A Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Art

By Ian Chilvers | Go to book overview

B

Bacon, Francis ( 1909-92). British painter, a descendant of the Elizabethan writer and statesman of the same name, born in Dublin of English parents. As a child he suffered from severe asthma and he had little conventional schooling. His father, a race-horse trainer, was a puritanical figure and sent his son away from home when he was 16 after he was discovered trying on some of his mother's underwear. He spent about two months in Berlin and then about 18 months in Paris (where he was powerfully impressed by an exhibition of * Picasso's work at the Paul *Rosenberg Gallery in 1928) before settling in London in 1929. Initially he made a living there designing furniture and rugs. He had no formal training as an artist, but he began making drawings and watercolours in 1926 and painting oils two or three years later. In 1933 he began exhibiting in London commercial galleries, and in the same year one of his paintings was reproduced in Herbert*Read's book Art Now. However, he destroyed much of his early work and in the later 1930s virtually gave up painting for several years, supporting himself with various odd jobs, including running an illegal casino (he had inherited a love of gambling from his father). He returned to painting seriously in the Second World War (during which he worked for a time in Civil Defence, excused military service because of his asthma), and he burst into prominence in April 1945 when his Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion ( Tate Gallery, London, 1944) was exhibited in a mixed show at the Lefevre Gallery and made him overnight the most controversial painter in the country. John * Russell ( Francis Bacon, 1971) writes that visitors to the exhibition were shocked by these 'images so unrelievedly awful that the mind shut snap at the sight of them. Their anatomy was half-human, half-animal, and they were confined in a low-ceilinged, windowless and oddly proportioned space. They could bite, probe, and suck, and they had very long eel-like necks, but their functioning in other respects was mysterious. Ears and mouths they had, but two at least of them were sightless. One was unpleasantly bandaged.'

Bacon's imagery later became more naturalistic, but at same time the emotional impact of his work was increased by a change in technique, as he moved away from fairly impersonal brushwork to develop a highly distinctive handling of paint, by means of which he smudged and twisted faces and bodies into ill-defined jumbled protruberances suggestive of slug-like creatures of nightmare fantasy: 'Art is a method of opening up areas of feeling rather than merely an illustration of an object . . . I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail, leaving a trail of the human presence and memory trace of past events as the snail leaves its slime.' Characteristically his paintings show single figures in isolation or despair, set in a bleak, sometimes cage-like space, and at times accompanied by hunks of raw meat: 'we are all meat, we are potential carcasses', he said in 1966. Often his work was based on his own everyday world (he did numerous self-portraits), but he also used imagery from photographs and dim-stills as a starting point. In particular he based a series of paintings (begun in 1951) on Velázquez's celebrated portrait of Pope Innocent X ( 1650), but in place of the implacable expression of the original, he sometimes gave the pope a screaming face derived from a still from Sergei Eisenstein film The Battleship Potemkin, as in Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Innocent X ( Des Moines Art Center, 1953). Bacon regarded Velázquez as a 'miraculous' and 'amazingly mysterious' painter who could 'unlock the greatest and deepest things that man can feel', and he tried 'to paint like Velázquez but with the texture of a hippopotamus skin'.

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A Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Art
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Introduction vii
  • Abbreviations xiv
  • A 1
  • B 46
  • C 106
  • D 154
  • E 189
  • F 204
  • G 228
  • H 264
  • I 293
  • J 299
  • K 308
  • L 332
  • M 360
  • N 426
  • O 450
  • P 461
  • Q 502
  • R 503
  • S 540
  • T 605
  • U 626
  • V 631
  • W 646
  • X 663
  • Y 665
  • Z 667
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