Francis Bacon - Biography and Legacy
Biography of Francis Bacon
Born in Dublin, Francis Bacon was named after his famous ancestor, the English philosopher and scientist. His father, Edward, served in the army and later took a job in the War Office during World War I. In an interview with critic David Sylvester, Bacon attributed the connotations of violence in his paintings to the turbulent circumstances of his early life. A British regiment was stationed near his childhood home, and he remembered constantly hearing soldiers practicing maneuvers. Naturally, his father's position in the War Office alerted him to the threat of violence at an early age. Returning to Dublin after the war, he came of age amidst the early campaigns of the Irish nationalist movement.
Young Francis had little formal education due to his severe asthma and the family's frequent traveling for Edward's post. Bacon's mother, Christina, lived the life of a socialite, and with his father away at work, Francis was often left to his own devices. Although he had four siblings, Bacon had a close relationship with his nanny, Jessie Lightfoot, who later came to live with him for many years in London (the elderly lady may have been very important help to the self-destructive Bacon).
Family relations became more abusive as Bacon dealt with his emerging homosexuality - the young artist was harshly disciplined by his father (his father had him whipped by stable boys, who were also involved in Bacon's first sexual experiences). He was finally expelled from the house in 1926 after his father caught him trying on his mother's clothing. Surviving on a small allowance, Bacon lived the life of a vagrant, traveling around London, Berlin, and Paris. Despite his father's hopes, the change of scenery only freed Bacon to further explore his sexual identity; his time in Berlin proved particularly important in this regard and was later remembered by him as one of emotional awakening.
Bacon moved into a London apartment in the late 1920s and became involved with interior and furniture design. One of his patrons, the artist Roy de Maistre, became a mentor to Bacon and encouraged him to take up oil painting. Bacon modeled his early work after Picasso and the Surrealists, whose work he had seen on a trip to Paris. In 1933, Bacon exhibited Crucifixion, a skeletal black and white composition that already radiated the overtones of pain and fear that would become typical of his later work. The painting was simultaneously published in Herbert Read's book Art Now, and was quickly purchased by Sir Michael Sadler. Encouraged by his success, Bacon organized an exhibition of his own art the following year, but it received little attention. His paintings were also surveyed for inclusion in the International Surrealist Exhibition, organized by Herbert Read, but were rejected for not being surrealist enough. Discouraged, Bacon returned to a drifter's lifestyle. He destroyed the majority of his work from before 1943, and only fifteen pieces from this early period have survived.
Due to his asthma, Bacon was unable to join the armed forces during WWII. He was accepted as a member of the Air Raid Precaution sector, which involved non-military search and rescue, only to be discharged when he fell ill from the dust and rubble. "If I hadn't been asthmatic, I might never have gone onto painting at all," he admitted. After the war, he took up painting with a renewed passion, regarding Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) as the true beginning of his work. The long necks, snapping mouths and contorted bodies featured in the painting express horror and suffering, a forceful commentary on the aftermath of the war. Bacon modeled the figures after photos of animals in motion, showing an early interest in the movement of the body that became a strong theme in his later painting. During its exhibition at Lefevre Gallery critics were mostly shocked by the blatant imagery, but the numerous reviews put Bacon into the spotlight.
His breakout success at the 1944 exhibition gained him further opportunities to show with Lefevre. Graham Sutherland, a friend and fellow exhibitor, also recommended him to the director of Hanover Gallery, where Bacon had his first solo exhibition in 1949. For this show Bacon painted a series entitled Heads, significant for being the first series to introduce two important motifs: the first was the scream, derived from a film still drawn from Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin in which an injured schoolteacher is shown screaming (probably in pain); the second is Diego Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X (c.1650), a painting Bacon only knew through reproductions (and which he would always maintain never to have seen in the original). The Heads series also made greater use of enclosing devices that suggest a pervasive sense of claustrophobia and anxiety, in this instance a shallow cage-like outline which Bacon had also employed in Three Studies from 1944.
In 1952 Bacon began one of his most powerful relationships, with the ex -WWII fighter pilot Peter Lacy. Lacy was attractive, well-bred, and highly self-destructive. The two had a powerful and violent relationship - on one drunken occasion Lacy threw Bacon through a window and the artist suffered a large number of (minor) injuries. Through various escapades and foreign rendevous (with both men enjoying a variety of sexual partners in between their time together) their relationship deteriorated by 1958. A number of his relationships, and especially the many close years with Lucian Freud are discussed in Sebastian Smee's book "The Art of Rivalry".
In 1953, Hanover held an exhibition of Bacon's paintings that included Two Figures, a depiction of two men embracing in bed, an image that created a huge scandal. The composition was based upon photographs taken by the Victorian photographer Eadweard Muybridge. He said "The thing is, unless you look at those Muybridge figures with a magnifying glass, it's very difficult to see whether they're wrestling or having sex." In fact, Bacon often preferred to work from photographs, relying on his friend John Deakin to take pictures of his subjects, but he was fascinated by Muybridge's attempts to capture and record bodies in motion. Bacon kept a collection of Muybridge's books in his studio as a constant source of reference, and even suggested that his intensive study of these sequential photographs triggered his own interest in working in series.
Bacon's tendency to derive inspiration from personal experiences also attracted him to portraiture. He often painted close friends (Lucian Freud, Isabel Rawsthorne, Michel Leiris), and the results convey a striking emotional and psychological intensity. One of Bacon's most famous subjects was his friend and lover George Dyer, who he met in 1964. During the course of their relationship, Bacon executed numerous portraits of Dyer that juxtaposed a strong musculature with a feeling of vulnerability, as in Portrait of George Dyer Crouching (1966), suggesting an affectionate yet protective attitude toward the younger man. Dyer suffered from alcoholism and episodes of depression, ultimately committing suicide on the night before Bacon's first retrospective in France in 1971.
Late Years and Death
After the Paris exhibition Bacon moved increasingly toward self-portraiture, claiming, "people around me have been dying like flies and there is nothing else to paint but myself." Continuing to work steadily, he also completed a number of paintings in tribute to Dyer's memory. Many of these took the form of large format triptychs, including the well-regarded "Black triptych" series that recounted the details of Dyer's passing. In 1973, Bacon became the first contemporary English artist to have a major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. His work was exhibited internationally throughout the later years of his life, including retrospectives at the Hirshhorn and the Tate Gallery. In the mid 1970s, Bacon met John Edwards, who replaced both Dyer and Deakin as Bacon's constant companion and photographer. In his last years, Bacon retreated from his formerly boisterous social life, focusing on his work and the platonic relationship with Edwards. He died of a heart attack in Madrid at the age of 81.
The Legacy of Francis Bacon
Bacon's unique interpretations and the intensely personal nature of his work make it difficult to visually trace his influence in contemporary art. Nevertheless, his paintings have inspired some of the most standout artists of this generation, including Julian Schnabel and Damien Hirst.
John Edwards, who inherited the estate, played an important role in promoting Bacon's work until his death in 2003. He was responsible for the donation of Bacon's studio to the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin, and this was turned into a permanent exhibition and research archive.