Francis Bacon’s paintings are some of the most recognised works of the 20th century. The majority of his pictures were painted in the post-war era and came to be seen as expressive of the anxiety of the times. Filled with virtuoso brushwork that often harnesses chance, his screaming popes, searing self-portraits and images of mangled, distorted flesh have become icons of contemporary art. His works feature in many of the world’s most prestigious galleries.
Born into an aristocratic family in Ireland, Bacon chafed under the strict disciplinarian regime that his father and his schools tried to enforce. Eventually, as a young man in 1927 he was sent to Berlin during the heady Weimar years, in an attempt to instil discipline in him. Instead, he became embroiled in the decadent whirl of life in Berlin during the era famously chronicled by Christopher Isherwood. Leaving Berlin for Paris, he saw the works of Pablo Picasso, which had a huge influence on him. He subsequently spent most of his life with London as his base, becoming a regular habitué of haunts in Soho such as Wheeler’s and the Colony Bar.
While Bacon’s early works reflect his interest in interior design, from the 1930s onwards he began to explore more tormented forms, culminating in his early masterpiece, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944, now in Tate, London. This marked a new direction for his work.
During his lifetime, Bacon had a number of friends and companions who inspired important works. These varied from his fellow artist Lucian Freud to Isabel Rawsthorne and Muriel Belcher. He preferred painting people he knew, working usually from photographs while sometimes also melding their features with found images from other materials, for instance the tattered sheets of paper that littered the floor of his legendary Reece Mews studio in London. His companions included Peter Lacy, George Dyer and John Edwards. In his portraits, he sought to capture not only appearance, but the aura or ’emanation’ of his subjects.
Bacon lived life to the full. He was a bon viveur and raconteur, a magnetic though often fiendishly sharp-witted personality. His upbringing meant that he was connected to many people in the social elite, yet he also enjoyed the company of East End gangsters. That lingering backdrop of violence appears to have seeped into his paintings too, which are evocative of the existential angst and fatalism that underpinned his greatest works. His eloquence in using paint to express the human condition has long been recognised by critics and collectors alike.
14 October – 13 December 2014
08 February – 06 April 2013
07 October – 16 December 2011
Irrational Marks: Bacon and Rembrandt