Francis Bacon

The leading figure in postwar Britain was the Irish-born painter Francis Bacon. Like Giacometti, Bacon’s figurative art was not a straightforward depiction of observed reality. He relied heavily on distortion as a means to achieve a deeper truth — “What I want to do is to distort the thing far beyond the appearance, but in the distortion to bring it back to a recording of appearance” – but he also often used source imagery (photographs, famous paintings, film stills, and illustrations from books) rather than direct observation to intensify his inner vision. Recurring themes in Bacon’s work include violently distorted faces, flayed carcasses of flesh, scenes of brutal sexuality and violence, and man reduced to his most animal behavior.

Echoing existentialist beliefs, Bacon’s ideas reflect a profound loss of faith in religion or any sense of metaphysical explanation of human existence:

“Also, I think that man now realises that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without reason. I think that, even when Velasquez was painting, even when Rembrandt was painting, in a peculiar way, they were still, whatever their attitude to life, slightly conditioned by certain types of religious possibilities, which man now, you could say, has had completely cancelled out for him. Now, of course, man can only attempt to make something very, very positive by trying to beguile himself for a time by the way he behaves, by prolonging possibly his life by buying a kind of immortality through the doctors.”
Francis Bacon, Interview with David Sylvester

Francis Bacon, Painting, 1946
Museum of Modern Art

Originally titled “Man with a Microphone,” this early work remains Bacon’s most pointed commentary on the brutality of world political leaders. The hideous tyrant seated at a rostrum was based on news photographs of Hitler and Mussolini. The familiar trappings of the state portrait have been transformed into a house of horrors: an umbrella shields him like a baldachin, while a splayed carcass hangs behind him like a state flag; carcasses of beef are skewered on the railings enclosing the rostrum, and in the background window shades are drawn closed. The microphones looming in the foreground allude to the magnification of power made possible by modern communications technologies.

Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, c. 1944
Tate Gallery

Completed in 1944 (one of the grimmest years of World War II), Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion was the first in a series of works on the theme of the crucifixion. It depicts three monstrous figures, part human and part animal, based upon the Eumenides – the vengeful furies of Greek myth. Their straining necks and gaping mouths are bestial in appearance, but their expression of unbearable physical pain and psychological anguish is undeniably human. Influenced by the nightmarish distortions of Picasso’s Surrealist-inspired works of the 1930s, Bacon’s other sources include images from a book on diseases of the mouth and the famous screaming mother from Eisenstein’s epic film Battleship Potemkin.

The triptych format has long been associated with religious images, but Bacon saw it as a profound expression of human suffering, rather than a symbol of the Christian belief in redemption after death:

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

Francis Bacon, Three Studies for a Crucifixion, 1962
Guggenheim Museum

In this later version of the crucifixion theme, Bacon uses his signature motif of meat carcasses as an expression of the human condition. He once mused: “When you go into a butcher’s shop and see how beautiful meat can be and then you think about it, you can think the whole horror of life.” Bacon uses bloodied animal carcasses to express his belief that “we are meat, we are potential carcasses.” As Nancy Spector describes this painting:

“With this horrific triptych depicting vaguely anthropomorphic creatures writhing in anguish, Bacon established his reputation as one of England’s foremost figurative painters and a ruthless chronicler of the human condition . . . The Crucifixion appeared in Bacon’s work as early as 1933. Even though he was an avowedly irreligious man, Bacon viewed the Crucifixion as a “magnificent armature” from which to suspend “all types of feeling and sensation.” . . . That Bacon saw a connection between the brutality of slaughterhouses and the Crucifixion is particularly evident in the Guggenheim’s painting. The crucified figure slithering down the cross in the right panel, a form derived from the sinuous body of Christ in Cimabue’s renowned 13th-century Crucifixion, is splayed open like the butchered carcass of an animal. Slabs of meat in the left panel corroborate this reading. Bacon believed that animals in slaughterhouses suspect their ultimate fate. Seeing a parallel current in the human experience—as symbolized by the Crucifixion in that it represents the inevitability of death—he has explained, “we are meat, we are potential carcasses.”The bulbous, bloodied man lying on the divan in the center further expresses this notion by embodying human mortality.”
Nancy Spector, “Francis Bacon, Three Studies for a Crucifixion,” Guggenheim Museum

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