As Tate Liverpool prepare one of the largest exhibitions of Bacon’s work, Getintothis’ Janaya Pickett picks apart the work of the often controversial artist.
“The important thing for a painter is to paint and nothing else. Most important is to look at the paint, to read the poetry, or to listen to the music. Not to understand it or to know it, but to feel something.” – Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon’s paintings are nothing if not jarring. He is regarded as one of the most important artists of the 20th century and his paintings are notoriously sought after. In 2013 his Three Studies of Lucien Freud (1969) set the record for most expensive works sold at auction. His influence on the arts are far reaching and can still be felt today. Tate Liverpool is set to open the largest exhibition of Bacon’s work ever held in the north of England in May, which promises to be something special.
Born in 1909 to a wealthy British family based in Ireland, Bacon’s childhood was spent between Dublin and London. He left the comforts of home at just 16 when he was discovered by his father admiring himself in his mother’s underwear and was promptly evicted from the family estate.
After a spell in London, Bacon moved to Berlin and then to Paris, living on a small allowance from his Mother’s trust fund and the patronage of older, gentleman-friends. It was after viewing a Picasso exhibition in Paris that Bacon was inspired to take up painting and in late 1929 decided to move back to London to pursue his artistic dreams.
Throughout the 1930’s Bacon had some moderate success as a professional painter and interior designer, but it was not until his The Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion in 1945 that he captured the world’s attention. The anthropomorphic figures represented in the triptych are hostile with their gaping mouths and bared teeth, even more so to an audience still feeling the bloody effects of WWII. The blood orange space that the figures inhabit is arresting and unnatural.
“I like to think of myself as a sort of pulverising machine, into which everything I see is fed… I like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed through them, like a snail, leaving a trail of the human presence.” – Francis Bacon
Those who argue for a more traditional form of figurative painting miss the point of Bacon, for he was not in the business of simply painting portrait pictures. What Bacon attempts to do instead is to recreate an object rather than illustrate it. He focused on moments and feelings, attempting to express the inexpressible through a semi freestyle practice, playing with textures and forms.
As an obsessive photograph collector and film goer, he felt strongly that new technologies made it pointless to attempt to copy the human form. However, he did use a series of photographs of human and animal movement by Eadweard Muybridge, as a guide, which he referred to as his ‘dictionary’. The most noticeable film influence in Bacon’s work is Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potempkin (1925). One particular shot of a screaming nurse, with a bloodied eye would go on to influence many of his pieces.
The despair in Bacon’s paintings is quietly emphasised by the situation of the objects in enclosed spaces: in rooms, glass cases, cages and so on, often barely visible. The intent is to separate the subject from the viewer. The paintings are also displayed behind glass, pushing this intent further. Tate Liverpool will be focusing their exhibition on this aspect of Bacon’s work.
“Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms will be the first dedicated exhibition to survey an underexplored yet significant element of Bacon’s work… It is these imaginary chambers that emphasise the isolation of the represented figures and bring attention to their psychological condition; the act of placing the sitters in ‘invisible rooms’ guides the focus of attention towards the complex human emotions that are felt but can’t be seen. The exhibition traces the development of this architectural structure throughout his career”- Tate Liverpool
The intent of Tate Liverpool is not just to highlight the spaces in Bacon’s paintings but to create a sense of containment within the exhibition space itself, intensifying the viewing experience. This, they hope, will make visitors think differently about Bacon’s work by magnifying its complexities.
For all the serious terms that his work inspires, Bacon himself was a joyful and charismatic individual. He balanced his artistic career with an independent and rebellious lifestyle for his times. He was unashamedly existentialist in his beliefs and open about his homosexuality. He enjoyed nightlife, gambling and drinking and moved within London’s socially elite circles. Considering himself a realist, his artistic aim was merely to exist. He felt that painting came very natural, but did not understand exactly what he was trying to paint. Indeed, his career could be explained as him continuously trying to capture that one perfect image. As is the case in all art, the artist attempts to express the ever allusive human condition – the most allusive aspect of which is mortality.
“I don’t go a day without, sometime, thinking about death. It comes into everything you do, everything you see. I realised I was going to die when I was 17. I remember it very, very clearly. I remember looking at a dog shit on the pavement and I suddenly realised ‘there it is, this is what life is like” – Francis Bacon
Bacon believed that humans have strayed far from their intended natural state and that by doing so are repulsed or horrified by universal truths such as sex and death. He believed that basic animal instincts are what drive us, but also that this is no good or bad thing: it is what it is. By painting his invisible rooms and presenting his works behind glass, Bacon isolates these intense subjects. The taboo imagery is restrained by the space it inhabits, allowing us to examine from a safe distance that which we would normally try to avoid.
“People always seem to think that in my paintings that I’m trying to put across of a feeling of suffering and the ferocity of life, but I don’t think of it at all in that way myself. You see, the very fact of being born is a very ferocious thing. Just existence itself, as one goes between birth and death. It’s not that I want to emphasise that side of things, but I suppose if you’re trying to work as close to your nervous system as you can that’s what automatically comes out” – Francis Bacon
Bacon’s paintings are a sight to behold, bound to affect even the most laissez faire of gallery visitors. In terms of exhibitions staged in Liverpool, this is a big one: A once in a life time opportunity to see a collection by a true artistic genius.
- Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms opens to the public on May 18 at Tate Lverpool