”Since the death of Picasso, Francis Bacon has more than any other painter provided the age with an image, in Ezra Pound’s phrase, of its accelerated grimace. The key to his work is its ambition. He has taken on the great masters of the past without their mythological resources or their requirement to record events. At the same time he has turned his back on the abstract artist’s indulgence in decorative introspection: the painting whose principal subject is itself and the fact that someone painted it.” (Grey Gowrie )
Some find a pervasive sense of terror, isolation and morbidity in his work. But, Francis Bacon claimed his images to be nothing less than a ”history of Europe in our century”. Bacon’s was a lucid mission to capture movement in the ” age of anxiety”; the insecurities created by scientific progress against the backdrop of the psychological limits of materialism.Bacon’s paintings are documentaries of nervous stress.
He had a preference for risks run consciously, and for the notion of destiny as something to be outwitted for as long as possible. A paradoxical individual who varicated between a Dr. Jekkyl and Mr. Hyde persona,neither of which may have been representative of his character but which encompassed the extremes of morbid death and abundance of life, often seen from the onlooker who sees hideous things done, yet feels held back and powerless to prevent them. Critic Tom Lubbock, has termed Bacon a ”vulgar entertainer”, whose work is stamped with an obvious theatricality whose use of oil paint permitted a more fluid working language. Bacon is now an icon of general British culture; a familira; a brand-name talked about as The Beatles, Monty Python and Jaguar. With time, the branding phenomenon is evident here and the exhibitions of his work in museums is like three dimensional experiences; branded temples where the art public can crawl inside the personality of the painter and marvel at the market value of the work, yet leave without any greater understanding.
Bacon’s paintings on the one hand represented an index of contemporary attitudes, and at the same time spoke for the continuation and propagation of traditional figurative painting: the cult of the precious object in a gilt frame complex that drives the mercantile wheels of art consumption. The ambiguous and sinister quality of the subject matter may have been a reflection of this torment and was realized with an execution of virile energy and a commanding sense of design. Although Bacon is still associated by many people with squalor and depravity, he was also capable of portraits that were an acknowledgement of all that is most generous in human nature.
Their were paradoxes and contradictions just in the karma of his name. To an unambitious person a great name is a nuisance and to an ambitious person like Bacon, a handicap. Such names dwarf their bearers and all comparisons to the namesake are to their disadvantage. When Bacon first came to prominence with ”Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” (1945 ) they were perceived as gratuitously spooky. However, the news about Dachau and Auschwitz were not known, and in light of that news, and of the general situation of postwar Europe, Bacon’s three figures were quite straightforward, vivid evocations of the ghoulishness that prompts people to hurry to the scene of human disaster and, once there, stay to gloat. This work was exhibited at a time when romantic landscapes and idealized plowboys were the mainstay of British art. Bacon’s paintings are perhaps too easily turned into vehicles for psychic explorations. However, where paranoia and fear are present, his images reinforce them almost beyond endurance.
What Bacon was like really was a man strung perpetually between the extremes of his temperament. He could, literally, be one thing and its opposite. Thus, the painter of doom and gloom would regularly emerge from a drunken gambling spree with thugs in Soho to take tea with upright and uptight collectors, charming them into buying another of his terrifying (and already terrifyingly expensive) pictures. Or he would demolish another painter’s reputation with a few waspish asides, then worry that his guests hadn’t had enough caviar and Louis Roederer Cristal, and hurriedly order more. Or, again, he might abandon himself to the further reaches of a sadomasochistic orgy before hurrying to the bedside of a sick friend with the most delicate and thoughtful of gifts.( Michael Peppiatt )
Bacon’s life span is contemporaneous with some of the most terrible moments of human history, and he has relived them in his imagination, more intensely even than many of those who were actually present at the time. It does not appear his object was to exploit those moments, but to come to terms with them. For Bacon, this meant submitting them to the procedures of aesthetics. Art can deal with violence of a kind that in life would be merely degrading. Initially, Bacon solved this dilemma by presenting ambiguous and eccentric subject matter in a straightforward way, which unfortunately led to the public being quick to settle for a single interpretation of these early post-war paintings, which may have been erroneous; such as the open mouths not necessarily a scream.In the early 1950′s bacon began to paint voluptuous figures of a kind that had almost gone out of style in modern times.He had an obsession with the old masters such as Velazquez and Van Gogh in the way that Salvador Dali revered Vermeer.
”However satanic Bacon might look, trussed up in his Nazi-style black leather greatcoat, however venomous his drunken tirades waxed, this instinctive compassion never left him. It was one of his many paradoxes, just as he seemed at times the most feminine of men, intuitive and yielding, and at others the toughest, most daring and dominantly masculine. Similarly, he would interrupt a mammoth drinking bout taking him from pub to club across London to consult his doctor, or top up on some bizarre health food (he took garlic pills addictively) after having consumed the richest dishes on every fancy menu in town.
”In Shakespeare’s day, it meant a great deal when Hamlet made his speech about ‘to be or not to be’. The alternatives were absolute. But today we ask of art that it should show us what it is like ‘ to be and not to be’ at one and the same time. That’s the problem we must set ourselves.”…. ”The moment you know what to do, you’re just making another sort of illustration” ( Francis Bacon ) In practical terms, for Bacon, this meant fusing the strongest possible dose of verifiable realityto the strongest possible dose of inspired risk. In other words, the invention of forms that both conform and do not conform to our everyday experience of the human body. His portraits were not lifelike, but they are like life, which made a mockery of critics use of the term ”distortion” in describing them.
”These contradictions stretched Bacon’s sensibility and kept him in a state of tension that was as palpable in the man as it is in his pictures, radiating waves of intensity. But the greatest paradox he kept to the last. Whoever could have imagined that Bacon — the virulent, lifelong atheist, the painter of screaming popes and bestial couplings — would choose to be cared for by an order of nuns when he became ill? He had gone on record in an interview saying he could conceive of nothing worse than dying among nuns. Yet on his last trip to Madrid, when he knew he was at death’s door, he returned to the Servants of Mary, dying under a crucifix and being cremated to the sounds of Gregorian chants. Of all the enigmas that hover over Bacon’s tumultuous life, this is surely the most hauntingly mysterious.”
”The disturbing quality of his work comes partly from what Michel Leiris, quoting Bacon himself, has called his ‘exhilarated despair…the painful yet lyrical disturbance felt by all those who, living in these times of horror spangled with enchantment, can contemplate them with lucidity.’ It also comes, more prosaically, from what Bacon would see as his failure to win the fight between the raw material of oil paint and the mind’s eye. When Bacon does win, as in the Edwards portrait, his paintings are both awesome and tender, moving in the highest and most humane way. Yet even in the most violent pictures, the distortions of his figures are implicit in their own flesh. This is where he comes closest to Picasso.”