The existential attitude – a sense of disorientation or confusion in a seemingly meaningless or absurd world – we’ve all felt it at some point. For Francis Bacon, the second of five children, born in Dublin 28th of October 1909, it fast became a way of life; a catalyst for the twisted imagination of one who gave a visualisation of England’s bloodiest century. Frequently coming into conflict with his often violent, intolerant, authoritarian father, he and his siblings were essentially raised by Cornish-born nanny Jessie Lightfoot. ‘Nanny Lightfoot’ would play a key role in shaping the young artist in his formative years; leaving home at sixteen, the pair drifted through rented properties until his 1944 breakthrough triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. Bacon created his own mother within Lightfoot, filling the void left by a lack of a maternal figure in his childhood.
From this age, the young Francis suffered irreconcilable difference over his sexuality, a bewildering yet strangely beneficial position for the young outcast – he found that he could attract men of a certain wealth and prosperity; a position he took full advantage of, allowing himself to ebb to and fro between England and the continent. Paris in 1935 saw Bacon come into possession of his two stylistic cornerstones; the medical journal Diseases of the Mouth, containing high-quality photographs of both open mouths and oral interiors – one which would both obsess and haunt him for the rest of his life; he bore witness to a screening of Eisenstein’s anti-Tsar The Battleship Potemkin, transfixed in particular by the scene ‘Odessa Staircase’ – the massacring of civilians on the steps would fuel much of Bacon’s early work.
As the decade drew to a close and Hitler’s armies began to march eastwards, Bacon began to exhibit his work at events such as 1937′s Young British Painters at Thomas Agnew & Sons in central London. Four pieces were displayed, including the horrifically disfigured, bare-toothed Abstraction from the Human Form, a precursor to his 1944 triptych. At this time he remained heavily self-critical, drinking, gambling and frequently destroying work when he was unhappy. As Hitler’s death-tolls began to mount the painter continued moving, immersing himself ever-deeper into left-bank, existentialist ideas; his career defining Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion makes its debut here. The work provoked an unnerved reaction from both critics and the public – the jolted, visceral figures graphically depicting Bacon’s ability to illuminate sensation from pain – Apollo magazine’s Herbert Furst exclaimed “I was so shocked and disturbed, I was glad to escape…”
Returning to London in 1948, the wake was still impossible to ignore; the press inundated with stories of the depravities of Auschwitz, and mass-murder within the USSR. Francis Bacon encapsulated the grim reality of an era writ with corruption and bloodshed, with few principles to blind him from reality; his series of six Head paintings appeared in quick succession, absorbing the apparent disintegration of humanism. Here he began to experiment with dense, thickly painted pieces, using the un-primed side of the canvas to counteract bleed. So why is the Pope shrieking in a glass cabinet, a pale spectre severed to reveal white scar-tissue in his howling jaw? While the Vatican did little in standing up to the Nazis, it would be extreme to portray the Pope himself as a criminal. Instead, he puts religion itself upon the alter; prayer, fear of purgatory, the overbearing need for humanity to be saved, the sanctifying of man’s cruelties – Bacon’s homosexuality damned him – there is nothing there.
The next three decades saw Bacon’s style shift dramatically; away from the baying horrors of his hard-won battles with critics towards portraits of friends and associates. George Dyer, a similarly erratic, borderline alcoholic whom he had met in 1964 became his muse for nearly six years; Bacon’s inner-circle of associates regarded the man as a nuisance – one who was taking their Bacon away from them. Dyer died of an overdose in October 1971. His asthma, plaguing him for his entire life, had now developed into a chronic respiratory condition. He died of cardiac arrest on 28 April 1992, after attempts to revive him failed. His £11 million estate was left to his friend of 18 years, John Edwards.
We return to the present day; a pictorial history of the Second World War rests upon the bookshelf, sometimes I still find myself leafing through when I have a spare five minutes. There remains an overwhelming malevolence in his work, exercising dialectic tension between repulsion and attraction; delivering the darkest headlines of a modern dystopia with eerie charm and gluttonous sensuality. You can see both William Turner and Thomas Gainsborough in Bacon, but he turns their light into darkness, and Turner’s gold into dust.
Bacon’s legacy to mass culture has remained remarkably unfettered; an enigma still generating adulation and bemusement. ‘Love is the Devil’ – directed by John Maybury and featuring Derek Jacobi as Bacon alongside Daniel Craig as George Dyer – conveyed Bacon’s gilded gutter life in Soho, winning three awards at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Stretching toward the virtual realm, Masahiro Ito’s surreal monsters from the Silent Hill gaming franchise keep Bacon’s work alive; remaining a mastery of the surreal, the thought-provoking, the horrific, the beautiful…
‘If you want to convey fact, this can only ever be done through a form of distortion. You must distort to transform what is called appearance into image.’ – Francis Bacon.