Francis Bacon- five ways to see Bacon

Francis Bacon: a man troubled by demons from his past and whose figurative art put these on display for all to consider and analyse. However, history and popular culture were equally as important to his work.

Bacon, himself, said, “My paintings are not illustrations of reality but…a concentration of reality and a shorthand of sensation” and if we explore five specific paintings and their contextual influences, we can see how Bacon was able to distill from them the core of his work.

  1. Crucifixion (1933)


Courtesy Murderme (Private Collection)

Bacon’s first publicly displayed work, and we can see immediately how Bacon takes the religious image and creates an almost universal symbol for suffering. Inspired by Picasso’s work with biomorphic forms, the paint scrapes across the canvas, the appearance of what appear to be ribs and the outstretched limbs echo another painting that strongly influenced Bacon: Rembrandt’s The Slaughtered Ox:


Bacon’s obsession with the hanging carcass would become a theme in his work, IMG_3615appearing in Painting, 1946 and in numerous other works:









and Bacon was even photographed for Vogue in 1952, holding up flanks of meat!

Bacon Vogue 1952 by John Deakin.jpg













2. Figure Study II (1945-46)

Figure Study II.jpg

Again, Bacon used a familiar theme over and over again, in this case the screaming nurse from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin.


This iconic image obsessed and informed a number of Bacon’s paintings, including the ‘screaming’ Popes. Interestingly, Bacon finally painted the nurse herself and at that point, his ‘obsession’ ended!

The positioning of the body is reminiscent of Giotto’s Mary Magdalene: supplication before her God and a link to Catholicism that Bacon would be so familiar with.


3. Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X 1953

Francis_Bacon_1953_XX_The_Screaming_Pope (1).jpg

Bacon’s obsession with certain artists is well-known and none more than Diego Valezquez. It must be said that Bacon’s series of Pope studies are deserving of their own exhibition.  The framing device that Bacon frequently used implies entrapment; the hands, so loosely held in the Valezquez, grip the throne, intensifying the pain of the scream emanating from the tortured face of the Pope.



This link from Phaidon publishers is excellent and the book is well worth reading!

4. Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh IV (1957)


This hurriedly produced work that Bacon did in 1957 was inspired by the Van Gogh Painting below: The Painter on the Road to Tarascon. One of Bacon’s favourite quotations from Van Gogh sums up Bacon’s view of art: “Real painters do not paint things as they are…they paint them as they themselves feel them to be.”  The Van Gogh painting was destroyed in the Second World War; Bacon disowned the series of painting seems more than coincidental.  As with the ‘screaming’ Popes series, once the obsession has been expunged, Bacon was ready to move on.


5. From Muybridge: The Human Figure in Motion



Another influence on Bacon was the photographic work of Eadweard Muybridge in 1882.  Muybridge was fascinated by movement and the recording of this on film. The throwing of the water was also inspired by Muybridge.

This site about Muybridge makes the link even more apparent:

For more on Bacon’s work, this site is the first port of call…but don’t have nightmares!



Painterly Techniques

Having no creative talent whatsoever, I often marvel at how an artist actually creates. As a consequence, I try to look closely at the art work so I can see the brush strokes, thickness of paint, blending of colours etc. 

At the Sainsbury’s Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich, I had the chance to get up and personal with David Bomberg and Francis Bacon and was struck by two techniques they employed. 

In this self portrait by Bomberg, look at the shading of his jaw line: a swirling line of dark grey is all it is! Yet, if I tried that, all you would see is a swirling line of dark grey!  Those rough strokes give a vibrancy to the portrait that should not be possible, but they do!  

In Portrait of Lisa, Bacon uses an unprimed canvas, as was his style but here he uses it as shading to create the shadowy contours of her face. Wonderful! 

The Grotesque and Francis Bacon


Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion

When visiting Tate Britain, I find myself revisiting favourite pieces and this is one that began by repelling me and now is a firm favourite.

As with all grotesques, there is something compelling about the features.  Who can deny being fascinated by Quinten Massys’ The Grotesque Woman, that hangs in The National Gallery?

Given that there is a direct link to one of my favourite films – Battleship Potemkin, (7.23)

it’s hard to think that I really did not like this at first.  As you approach it, in the gallery, you feel disconcerted.  The body shapes are so exaggerated – no one can possible move in this way.  Reading more about the work and the links to other paintings, meant that I started to gain an understanding of what Bacon was trying to achieve.  The painting is based on Aeschylus’ The Oresteia, not as a representation but as a response to his reading of this gruesome tale.

As a starting point for Bacon, it cannot be surpassed and his works are worth exploring in depth.