francis bacon: “a crucifixion is a self-portrait”

As a new exhibition at Guggenheim Bilbao celebrates the work Francis Bacon and the Spanish artists that influenced him, we look into the turbulent personal life that's made his art so iconic.

by Felix Petty
10 October 2016, 1:50pm

Francis Bacon. Fury, ca. 1944. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. 

The Guggenheim in Bilbao is about to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its opening. Few art museums can claim to have had such an impact on so many things; on their surroundings, architecture, art, city planning even. So successful has it been, that it's even had a phrase, The Bilbao Effect, named after it; the idea that a world class cultural institution can revitalise a post-industrial city. It's been often tried, never replicated; which also shows how successful the Guggenheim Bilbao has been.

Its anniversary celebrations, which start this October and continue until the next, will take in everything from Kraftwerk to Abstract Expressionism -- the exhibition currently on and wowing crowds at London's Royal Academy will be travelling to Bilbao next year. Which is a roundabout way of starting to talk about Francis Bacon, the exhibition that has just opened at the museum. If the Abstract Expressionists changed American painting, then Bacon did the same for British. Abstract Expressionism -- colourful, free, masculine, supported by the CIA -- was as American as McDonald's. Francis Bacon -- bold, violent, gay, traumatic -- as British as rain by the seaside, with Bacon's disturbed figuration being the dominant mode of art in the UK until the rise of the YBAs. They act as neat counterpoints in a way. In the market both have smashed auction records and command ridiculous prices. Both stand out as iconic works in painting, high points in the medium before conceptual art took over; both last hurrahs for an old, grand, artistic tradition.

Francis Bacon. Three Studies for a Crucifixion, 1962. © The Estate of Francis Bacon

But Francis Bacon seems, in some ways, less relevant to contemporary art than the Abstract Expressionists. Familiarity maybe breeding contempt with his work on our shores? Those crazy prices elevating him out of pertinence? The YBAs destroying everything that came before them? Not that he is anything but an incredibly mesmeric painter. Maybe he's seems simply out of time because he's so singular? There were those that drew influence and inspiration from him, but he was always an individualist in the art tribe. He taught himself to paint and draw, so it seems like he came out of nowhere; his mature style was so unique, so inimitable, that it feels like he has few stylistic descendants. His motifs, iconography, graphic language so totally his own then they feel unreplicable; who could paint a scream since? A crucifixion?

Although there are a new, younger generation of artists using figuration in painting to explore similar ideas -- specifically ideas of trauma and sexuality -- few people could ever hope to match his complexity. What the Guggenheim's exhibition seeks to do, is to comprehensively explore Bacon's roots, specifically his relationship with Spain, where he died in 1992, aged 82, and to piece together the fragments of influence that combined in his work. The galleries combine Bacon's works with paintings he was known to have loved, drawn inspiration from; Giacometti's drawings, there's a selection of Velazquezes (the pope Bacon obsessively painted can't be moved from Rome, but Bacon famously never saw it, refusing to view it in Rome, and only working from reproductions) De Goyas, De Riberas, works by Picasso, Miro, Zubaran, El Greco, Murillo. So it traces his education and development to show how he plotted and developed his unique painterly signatures by uniting his paintings in the galleries with those he drew influence from.

Pablo Picasso. Composition (Female Figure at the Beach), 1927. © Sucesión Pablo Picasso, VEGAP, Madrid 2016

Francis Bacon was born in Dublin, to a peripatetic upper middle class Anglo-Irish family. He was gay, and realised it early, and was hated by his father because of it, who disowned him. His mother, equally, showed no interest in him until he started making money from his painting. So instead he developed a lifelong personal friendship with a lesbian cousin, and, like many homosexual members of the upper class before him, his nanny. They were forced out of the country, like much of the British protestant gentry at the time by the Irish revolution of 1920.

Then in 1927 a young Francis had a revelatory encounter with the work of Pablo Picasso whilst on holiday in Paris, providing a damascene conversion to the world of art; with no formal artistic training he began learning by seeing and doing. He spent much of his early career destroying what he made, evidently unhappy with it, the paintings that survive show the influence of Picasso and fellow cubists. "Picasso," Bacon once said "opened the door… I have to tried to stick my foot in it so that it does not close." His infatuation with Picasso manifested in his use of biomorphic forms in his work, and it was from this starting point that Bacon was able to develop his own visual iconography that became so integral to his later work. Many of the early works from the 30s and 40s bear little relation to the work that would make Bacon famous; they are grey, drained, almost exhausted, the colours not as rich or precise or emotive. Despite his Crucifixion, being reproduced in Herbert Read's highly influential Art Now, and given a prime spot next to his hero Picasso, it would be another 20 years before Bacon became truly successful.

Three Studies for a Crucifixion, 1962 © The Estate of Francis Bacon

By the end of World War Two he'd begun working in the familiar forms we know him for; crucifixions, triptychs, monstrous forms, isolated figures, series of obsessively similar images. He was for a period trying to consciously destroy the hold Picasso had over him, but Spain maintained its grip; he drew from Velazquez, and black mood and colours of the Spanish Baroque. The works start to develop their darkness, their psychological weirdness, the unique inscrutability of their composition and their unsettling effects. He starts to approach painting bravely; leaving things out, inserting blank spaces, leaving spaces of raw canvas, inserting frames within frames to cage the figures that sit at the paintings' heart.

There's an influence taken from cinema, specifically Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, and the possibility and movement suggested by the photographs of Eadweard Muybridge. He became famous with a group of students -- including Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach -- following his first exhibition in 1949, who admired his bravery and his inclination to break the rules of paintings. But by the time he was approaching 50, he was still broke though, still largely unknown, a gambler and a boozer, who spent as much losing money in Soho's Colony Rooms as he did painting. For a while around this time he didn't even have a studio. Then he had a large show at the Tate, and made a new painting for it, Three Studies For A Crucifixion became one of his most famous, and it was from here that his career really took off. What else is there to say, really, about the way he painted a scream of anguish? A cryptic scene titled crucifixion? A human body turned inside out, so resemble a hunk of meat in a butcher's window? His post-modern approach to narrative, realism, tearing away anchors and meaning to leave a frightening core? What else is there to say about the way he captured the psychic trauma and turbulence of the first half of the 20th century? A crucifixion, he once said, is a form a self-portrait. There was nothing religious in it for Bacon, merely a spectacle of suffering. Few artists managed to keep us hooked on their painting's meanings for so long.

Diego Velázquez. The Buffoon el Primo, 1644. 

He once said he was interested in exploring "the sexual gymnasium of the city" -- he spent his time drinking, painting, gambling, screwing; he famously met one of his longterm lovers, George Dyer, a working class end thief, whilst he was burgling his studio. He would paint George many times in his work, rivalling only his self-portrait for frequency. George Dyer tragically killed himself on the eve of Bacon's biggest exhibition, a retrospective at Paris' Grand Palais; many of the painting's inside were of him. Equally many of Bacon's painting, explicitly homo-erotic studies of men grappling men, a cubist mess of bodies, were banned from display in Britain, a country where homosexuality was illegal for much of Bacon's life.

It's here of course, where we find most relevance in Bacon for ourselves; a singular painter, but a singular painter born out of a dramatic life. "Art is an obsession with life," he's quoted as saying, "after all, as we are human beings, our greatest obsession is with ourselves." We're fascinated by Bacon because meaning just seems to slip out of focus as we think it approaches; he turns darkness, personal doubt, isolation, fear, homosexuality into something magnificent. And in the terrifying absence of meaning, it's easy to read in between the lines of life and art. The exhibition fantastically puts together a dictionary of Bacon's painterly language, but we're still revelling in trying to interpret what it meant.

Francis Bacon. Study for Self-Portrait, 1976. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved.


Text Felix Petty

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francis bacon
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