Like many artists, I've always been fascinated by the painting of British artist Francis Bacon. I love the raw horror that's present in so many of his works. Near the end of his life, Francis Bacon was widely held as one of the world’s greatest living painters. In 1985 he had been given the honour of a second major retrospective at the Tate gallery in London. Here, Damien Hirst discusses his own fascination with Francis Bacon:
A Short Biography
Bacon was born in Dublin in 1909 of English parents and his father was a breeder and trainer of race horses. At the outbreak of the First World War, his family moved to London where his father worked in the war office. Throughout his childhood, his family would move back and forth between Dublin and London. Bacon never had a normal schooling as he suffered from asthma and was tutored privately. In 1925, at the age of 16, he left home, living in London for awhile and then travelling through Europe, including Berlin and Paris. After seeing an exhibition of Picasso’s, he decided he wanted a life in the arts and returned to London where he first began working as a furniture and interior designer.
In the early 1930s he turned to painting and was featured in several books and exhibitions. Bacon was not formally trained at any art school and developed his own techniques through trial and error. His first works were surrealistic in their execution, but he found little success in that. His first shows were not successful, and his work was rejected for inclusion in the 1936 surrealist exhibition. As a result, he did turn to drinking and gambling, and in the early 1940s he destroyed almost all his early work. It was at this time that he turned to the style of painting for which he would become largely famous for.
How to paint like Francis Bacon
In terms of his painting style, Bacon drew inspiration from Van Gogh, Velazquez, as well as photographers such as Muybridge, “…I like the movement, and watch the movement of the body.” Bacon liked to paint onto unprimed canvases, which soaked in the oil paints he used. He went straight to the canvas with his paint, and rarely did any drawing beforehand, “…I like to attack the canvas with the paint…” In 2016, the Canvas YouTube channel, sponsored by the Art Council of England, posted a short video on how Bacon approached his work:
Inside Painting 1946
In terms of its form, Francis Bacon's Painting 1946 is a very large oil on canvas measuring 6’6” x 4’4”. The painting suggests a bit of depth even though it appears largely flat. The background of the painting features pastel colours of pinks, purples and salmon colours which move down into dark blocks of black. The carcasses in and of themselves are largely a palette of greys with the exception of the red blood which stains the meat and bones. The central figure forms the main focus of the painting and the face of the figure largely emerges from a black void of darkness, as does parts of his coat in a colour scheme that is reflective of the carcasses surrounding him. The history of portraiture in painting, as well as in photography seems to be referenced in the way the figure is centrally seated in the painting. The blood stained upper lip is contrasted with the yellow corsage on the figure’s chest. However, none of the painting appears soft or comforting, not even the corsage itself, as the paint appears to have been applied quickly in a sketch like manner that leads to an overall unsettling effect.
In term's of the work's content, or the story Bacon is conveying, Painting 1946 is the study of a powerfully primitive, deformed and brooding figure who presides over a scene of slaughter. Firstly, the large carcass hanging behind the figure appears to be reference crucifixion. This slaughter is seen as represented in a number of images, such as:
- a large beef carcass hangs centrally in the painting behind Bacon’s central figure;
- meat in the background which disappears into the darkness behind the central figure; and
- a stand, or a fence of some type which serves to hold more bloodied and beat-up carcasses of meat which protrude out in front of the central figure.
The figure itself seems to be seated on a carpet, which reflects many of the same colours as seen throughout the rest of the painting. The grim authority of the central figure itself is highlighted by a huge neck and an upper lip seemingly stained with the blood of the raw meat that is all around him. Finally, the umbrella could be a kind of reference and homage to the artist’s own admiration of surrealist painting as well as of his experience of daily life in England, which often experiences rainy weather.
In term's of the paintings greater context, it's easy to see how much of Bacon’s work from this period of war grapple with notions of death, horror and destruction. The central figure could easily be Bacon's way of representing dictators like Hitler and Mussolini, among others, who oversaw much of the destruction of Europe as well as of the slaughter of it's citizens. Finally, the reference to the crucifixion seems to reference an absence of compassion, which has been utterly lost to the horrors of war. Bacon specifically said of Painting 1946 how:
I tried to paint a bird falling into a field of grass, and the only kind of marks I made on the canvas suddenly suggested this painting which had nothing to do with it. How it came about I can’t tell you, but I started to paint the meat and the great image of a kind of dictator and the meat around him evolved very, very quickly. It was one of the most unconscious paintings I have ever done. I used to think of how marvelous these grand carcasses were hanging on the wall of the butcher shop and thought how beautiful they look…. We are born, we die and that’s it.
Today, the painting hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In the 1970s, the Museum was infamous because it almost did not lend the painting out for the artist’s first retrospective at the Tate. As such, the artist painted a second version of the painting in the 1970s, which critics have described as being much more mellow and less violent in its feeling.
In conclusion, I think its interesting to again see how other artists view the work of Bacon. In the following YouTube post, filmmaker Christopher Nolan discusses how he has explored the work of Francis Bacon as a way of providing him with visual cues for representing violence and the horror of war in his own films: