I’ve never really liked Biology to be honest, I loathe the subject. On the other hand, Psychology and Sociology, call me a fan. However, to be fair, I did enjoy learning about taxonomy the classification of different biological organisms. We all know what a horse, a lion or even a dog looks like. But what if I said, “Leporidae Cuniculus”, “Capra Hircus” or even “Acinonyx Jubatus” No clue right. Well here is a clue for all the non-biologists, they all come from the animal kingdom Animalia. And here is another clue, the species’ names are in Latin. As a matter of fact, it is their scientific name. But let’s cut to the chase for those who don’t care or who have given up. Leporidae Cuniculus is “rabbit”, Capra Hircus is “goat” and Acinonyx Jubatus is “cheetah”.
Moreover, with regards to the scientific name for Human, it is Homo Sapiens. Latin for “Wise Man”. But I’ll be frank, whoever chose the part “Sapiens”, was a bit too ignorant. Are humans smart? Yes. Wise? That’s a bit of a stretch. When we look through human history, we see inventions that have changed the world.
However, we also see that every civilisation on this planet has been enslaved. Even today, we have governments who shoot first and ask questions later. The pacifist in me is coming out. We see revolutionary nuclear physics used to make catastrophic weapons, all for the sake of being a “deterrent”. So, from that viewpoint, the scientific name for humans, “Homo Sapiens”, it needs an update.
If we look at human nature, now that’s strange. Over the years, we have developed multiple words to describe human behaviour. For example, masochist a person who seeks (sexual) pleasure from inflicted physical pain, sadist a person who seeks pleasure from another person’s pain (mental or physical) and the most infamous one racist. What I find even more interesting is that some of those people are our co-workers, closest friends and in some cases our own family. And it is true, everyone exhibits an -ism or a -bia, whether they want to admit it or not.
Psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud said the human mind consists of three distinct parts, the ID, the ego and the super-ego. The super-ego aims for perfection the angel on our shoulder. Next, the ego, the part we show to the world; it is our practical approach to reality. Last, the ID the devil on our shoulder, home to our sexual urges and our animalistic behaviour. Freud called this our unconscious part of the human mind and it is the aspects of this part, that the artist known as Francis Bacon took pleasure in exploring in his art.
Born 28th October 1909 in Dublin, to both Christina Firth and Edward Bacon. Bacon suffered from asthma at a young age. To add to that, he was very shy. Because of the severity of his asthma, he was home-schooled.
1914 and World War I (The Great War) begins. At just the age of five, Bacon and his family moved to London. His father had secured a job working for the Ministry of war. Prior to the war, Edward Bacon was a racehorse trainer. He was able to secure the job, due to his experience as an army officer.
After the war, Bacon and his family would constantly move back and forth between Ireland and England.
By age 14, Bacon’s family knew he was homosexual, and his father detested it. On one occasion, Bacon’s father got his workers to whip the young artist. But this did not change Bacon’s sexuality. In fact, it made their relationship even worse. As the months passed by, Bacon’s father became more infuriated about his son’s sexuality, he wanted Bacon out of the house permanently. And it happened, Bacon was caught wearing women’s clothes (his mother’s to be exact) and his father had enough.
1926 and with only £3 to his name, a young Bacon travelled to London. His only source of income was his mother, who gave him a weekly allowance of £3. Make no assumption, £3 in 1920s England could stretch, it could do more than 6 wings in our time
During 1927, Bacon travelled to Berlin and Paris. The artist felt free during his travel; he was a man without authority, and he loved it. During his time in Berlin, Bacon would engage in the city’s gay nightlife and during the day converse with its intellects. While in Paris, Bacon went to many different exhibitions. However, the one that impacted him the most was Picasso’s exhibitions. After visiting the gallery, Bacon became inspired and he started to draw and paint.
In 1928, Bacon returned to London and settled in the London Borough of Chelsea, for a short period lasting for about 4 years. During his time in Chelsea, Bacon was a furniture and interior designer. He amassed some notoriety, with his work being exhibited. But the artist sensed more than this.
So, he followed his gut. At the beginning of the 1930s, Bacon began painting. In addition, he worked with the artist Roy de Maistre. De Maistre was an Australian artist whose work was a combination of both abstract and cubism. At the time Picasso’s Cubism work was the focus of the art world. The two artistic styles influenced Bacon’s early work and it led to him producing pieces such as Crucifixion (painted 1933).
From Crucifixion, you can see that Bacon’s use of the colours, black and white are both being used to depict the death of Christ. With Black being the background colour, and white being the body, the two colours aid in highlighting the ascension of Christ’s spirit. The Background is black in order to capture the viewer’s attention so that they focus on the white body. Additionally, if you focus even further you can see the brown cross to which the body is nailed to. In addition, the use of the colour white signifies the purity and holiness of Christ’s spirit. What is interesting is that Bacon was an atheist. But he demonstrates in this piece, that he understands the impact of this event on Christ’s journey, which is Christ’s resurrection is going to happen after his crucifixion.
His pieces caught the attention of multiple people and it was because the artist did not have any form of training.
Additionally, during the early 1930s, Bacon met his first lover, Eric Hall Hall would constantly support Bacon and his work.
1934 and Bacon felt the momentum of his work; he organised his first solo exhibition, but it was not well received. The negativity did not hinder Bacon, he changed his artistic style and adopted Surrealism, but his work was rejected from the International Surrealist Exhibition.
Bacon was still not defeated, and he continued to paint. His hard work would eventually lead him to exhibit his work at the Exhibition called, “Young British Painters”. But the exhibition yielded little attention and in turn led to Bacon destroying his work.
World War II arrived, and the world erupted into chaos. Those who fought at the front lines were permanently changed. Science was weaponised and was used to find new ways of killing humans. The world had travelled through hell and back. It was because of this; the art world was forced to depict art that did not suggest any form of violence. But Bacon refused to conform to this.
During World War II, Bacon was exempted from all military duties due to his asthma. So he committed his time to his art.
After the war in 1945, Bacon exhibited the piece Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (painted 1944) at the Lefevre Gallery and it had a profound effect. People felt uneasy viewing this piece. The piece was a triptych a painting with 3 pieces, with three figures, each in three distinct poses. To add to that, the figures appear to not have any human features, even though they are probably based on the Roman soldiers who were at Christ’s crucifixion. Instead, they have animalistic features and I think this piece touches on a deeper topic. It touches on the animalistic nature of man. When humans see suffering, they display two responses, sorrow or joy, depending on the context of the situation. With regards to joy, we can exhibit this sadistic enjoyment that lowers us to the level of animals. For example, during the height of slavery in America, there were public lynchings. Souvenirs and memorabilia were produced, in honour of the lynching. Lynching was made into this grand spectacle. So just like those spectators during that period, Bacon wants to show the viewer that man is not separate from the beast. These soldiers are animals since they are taking joy in watching Christ’s suffering, hence them being drawn as animals.
Canvases the size of humans such as Painting (painted 1946) were sold at a large price, Bacon was finally successful. However, his success birthed an unhealthy gambling habit, the money he made from paintings were gambled away at Monte Carlo. He would host lavish parties, have the most expensive champagne be served.
With Painting, Bacon uses this piece to talk about the harsh reality of the meat industry and our own hypocrisy with our own relationship with meat. The carcasses behind the man can have multiple interpretations, they can be interpreted as a rotting human corpse or two carcasses of meat. With regards to the latter, the position in which the carcasses are hung gives a visual representation of a butcher and perhaps the man under the umbrella is there to represent a butcher. But as I said in the beginning, the piece tackles the idea of the meat industry. In the piece, the meat is arranged orderly. If we look at the floor, it is a mixture of red and pink, perhaps to symbolise the blood and fat coming off the dead animals. I think Bacon is trying to make us critically think about our relationship with meat. Yes, we survive by living off other animals. But then as a race, we will complain about issues such as the cruelty of bullfighting or climate change. I believe it is our own inability to admit our own hypocrisy, that will always be our greatest flaw as humans. We are offended by facts and truth; especially when it exposes certain aspects of our own lifestyle.
By the end of the 1940s, Bacon’s work began to focus on human figures, the subject behind his art remained the same. His inspiration came from real life images he had collected. For example, his collection ranged from people in motion to people with their mouth open. Bacon would eventually go on to use this idea of open mouths in pieces such as Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (painted 1953). This piece cleverly depicts fear. For example, the movement of the mouth with the teeth being exposed, it is as if the air has been pumped out of the room and the pope is desperately gasping for air. The pope’s body language aids in this as well, with him clutching the arms of the chair. Additionally, If we focus on his eyes, they are fully open. The fact that the piece is incomplete, indicates that bacon wanted to create a scenario in which he is taking a picture of the unaware pope, hence the streaks of colour. Moreover, some say this piece was inspired by Bacon seeing a picture of a nurse screaming. Regardless, this piece cemented Bacon’s legacy as an artist. Because, Bacon would go on to do more series of paintings focusing on the Pope, each with different poses but all portraying the same theme, fear.
In 1952, Bacon found a new lover and his name was singer and pianist, Peter Lacy. The relationship was very turbulent, it was full of abuse but Bacon loved it. Lacy was a sadist and Bacon was a masochist a crazy match made in heaven. Lacy would punch Bacon and Bacon would receive ecstasy from this. Bacon would use their relationship in his art and it attracted him even more attention.
In 1958, Bacon made a strategic move and left the Hanover Gallery for Marlborough fine arts, this transfer of dealer had a significant effect on his popularity and attracted more money. With the money gained, Bacon paid off all his growing gambling debts, mounted larger exhibitions. Furthermore, his new dealer ensured that Bacon would destroy less of his work.
1961 and Bacon made the permanent move to South Kensington. The artist was attracted to the area due to its cosmopolitan nature at the time. His house was small, but he preferred it that way. His house was also known to be messy; with pictures, canvases and paint everywhere.
A year later, Bacon had lost his lover Peter Lacey, who died in Morocco. Bacon never returned to the country after Lacey’s death too much trauma. Lacey’s death had a dramatic effect on Bacon. The death resulted in Bacon secluding himself in his work.
1963 was the year that marked Bacon’s international status, His work was shown worldwide. During that same year, Bacon encountered a new lover, this time a criminal, George Dyer. Just like Bacon’s previous relationship, this too was turbulent. And yet again their relationship was centre stage in Bacon’s art. Bacon would have pieces where Dyer was the main subject and occasionally women. For example, Henrietta Moraes (painted 1966). The piece pays homage to Bacon’s friend Henrietta Moraes. Although Bacon never learned how to draw the human body. In this piece, he attempts to show Moraes’ physical features that define her as a woman. Her being naked in the piece does not show her vulnerability but her strength as she models in the bed. With regards to the distortions seen, perhaps Bacon is using them to tell a story of Moraes’ mental battle with accepting her own body. Like any human, as we grow up, there is always this constant battle with how our bodies are perceived. We develop this idea of what a “perfect” body should be, and it sometimes leads to a loathing of our own bodies. Thus, this distorted image of our own body, in comparison to what others truly see.
With regards to art relating to Dyer, Bacon deliberately made Dyer look like a “thug” in his pieces. However, Dyer started to hate this, he felt emasculated.
During the 60s, the two would travel the world, with Dyer being Bacon’s support, both emotionally and artistically. The two would constantly argue and get into physical altercations during their travel. The situation escalated even further, with Dyer trying to frame Bacon for drug possession.
1971 and Dyer died, he committed suicide. Bacon was riddled with guilt, but he kept on painting; his guilt was his fuel for his art.
After Dyer’s death, Bacon’s status continued to grow internationally, he befriended John Edwards, who became his companion and model the two were not lovers. Additionally, he went back to painting Triptych as seen in “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion”. His artistic style evolved too; it was much calmer, more simplified with no human present. However, Bacon would still destroy his work. The artist would go to extreme lengths, such as hiring friends and forcing them to destroy his work. But this did not stop people from rummaging through his garbage. As the saying goes; one man’s trash is another man’s treasure
1990 and the artist knew his death was imminent, he would spend his days thinking about death. 2 years later, April 28th, 1992, Bacon died at age 82. The artist died in Madrid, his asthma which plagued him all his life caused respiratory problems and eventually led to him dying from a heart attack.
If we look at Bacon’s art, we see an individual who understood the darkest parts of human nature, he refused to ignore this subject. He used everything, from family to even his partners. He did not hide anything from the public, his raw emotions were on full display.
As an individual, Bacon was an early worker. After completing his work, he would gamble and enjoy a drink. With regards to his submissions, he was terrible at getting his paintings in on time. As a matter of fact, he would sometimes destroy his work and start again before an exhibition. He was always thinking, “What could I do differently?” or “How do I use certain motions?”.
Bacon’s art was visceral because it drew on all the horror he experienced in his life. Bacon once said, “Painting gave meaning to my life, which without it, it would not have had”. He channelled his ID and emptied it out onto the canvas. Art such as Bacon’s will never be reproducible. It is unique, and this is partly due to him not being formally taught. Bacon was not part of any movement; he was in his own lane and thrived. It is this element of freedom, that I conclude with, Bacon is one of the greatest artists of the 20th Century to be produced by England.