian London of the late fifties and beyond, in which Bacon was
indeed a leading figure; but there were other aspects of his life that
seem, in retrospect, to have a faded Edwardian grandeur - grandeur
despite the police around the corner, as often they were.
At one time Bacon had a Cromwell Place flat in a house that had belonged
to a grandee of Victorian painting, Millais. The chintz, the velvet, the
sofas were all faded and stained. The carpet was covered with paint.
Bacon's old nanny lived with him, muttering all the time of her
obsession, capital punishment. She slept on the table. Bacon - like many
generous grandees - was often surrounded by retainers with no obvious
function. Yet this nanny had a particular job. She was the hat-check
girl while Bacon gave his nightly, all-night gaming parties.
Nobody ever told him what to do. He liked discussion but never took
advice, especially about painting. Little wonder that the quality of his
art was so varied. Bacon was not a sensible judge of his own work. A
wretched performance might mean as much to him as a far better canvas,
presumably because of some personal association. His great fault was
always the assumption of a high style. I suppose that he should have
painted smaller - but then we would not have known the vulgar immodesty
of those pictures that really did have something to say about modern
times. Not for nothing was Eichmann in his box compared o the
composition of a Bacon painting.
Two sudden yet horribly complementary private griefs accompanied Bacon's
largest public triumphs. His boyfriend Peter Lacey, a country gentleman
character who played the piano in Dean's Bar, Tangier, died on the
opening day of his 1962 Tate Gallery retrospective. Lacey's successor,
George Dyer, of whom there are many living and posthumous portraits,
died on the day of Bacon's largest retrospective at the Grand Palais in
Paris in 1975. In truth Bacon cared nothing for such official art-world
occasions and did little to assist the preparations of further
retrospectives at the Tate in 1985 and Moscow in 1988 where, somewhat
surprisingly, he was presented as evidence of health in modern western
culture. The enclosed world of his friendships was most important to
him. Observing this, mainly from afar, I was often struck by an
expression of delight on Bacon's face as he came into some drinking club
or private view and saw a friend. Both faces would light up - I know
it's a cliché, but it's true - with some kind of happy love. I got him
to his feet once, when he had fallen down insensible. His face was all
white and I thought he was dead before I realised it was make-up. It's
the smile I remember most. Winning or losing, a great human smile.
Female nude (1966) ... Bacon was the pre-eminent artist
of angst and disillusion
Obituary: Francis Bacon
Genius formed in the blackness of the Blitz
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 29, 1992
WHEN the Guardian printed a tribute to Francis Bacon from myself among
several others on the occasion of his 80th birthday, I hope he would
live for many more years to exemplify the truth of my opening lines. I
said that Francis's long and productive life was an excellent precept
for us all and the perfect example for any aspiring young painter. For
Francis had never attended art school, screwed about a good deal, drank
champagne as a fundamental daily amenity and treated all patrons with
courteous indifference - whether though aborted commissions or portraits
that reduced their sitters to a deformed and grimacing lump of matter.
And he never had an Arts Council hand-out or indeed any kind of
scholarship or bursary.
The was in which Francis Bacon conducted his life presupposes a
fundamental measure of talent - in his case, genius - or the frequent
waywardness, mostly the drunkenness, would have been less easy to bear.
Lie his two near-contemporaries and late - or neo - Edwardians,
Sutherland and Moore, Bacon had come to professional maturity before the
ameliorative and propagating work of the Arts Council and British
Council came into being, and had learnt how to survive financially
long before public commissions and grants for artists were established.
All three artists had hard years when young. Moore and Sutherland, like
Piper, Pasmore and many others, eventually were helped tremendously by
the patronage of Kenneth Clark. Bacon painted, designed screens,
interiors and furniture, ran a gambling club briefly, and was more
adventurous so far as patronage was concerned. Bacon enjoyed something
like patronage in his stable relationship with a mildly well-off civil
servant, Eric Hall, whose death not long after the 1939-45 war was a
great blow for Bacon. But the point I want to make here is that, like
Moore and Sutherland, Bacon had grown-up in a totally different artistic
climate to those artists born during or after the 1939-45 war, in the
sense that hard work and resourceful self-sufficiency were the order of
the day and to be an artist for this earlier generation was to follow a
vocation and not a highly publicised profession. Compared with an older
generation, artists today often sound and behave like upwardly mobile
I became very friendly with the painter, Roy de Maistre, not long after
I was appointed director of the Whitechapel Gallery in 1953. Before the
war, in the thirties, Francis had lived near Roy de Maistre's studio
just off Ebury Street, and the two painters had become close friends,
Roy acting as a kind of uncle or father figure to the much younger
Francis, often trouble by one or other of the three usual
problems: health, love or money. The third ember of what became a trio
of close friends living round Ebury Street was the young and equally
remarkable Patrick White, like Roy, coming from a cultivated background
in Australia. Listening to Roy's reminiscences, always absorbing, I
often sat on a vast couch designed by Francis, backed by one of his
screens. And Francis was sometimes a fellow guest at dinner, his
affection and regard for de Maistre unchanged. I had met Francis first
in 1948, when he had just returned from a long spell in the south of
France, and the Lefevre Gallery and then Erika Brausen's Hanover
Gallery were becoming interested in his work. Francis took me out to
many splendid dinners at the old Carlton Grill. He was a terrific
companion, lively, well informed, well read and wholly irreverent about
the art world. My only problem then, as always, was that although my
love for drink was second to no man's, Francis could drink me under the
table and sometimes did.
ALL THE same, I braved the boozy stronghold of the Colony Club one
spring day in 1951 to meet Francis and secure the location of a villa in
the south of France that I wanted to rent for myself and some friends on
holiday together. Francis arrived and told me how to rent his favourite
villa on the heights above Monaco which he had taken for many winters as
a place for himself and his old nurse. Francis painted all day, gambled
all night, and the nurse knitted in the sun. That involuntary revelation
of Francis's kindness touched me, and the villa turned out to be
delightful, secluded and spacious. It was amusing to find that the
furnishings included the most comprehensive library of literature on
sexual perversions imaginable, which added a certain zing to hot
afternoon siestas, as well as a cupboard off my own bedroom filled with
intensely alarming images on canvas left by Francis in various stages of
I kept in touch with Francis over the years and cannot remember anything
beyond mutual amusement at the follies of the art world and immense and
unfailing kindness to those in need. Most recently, I asked him to help
a hospice for Aids victims for which I was fund-raising among artists,
asking for works for auction. Francis sent a conspicuously large cheque
at once. We were fellow asthmatics and often compared notes over
treatments and perhaps that bond of affliction inhibited Francis from
running down, beyond the occasional flouncy bit of derision, the
work of the abstract painters and sculptors that I exhibited and
supported with much enthusiasm. He made an exception of Mark Rothko,
whose work toughed him, but derided all the others.
That side of Francis rather bored me, particularly when I saw how
swiftly he lifted and made use of abstract devices in his own work. I
remember a man sitting and yelling his head off sitting on a long flight
of steps which could not have been painted without the incongruous
example of Noland's tripe paintings. And of course the crux of all
Bacon's works was the abstract space-frame on which the figure stands in
Giacometti's pivotal Hands Holding The Void and through which the
long phallic shape extrudes in the same sculptor's The Nose. All that in
turn comes from Picasso's rediscovery of Grunewald's painful Isenheim
altarpiece in the 1930s, before Guernica, and from which so much in the
work of Matta, Sutherland, and many others depended.
There was some justice in the caustic verdict of my friend, Colin Colin
MacInnes: "The Norman Hartnell of the horror movement." I too sometimes
thought that there was something repellent about the imagery of
something like Belsen being presented as a chic cabaret turn. Bur
Colin's put-down perhaps came from shewing the floor, as it were, in the
Colony bar, where Francis would not always stand for a tutorial from the
erudite, often brilliant, but implacably centre-stage MacInnes. More
particularly, I have always objected to the silliness of Bacon's
adulators, who would have us believe that Francis painted the entire
human condition, you, me, all of us. Well, old men and women die alone
in poverty, many live painfully and in despair with disease, the bombers
and machine-gunners are hard at it everywhere. A man screaming his head
off sitting on a bed in a rather expensive hotel bedroom seems rather
too special a case to stand in for universal suffering.
But Bacon was unquestionably a marvellous painter; he caught a nerve in
painting a no artist has ever done before and he created, despite some
mechanically contrived triptychs and a few other weaker works, some of
the strongest images of the century. Acutely sensitive to surface, he
had little gift for psychological probity compared with early Kokoschka
portraits, but he had a fantastic feeling for the figure in space:
trapped, pinned down or imperilled like a moth or a hunk of meat.
Francis Bacon, born October 28, 1909; died April 28. 1992
Homage to work and love
WEDNESDAY, 29 APRIL, 1992
FRANCIS BACON was, until yesterday, the greatest living painter and the
greatest British painter since Turner. These are high claims. You can
make a case against them. Bacon had no formal training and it shows. He
was an action painter; he attacked the canvas physically until it was
finished, and usually denied himself oil painter's architectural
possibilities, which allow painters to build a painting and strip it
down again and rebuild it until it comes right. Inevitably, there were
Bacon should have obeyed his early instincts and destroyed more of his
work. Then he relied sometimes, though not as often as people think, on
the aesthetics of shock: a figure crapping or throwing up; a nude on a
bed with a hypodermic syringe.
These and other criticisms pale if you spend time with is best work. He
was a very grand man, in the old and aristocratic sense of the word, and
he brought grandeur back to modern painting. His handling of paint can
be sumptuous. These are not the kind of words which it is easy to use in
the context of modern art, but you can use them with Bacon as you can
with Picasso, Van Gogh and Cezanne. I sometimes visit a collection in
Lausanne where he hangs beside these masters. In the end, that is the
way to decide things.
I was an acquaintance of Bacon for the last 10 years of his life. He had
ceased to be the waspish, terrifying figure of the Colony Club days in
fifties and sixties Soho. As Freud said we should, he reduced things to
work and love. After a fraught life, though not one I can imagine him
conducting differently, he combined the two. I suspect he was as happy
towards the end of his life as he had ever been. Bu the allowed some
time foe peripheral affection and for that I will always be grateful.
We met through a mutual friend, David Sylvester, whose Conversations
With Bacon is one of the classic texts of modern art. Bacon liked an
essay I had written about him. Since he was famously hard to please in
this regard I pushed my luck and asked if I could write a life. I told
him I was the only person who understood his background. Quite
fortuitously, we shared the same roots, indeed the same village, in Co.
Kildare, where Bacon's father was a racehorse trainer. He admitted that
the memory of Ireland was both important and traumatic for him and that
it did affect the paintings. He told me that if he co-operated with
anyone it would be with me. But he did not want a life written. "It will
happen in any case, Francis." "Yes, but I shall be dead and I shan't of
helped and I shan't care."
I asked him if it was his love life that was the trouble, and gave him
my view that all love lifes are at once crucial and banal. I was
interested in writing about the paintings as if they were battles: you
need to know what the general is up to only insofar as it affects
strategy and tactics.
He told me that he had come to the view that homosexuality was an
affliction, that it had turned him, at one point in his life, into a
crook. The crookishness, not the sex, was a source of shame and if he
talked at all, it was his nature to tell everything. We both liked
Proust and agreed that the beginning of Cities Of The Plain said all
that needed to be said about being homosexual. He told me that a centre
of his being was that he had disliked his father greatly and liked his
mother, but that it was the father for whom he felt attraction. He
suffered always from asthma; he could not visit Ireland without it
becoming acute. He thought Yeats and Picasso the great artists of the
These and like conversations would take place over first-class claret.
Taking Francis out was, financially, like buying one of his paintings.
He could be polite about anything other than Petrus, Mouton, Cheval,
Blanc, Margaux, Lafite, but only just. He liked politics in short bursts
and worked under a star system. Mrs Thatcher was in favour for quite a
while but yielded in time to Dr Owen. As a minister I felt obliged to
point out that "Clause 28" was designed to discourage homosexual
propaganda and fell well short of a pogrom. He suffered through the
breakdown of his friendship with Lucian Freud, whom he missed. He though
Lucian thought him boring, and when you think that, you often are.
He lived at home like a student, out of doors like a prince. The
three-roomed Kensington studio, up a ladder rather than a stairs, is
more important for the nation than any Canaletto. We must work to
preserve it. He gambled his money and gave money and paintings away. He
had aristocratic indifference without aristocratic disdain. I am glad he
died in Madrid, surronded by great paintings and with someone who had
made him happy. Nothing will ever taste quite as good again as Francis
talking in his intense physical way about paintings. He has left a dozen
or so of his own which will live with the art.
FRANCIS BACON DIES AT 82
THE WASHINGTON POST
WEDNESDAY, 29 APRIL, 1992
Bacon, 82, the British artist whose large paintings of misshapen or
screaming figures explored human misery and isolation and gave the
contemporary art world some of its most disturbing images, died April 28
at a hospital in Madrid after a heart attack.
Mr. Bacon, who had asthma, was stricken while on vacation. He lived in
He had been hailed as one of the most influential figure painters of the
postwar period and as one of the world's greatest contemporary painters.
A Bacon triptych recently sold in New York for almost $7 million. Last
year, Mr. Bacon gave one of his major paintings, worth more than $5
million, to London's Tate Gallery. He became the first living British
painter to be given a one-man show at New York's Metropolitan Museum of
Art, and in 1988 received an exhibition in Moscow -- a first-time honor
for a living Westerner.
British contemporary painter Howard Hodgkin called him "the greatest
English painter since Turner." At least one other noted figure was not
so kind. Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher outraged
London's artistic community when she once described him as "that man who
paints those dreadful pictures."
Mr. Bacon was best known for his biomorphic abstractions and
representations of the male human form, often twisted or distorted
shapes in a stark setting such as a bare room or on a platform-like
arena. Sometimes his figures were surrounded by lines suggesting a cage
or prison and a spirit locked in a private hell.
He often used contemporary images as a starting point for his work,
including news photos and movie stills. Other of his works were based on
old and classic works. These included his portrait of Pope Innocent X,
which was based on a famous portrait by the Spanish artist Diego
shows the 17th century pontiff caged in plate glass and screaming. The
picture is known as "The Screaming Pope."
If the works were violent and shocking, and often based on a
contemporary theme, they also featured a kind of epic grandeur of style,
with what one critic called rich, sensuous handling of paint reminiscent
of the 16th and early 17th century Venetian and Spanish painting.
Mr. Bacon, who was descended from the philosopher of the same name, was
born in Dublin, the son of a former British Army officer and a race
horse trainer. His father banished him from home at the age of 16 after
he was found having sexual relations with the grooms. The future artist
traveled to Berlin, where he threw himself into the life of a city
renowned for its excesses in the 1920s and 1930s. He went on gambling
sprees and spent nights in transvestite clubs.
In the 1940s, he concentrated more on the human form and male nudes,
painting a series based on his friend Eric Hall as well as
The central figures increasingly became abstract during the 1950s and
1960s — sometimes
merging human and animal forms. He sometimes flanked the forms with
depictions of raw meat or paint splashed on the canvas.
"Animal movement and human movement are certainly linked in my images,"
he told an interviewer in the 1950s.
He frequently returned to the crucifixion theme, including another
triptych done during the mid-1980s. He demanded that all his paintings
be covered by glass and they often had ornate frames.
In interviews, Mr. Bacon cited one of his major influences as Sergei
Eisenstein's 1925 film "Battleship Potemkin," particularly a closeup
shot of a screaming nurse. He also closely studied the early photography
of Eadweard Muybridge, who made sequences of human and animal movement.
"What I want is to distort the figure far beyond the appearance, but in
the distortion to bring it back to a recording of the appearance," he
said in an interview in the 1950s.
In a jamb
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH
WEDNESDAY, 29 APRIL, 1992
WHO gets Francis Bacon's palette? Bacon, who died yesterday, spurned the
conventional palette which artists normally stick their thumbs through.
Instead, he used his brightly daubed studio door.
It will probably go to Michael Leventis, a London-based Greek Cypriot
artist whom Bacon encouraged after a chance encounter in a Soho
restaurant eight years ago. "I admired the door and he indicated that I
might have it," said Leventis.
"I already have one of Francis's easels and a couple of signed prints.
The easel means a lot to me. It has all the colours he used on some of
his best-known paintings. I would never dream of using it."
There was a subdued air last night around Bacon's favourite drinking
haunts in Soho, London. Sandy Fawkes, an old friend, said: "He once told
me the only cure for a hangover was suicide. When he died he was in love
Leventis had a different view. He said: "Francis had a hard winter,
couldn't paint, and without his work I don't think he wanted to go on."
violent vision shocked art world
By BRUCE ARNOLD
ARTS EDITOR |
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 29, 1992
FRANCIS Bacon, regarded as one of the greatest painters
this century, died yesterday after a heart attack while on holiday in
Spain. He was 82 and was admitted to a private clinic in Madrid five
He consistently shocked the art world by the violence and
horror of his vision, while at the same time ameliorating the damage
done with the elegance and smoothness of the colour and texture of his
There is a liquefaction in the tone and surface of his
work which makes the screaming popes, the distorted portraits, the
dismembered bodies and the howling, unhappy dogs, not just acceptable,
He took n and conquered the artistic world in a way
that was unprecedented for an English artist; and he insisted on his
Englishness though he had been born and brought up in Ireland, the son
of a racehorse trainer on the Curragh.
Francis Bacon had no formal training. He began as a
furniture designer, and was so reviewed in the Studio magazine in 1930,
before being taken up by the 'Modernist' movement, in the person of
Reed also championed the other great British artist, the
sculptor, Henry Moore, the the two men – though
Moore was 10 years his senior – came to represent
what was most modern, most international, and most exciting in British
art in the two decades immediately after the second world war.
Bacon fluctuated between a mad and terrifying world of
uninhibited life, the drug culture of the 1960s, and an attempt at
formal restraint and dignity, particularly in his portraiture.
Sombre-suited men in grey suits which seemed to epitomise
the liquid, shimmering world of wealth and privilege developed into the
most famous series of all – his paintings derived
from the Velasquez portrait of Pope Innocent X.
Both in these and in portraits, particularly of friends,
Bacon created cages and prisons made out of lines, in which his subjects
seemed to sit in frozen fear of their capture by the artist.
Inspired in part by images from film, particularly the
screaming, broken head out of Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin he
created and developed a whole range of 'screaming heads.'
From another source, the famous series of Muybridge
photographs of the human nude male and female form in motion, Bacon also
created a forbiddingly distorted group of paintings of wrestling and
This again he took even further, when he equated such
powerful images as the carcass of the ox, painted superbly by an old
master with whom Bacon had many similarities, Peter Paul Rubens, with
the Crucifixion, again in treatments which were uniquely Bacon's own.
He established his reputation as an artist on a global
scale, and had already won support and admiration in Germany, Brazil,
Italy, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States when he took Paris by
storm in 1966. His exhibition there, at the Gallerie Maeght, against all
predictions, was a sell-out.
He had remarkable finesse. He was a most stylish
technician. He handled paint always with a great sense of power, always
using intense reds and blues, and never flinching from what seem to be
ultimates of pain and horror.
His subjects often seem to be his victims. Blood is never
far from the surface. Anguish characterises the expression in the faces
of his portraits, active torment seizes and at times eviscerates the
bodies of his nudes, his groups, his carcasses and the fragments of meat
and bone, all treated with the same respect and energy as he brings them
to the surface of his canvas and there reveals all.
He expressed in modern art a relentless and haunted
search for visual truth which transcended any idea of beauty or the
giving of pleasure.
He declined, with absolute firmness, the idea of being
included in my own book on Irish art, but on the two occasions when I
met him was charming and friendly. He was small in stature with intense,
piercing eyes and a way of looking which was hypnotic.
He dominated the British art scene for 30 years, and has
left the world an extensive legacy, powerful and admirable for its range
and diversity, though one which is difficult to like. One would wish to
claim him, but he belongs to a world and a set of values which would not
fit harmoniously into this small island.
Bacon ... father rained horses on The Curragh.
FRANCIS BACON, PAINTER DRIVEN BY MORTALITY
By ANDREW GRAHAM-DIXON
WEDNESDAY 29 APRIL, 1992
The painter Francis Bacon died yesterday. He was 82.
“I have often thought upon death and I find it the least of all evils,”
wrote Francis Bacon’s namesake and ancestor, the Elizabethan
For Bacon the painter, the opposite was true. Death was the greatest of
evils: “I have a feeling of mortality all the time,” he once said.
“Because, if life excites you, its opposite, like a shadow, death, must
excite you. Perhaps not excite you, but you are aware of it in the same
way as you are aware of life, you are aware of life, you’re aware of It
like the turn of a coin between life and death… I’m always very
surprised when I wake up in the morning.”
Mortality was Bacon’s great theme, his keen sense of his own mortality,
the driving force behind his art. His paintings are not pleasant,
embodying a singularly bleak view of human existence, but they have a
power born of obsession that is unique in British post war art.
Storyless, enigmatic compositions, characteristically painted in
triptych format, they place the emphasis on prime biological fact,
figures usually male scream, couple bestially, vomit or defecate,
depicted as lurid agglomerations of bodily matter, raw flesh that seems
on the point of putrefaction. Their beauty is the beauty of rottenness.
“I’ve always been very moved by pictures about slaughter-houses,” he
said and Bacon’s figures, frequently isolated on the flattest and most
uninflected areas of pure colour, almost like clinical specimen, have
something of the slaughterhouse about them. “We are meat, we are
potential carcasses,” he said, and painted the fact.
Bacon’s place in art history is assured, yet it is also true that art
historians have never known quite what to make of him. He distrusted
interpretation of his paintings and when pressed on the possible
symbolic significance of his work, insisted: “I’m not saying anything.”
He was never the member of a school or movement in painting and neither
did he found any.
Bacon was singular-an artist for whose work there are few if any
precedents in modern art, an artist whose work has had little issue in
subsequent painting – but he was also one of those rare artists who give
visual expression to the mood of their times. His art, despite his
protestations, has taken on the status of symbol, and that, in the end,
is the source of its significance.
Bacon’s subject is twentieth century man, unaccommodated man, living in
a world that has been voided of spiritual significance. His subject
matter has often been, in one sense, traditional he is the only
twentieth century painter, to have made a significant contribution to
the tradition of crucifixion imagery yet in Bacon’s case that has tended
to emphasise his originality the gap that separates him from the art of
the past. Bacon’s crucifixions are bloody, thoroughly untranscendental
paintings, his Christ a joint of raw meat or (as he once put it) “a worm
crawling down the cross”.
They are not, strictly speaking, sacrilegious paintings; but they are
profoundly pessimistic. Man, in Bacon’s world, Is an unregenerate,
bestial creature, a secular being for whom “religious possibilities have
been cancelled”. Among Bacon’s most famous paintings are the series of
screaming heads he painted from the late Forties on. Questioned about
the violence of his paintings, Bacon answered that he had lived in
violent times. He spent the years of the First World War in London, and
then lived in Ireland in the early years of the Sinn Fein movement; he
was in Berlin in 1927-28 and then in Paris until the outbreak of the
Second World War. It was this, perhaps that made possible for him to
paint the crucifixion as “just an act of man’s behaviour, a way of
behaviour to another.”
British Painter Francis Bacon Dies
At 82, he remained a figure of controversy whose powerful, boldly
painted canvases divided critics and viewers alike.
LONDON — Francis Bacon, widely regarded
as Britain's greatest contemporary painter, died of a heart attack in
a Madrid hospital Tuesday.
Bacon, who had suffered from asthma, became ill while visiting friends
The 82-year-old painter was highly controversial in traditional artistic
circles, since his powerful canvases, executed with splashing brush
strokes, were often concerned with the themes of sex, suffering and
death. Many regarded his paintings as obscene.
But his work commanded high prices - a Bacon triptych recently sold in
New York for $7 million - and in 1975 he was the first living British
artist to rate a one-man show at New York's Metropolitan Museum.
Bacon reportedly turned down a knighthood and other honors on the
grounds, as he once said with a shrug, that "they cordon you off from
In 1962, his large retrospective exhibition at London's Tate Gallery
received considerable public and critical acclaim. Additional attention
focused on his paintings in 1971, when he was given a rare retrospective
at Paris' Grand Palais that opened only hours after his model and lover,
George Dyer, had committed suicide.
Bacon later memorialized Dyer's death in a famous triptych of tormented
paintings. It was reminiscent of one of his first works to draw
international attention--a triptych called "Three Studies for the
Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.
His paintings often depicted people such as Dyer in the throes of drug
addiction and other agonies, and his "Screaming Pope" series was an
unsettling reference to Diego Velazquez's portrait of Pope Innocent X.
Bacon was an avowed homosexual who lived in a paint can-cluttered
apartment and hung around the bars of London's raffish Soho district.
While reticent about his work, he was personable and charming outside
his studio. Bacon often said that his life was divided between "the
gutter and the Ritz".
He normally consumed at least a bottle of champagne and a dozen oysters
for lunch, and when not working he would pub-crawl through the day in
Soho, often ending in fashionable South Kensington, where he lived and
worked in a simple two-bedroom townhouse.
He wandered the streets in a dark leather jacket, looking at least 10
years younger than his age and seldom recognize.
Bacon seemed to care little about money, deploring the
astronomical prices of paintings - including his own - with the comment,
"Prices are so ridiculous that people go to galleries because they are
obsessed by money."
He was born in Ireland in 1909, reportedly descended from the
16th-Century English philosopher and essayist whose name he bore.
His English father was a retired army officer who banished him from home
when Bacon was caught having sex with a stable hand.
The teen-ager struck out for London and then Berlin, where he quickly
began indulging in sexual escapades, gambling and nights in transvestite
He returned to London in 1923 and designed modernistic furniture. It was
not until 1929 that he turned to painting.
In the 1930s, his supporters claimed that his work was revitalizing the
British art scene. At the outbreak of the war, he tried to enlist but,
rejected because of his longstanding asthma, joined the ambulance rescue
It was about this time that he decided his early work displeased him,
and he destroyed much of it with a razor.
In his work, Bacon broke all the staid rules of traditional English art
and followed a more European tradition. With no formal art training, he
sometimes painted with his fingers, scrubbing brushes and rags,
combining different images from different mediums to produce startling
To those who abhorred his depiction of flesh - animal,
human, and sometimes indeterminate - he once said: "You've only got to
go into a butcher's shop.... It's nothing to do with mortality, but it's
to do with the great color of the meat."
Times art critic William Wilson, writing of a Bacon exhibit at the Los
Angeles County Museum of Art two years ago, likened the artist to an
Irish countryman, the playwright Samuel Beckett.
Both men were philosophical exiles, Wilson said, "and (both) shocked the
world with radical, disturbing art . . . which has changed only in
nuance over the decades. . . .
"It seems fair to ask how anyone as immensely successful--and presumably
wealthy--as Bacon can go on making art about despair. The quick answer
to that is that the rich and famous are still not necessarily content,
and Bacon has been strange and haunted all his life. . . .
Bacon was once asked about the hostility that his paintings created
among some viewers and answered, "If I thought about what the critics
said, I shouldn't have gone on painting.
He did not explain his obsession with sex and death in his paintings,
but said, "If you really love life you're constantly walking in the
shadow of death.
"I don't emphasize death," he continued. "I accept it as part of one's
existence. One is always aware of mortality in life, even in a rose that
blooms and then dies.
Francis Bacon, 82, Artist of the Macabre, Dies
By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
NEW YORK TIMES
Francis Bacon, the Irish-born painter whose abstract images of
psychological and physical brutality made him one of the most exalted,
and most disliked, artists of the postwar era, died yesterday at a
hospital in Madrid. He was 82 years old and lived in London.
He died of a heart attack while vacationing in Spain, according to a
statement from his London dealer, Marlborough Fine Art.
Mr. Bacon first gained acclaim in 1945, when he exhibited Three
Studies for Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion at
the Lefevre Gallery in London. His angrily drawn image of writhing
half-human, half-animal forms, perched atop pedestals and set in
claustrophobic spaces, seemed to epitomize the grim spirit of postwar
England and established the painter immediately as a master of the
That reputation was to be reinforced time and again by the screaming
popes, butchered carcasses and distorted portraits that Mr. Bacon turned
out over the next four and a half decades. Critics noted his links with,
among other things, the Surrealist art of Picasso and with German
Expressionism. Detractors - and there were always many of them,
especially in the United States, where he seemed so out of step with the
Abstract Expressionists of his generation - dismissed his art as
sensationalistic and slick. Museums around the world bought his work,
but private collectors were often loath to decorate their homes with it.
The former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once called him
"that man who paints those dreadful pictures."
But Mr. Bacon maintained that he was simply a realist and did not aim to
shock. "You can't be more horrific than life itself," he was fond of
Until his death, he continued to work in his cramped, cluttered studio
in a small ramshackle mews house in South Kensington, with its bare
bulbs, tattered photographs taped to the wall, and bathtub in the
kitchen. Although his paintings sold for millions of dollars, Mr. Bacon
eschewed most of the trappings of success. He would reach into his
pocket and pull out a wad of cash whenever he wanted to indulge in
lunches in swank restaurants or Champagne for the crowd at the Colony
Room, the run-down drinking club in the Soho district of London, where
he was a regular for more than 40 years. A Raffish Youth
A man of striking contradictions, he cultivated a bad-boy reputation,
speaking freely about his fondness for alcohol, his homosexuality and
his kinship with gangsters. Friends knew he could be ornery and
unpredictable, especially after a few drinks. But they also admired him
for his generosity, wit and kindness, qualities that clashed so
dramatically with the paintings for which he was famous.
The son of a hard-drinking racehorse trainer (and a collateral
descendant of the great Elizabethan statesman and philosopher of the
same name), Mr. Bacon spent his first years moving with his family
between Dublin and London. Asthma made school a problem, so he was
tutored by clergymen at home. He never got along with his mother and
father. When, at the age of 16, he was discovered to have had sex with
some of the grooms at the stables and was caught trying on his mother's
underwear, his parents banished him.
Mr. Bacon traveled to Berlin, where he spent long nights in transvestite
bars and endless hours with the sorts of rough characters who would be
no less a part of his social circle than intellectuals like the poets
Michel Leiris and Stephen Spender. He stopped in Paris, where he saw an
exhibition of Picasso's surreal paintings of the 20's, although he later
said it had little impact on him.
In 1929, he settled in London, working briefly as a designer of
modernist furniture, for which he achieved a modest reputation. Almost
casually, and without any formal training, he took up painting, but he
came to consider these earliest canvases "so awful" that he subsequently
painted over or destroyed almost all of them. In 1933, he participated
in a group show and was mentioned in a book called Art
Now, by the critic and historian Herbert Read. Over the next few
years he exhibited his work a little, but he treated art less as a
career than as a distraction from the drinking, gambling and wandering
around London that were his main preoccupations.
When World War II started, Mr. Bacon tried to enlist but was rejected
because of his asthma. He supported himself through a string of odd
jobs. The restlessness he recounted feeling during these years, his
sexual indiscretions, his mood of frustration and claustrophobia, and
his casual disregard for social mores and the opinions of others, would
become characteristics of his art. But only as the war was ending did he
begin to take painting seriously as an occupation.
The sources for his art were eclectic. He looked at the work of Old
Masters like Velazquez, whose Portrait
of Pope Innocent X he
combined with a still photograph from Sergei Eisenstein's film The
Battleship Potemkin to
contrive his series of screaming popes. Mr. Bacon derived images from
the newspaper and magazine photographs that he collected, and from the
famous sequential photographs of moving figures and animals that
Eadweard Muybridge made in the late 19th century. References to the
latest designs in furniture and clothing regularly appeared in his art.
He based one series of paintings on van Gogh; another series was
inspired by the Oresteia of
Aeschylus. "What is called Surrealism has gone through art at all
times," he once said. "What is more surreal than Aeschylus?"
And he was an extraordinary portraitist of his friends, somehow
managing, despite the blurred and mangled features, to convey an
unmistakable likeness and very often the attributes of beauty, wit and
Although Mr. Bacon made a handful of landscapes over the course of his
career, he was first and last a painter of the human body. His images
twisted it, X-rayed it, made it bleed, transmogrify and unravel. The
body became an expression of longing, exhaustion, illness and also lust.
Few artists could render flesh so palpably and voluptuously, or endow
even so mundane a subject as a man turning a bathroom faucet with
Often his figures were represented in what looked like cages or
enclosures or in bleak rooms. In time, he came to favor gold frames and
glass protection for his paintings, extravagant touches that
intentionally contrasted with the shocking content of the pictures and
underscored his desire to have his art considered in the company of
museum masterpieces. An Evolving Style
He consistently said his art was not about anything in particular, that
his paintings conveyed no narrative. "I've no story to tell," he said.
Over the years, he was criticized for recycling a small repertory of
images and devices. But if his subjects did not change, his style did.
Increasingly, his paintings were characterized by a refinement of touch
that made his startling subject matter all the more unexpected. In 1988,
he made a second version of
Studies for Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion, in which rawness
has been replaced by an almost lyrical handling of paint and the figures
seem less gruff, more incorporeal, as if they were memories of the
Mr. Bacon's paintings have connections with the work of divergent
postwar artists without belonging to any specific movement. He is part
of the tradition of English figure painting to which Lucian Freud, Frank
Auerbach, Leon Kosoff and others belong. At the same time, like Alberto
Giacometti, he explored the spirit of Existential anguish that pervaded
European postwar culture. (He admired the writings of Samuel Beckett and
Harold Pinter). Although he denied any interest in the American Abstract
Expressionists, and although his art was generally thought to be in
opposition to theirs, Mr. Bacon's work invariably brings to mind the
violent and distorted paintings of women by Willem de Kooning.
Through Pop, Minimalism, Conceptual art and every other movement of the
1960's and early 70's, Mr. Bacon stuck to his path, shunning fashion.
But in the late 70's and early 80's, he was taken up by the young
Neo-Expressionists, who felt an affinity with his emphasis on the figure
and the emotionalism of his imagery. In the last decades of his life, he
was the subject of retrospectives at the Grand Palais in Paris, the Tate
Gallery in London, the National Gallery of Modern Art in Tokyo and the
Metropolitan Museum in New York. On the occasion of his 80th birthday, a
traveling exhibition of his work was presented at the Hirshhorn Museum
in Washington, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of
Modern Art in New York.
Around the time of that exhibition, Mr. Bacon, who is survived only by a
sister in South Africa, lamented that old age was "a desert because all
of one's friends die." Yet he described himself as eternally "an
optimist, but about nothing."
"We live, we die and that's it," he said.
Francis Bacon in London in 1985 with his 1979 painting "Triptych:
Studies of the Hunan Body."
OBITUARIES, FRANCIS BACON
who died yesterday at the age of 82, remained to the last what he had
been throughout his long and active career never so much the enfant as
‘contemporary British art. As uncompromising and unabashed in his
private life as he was in his work which to him was ever a matter of the
utmost seriousness – there was nothing, of the Grand Old Man about him.
Yet was a towering figure in his creative reputation, which was matched
only by, that of the somewhat older and oddly complementary, figure of
Henry Moore: both profoundly humane in their preoccupations, but the one
dark, the other light; serene optimism against a bleaker pessimism.
The difference was that Bacon was to find himself almost alone the only
British painter in his time to be accepted, at home and abroad, as
standing by right in the first rank with his contemporaries in the world
at large. It is a paradox that he should have achieved such standing
with work which, even as it was being produced, was seen to be at odds
with the trend of the contemporary avant garde: surreal expressionism,
darkly romantic, above all, figurative, in the time of formalist
He was accorded two full scale retrospectives at the Tate. At the first,
in 1962, he stood alone: sui
generis. By the time of the second show, in 1985. the world
had come round to him again. If, by then, the critic might enter certain
reservations concerning his later work on its own terms, seen in the
context of figurative expressionism revived – Baselitz, Clemente,
Schnabel – clearly he remained a singular and towering figure.
But that first retrospective in 1962 was the more significant; it came
after a career of barely 18 years as a painter. From the distance of the
second show it could be seen to mark a watershed in that career,
celebrating the substantive and astonishing achievement which would he
enough to sustain his reputation undiminished.
Francis. Bacon was born in Dublin in October 1909, of English parents.
He submitted himself to no formal training as an artist, and as a young
man practised for a time as an interior decorator and designer. He
continued to paint, even, to exhibit, through the 1930s, but he
destroyed most of this early work; it was not until 1944 that he again
began to paint in earnest.
The mature achievement was almost Byronic in its instantaneity. Two
magisterial works of this first period, a sinister lurking Figure
in a Landscape (1945),
and the triptych, Three
Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), have
rightly been in the Tate the past 40 years.
The next dozen years or so saw the production of the screaming Popes,
the dogs, baboons and chimpanzees, the early portraits, the figures
after Muybridge and, at last, the extended sequence of portraits of
Van Gogh on the road to Tarascon. By, 1962, the full range of
his imagery was established and thoroughly explored, in particular the
compositional device of the figure encapsulated by an open, unspecific
In the years following, Bacon’s interest settled principally on the
figure. The scale was amplified, the image subject to all manner of
formal variations, but in essence nothing further was introduced. And as
the imagery settled into a certain predictability, so the old shock and
impact lessened. Attention fell more reality on the surface, and on the
speed and subtle dexterity of Bacon’s handling of his material. It was
what he had said all along: what interested him was not the image for
itself, not the message nor the content as such, but only the painting
as painting getting it right, making it real.
The problem with Francis Bacon and his work, was never of Bacon’s
making; rather it was always the viewer’s. Arrested by the image,
viewers found it hard to move beyond it into the work itself. Perhaps it
still seems strange to speak of the physical beauty of Bacon’s work, but
with time it becomes easier.