Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon (1909-92) Beginning on the early 1950s, despite the dominance of

Abstract Expressionism in both the United States and Europe, there were
recurring waves of insistence on a return to the figure, a new naturalism of
naturalistic fantasy. Crucial to the new figuration were Alberto Giacometti and

Jean Dubuffet. The only other figurative Expressionist powerful enough to be
compared with Giacometti and Dubuffet were British. Chief among these was the

Irish-born Francis Bacon, one of the artistic giants of his time. Bacon has been
called the greatest poet of the second half of the 20th century and even those
who deeply dislike his work find it memorable and horribly impressive. He is an
artist obsessed by the horror of existence and the terrible vulnerability of
being. He professed to see no hope, and yet his very life is a denial of such
despair, because creativity can never really come without some belief in the
meaning of what is created. Certain images recur again and again in Bacon’s
paintings, and the best known is that of the screaming pope, after Velazquez’s
great portrait of Pope Innocent X. Bacon refused to study Velazquez’s
portrait, preferring instead to paint from his memory of that painting’s
authoritarian majesty. Here, he shows the pope, father of the Catholic Church,
both enthroned and imprisioned by his position. Bacon’s relationship with his
father was a very stormy one, and perhaps he has used some of the fear and
hatred to conjure up this ghostly vision of a screaming pope, his face frozen in
a rictus of anguish. The pope is pushed down to the bottom half of the canvas
and squashed low in the chair. Around him, bacon has built the suggestion of a
cage or cell. He has marked him out with an arrow, as if this clenched and
tortured image was an exhibit in the artist’s chamber of horrors. Bacon has
also drawn from another famous image, Rembrant’s great Carcass of Beef, and
his hung the animal’s flayed and bloody flesh on either side of this human
animal. Rembrant painted his carcass with reverence; Bacon sees these carcasses
as raw meat - the pope as he will be - dangles them, almost insouciantly, behind
the papal chair. Bacon’s portraits are just as unique as when he uses
paintings of the past as the basis of his work, and transforms these in terms of
his own inward vision of torment. He insisted on painting portraits only of his
friends, and Lucien Freud was one of his closest. He insisted too that he did
not want to paint his subjects from life, but from photographs, and the absence
of the actual person set him free to mold and deform with a wild virtuosity.

Here, he seems to have painted the portrait, and then, perhaps with his figure
or thumb, smeared out the features of the face; yet, despite this arrogance with
paint and feature, enough significant traces remain to recognize the face of the
sitter. In the late 1940s and the 1950s there was a deliberate and concerted
attempt to reintroduce subject matter figures, most frequently in a macabre
effect. Along with Giacometti and Dubuffet, Frances Bacon was a major
contributor to the postwar European figuration and fantasy movement. His
devotion to the monstrous, the deformed. or the diseased has been variously
interpreted as a reaction to the plight of the world and humanity. His paintings
reveal his superb qualities as a pure painter and his obsessive sense of
tradition.