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Francis Bacon, like his friend Lucian Freud, kept British figurative painting alive and fresh in a period when abstract and conceptual art were increasingly dominant. His tortured figures were born out of the influence of Picasso and Surrealism, but also express a later twentieth-century anxiety. His series of ‘screaming popes’, crucifixions and distorted portraits are distinctive and unforgettable.

Head VI

Head VI 1949

Francis Bacon (1909–1992)

Bacon was born in Dublin of English parents in 1909. His father, a retired Army Major was set on a career as a horse breeder and trainer. Bacon’s childhood was unsettled, living in several country houses in Ireland and in England, disrupted by the Irish Rising and later civil war. His emerging homosexuality led to estrangement from his father, apart from a misguided attempt to ‘reform’ him with a trip to Berlin, which in 1927 was enjoying remarkable artistic, and sexual, freedom. In Berlin and Paris, Bacon first discovered his love for art, including Picasso.

Returning to London in 1928, Bacon set up as an interior decorator and designer, apparently without any training or experience. He was helped by a few patrons and artists such as Roy de Maistre, and in 1933 created a stir with his first significant work, Crucifixion, which was reproduced in Herbert Read’s Art Now and purchased by an important collector. It was a false start for Bacon, however. His work was rejected by the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London as ‘insufficiently surreal’, though included in an exhibition of 10 ‘Young British Painters’ in 1937. One of these was Figures in a Garden.

Figures in a Garden

Figures in a Garden c.1936

Francis Bacon (1909–1992)

Bacon served in civil defence during the Second World War, an experience that, with his reading of Greek classical tragedies and T. S. Eliot, undoubtedly influenced his art. Returning to painting, a major triptych, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, made an immediate impact in a group exhibition in 1945. It was bought by Bacon’s patron and partner, the collector Eric Hall, who gave it to the Tate Gallery in 1953. Bacon rejected and destroyed much of his earlier work but Three Studies set the pattern for one aspect of Bacon’s future: the triptych format, derived from medieval and renaissance altarpieces; the distorted, agonised figures and the abstract space they are set in. In 1948 another major painting was sold to the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Bacon celebrated with a gambling spree in Monte Carlo, a habit that he continued all his life.

A 1949 solo exhibition included the first of over 30 adaptations of Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X made in the 1950s and 1960s – often fusing the image with the screaming nurse in Eisenstein’s 1925 expressionist film Battleship Potemkin, as in Head VI (above).

Another graphic source was Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic exploration, The Human Figure in Motion, from which were derived the grappling naked figures of several works made from the early 1950s, such as Figures in a Landscape. This period saw the death of his much-loved nanny, extensive travelling and intermittent and usually last-minute work in temporary studios to meet deadlines. These included the 1954 Venice Biennale, in which he represented Britain with Ben Nicholson and Lucian Freud, and his first solo shows in New York and Paris. A series of works based on Van Gogh (e.g. Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh VI) was a rare venture into landscape.

In 1961 Bacon settled into a studio in South Kensington that would be his base for the rest of his life. Gradually filled with an unhealthy accumulation of paint, solvents, rags, torn photographs and illustrations, and dust, it was to be meticulously recreated in Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery after his death. The new studio produced his first new, large-scale Crucifixion triptych, nearly two metres wide; a format he would return to many times.

Triptych - August 1972

Triptych - August 1972 1972

Francis Bacon (1909–1992)

In the early 1970s, a series of such ‘black triptychs’ formed a tribute to one of Bacon’s unreliable lovers, the pretty thief and alcoholic George Dyer, who committed suicide two days before the opening of Bacon’s prestigious one-man show in Paris in 1971. Triptych – August 1972 was one of these. The 1970s and 1980s saw solo exhibitions and retrospectives around the world, including in 1988 the first by a major western artist in the Soviet Union. He died on a trip to Madrid in 1992.

Andrew Greg, National Inventory Research Project, University of Glasgow