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Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1909 of English parents. His father was a major in the British army and his mother was a member of the family who owned one of the largest Georgian houses in the center of Dublin. Francis Bacon was shunted between relatives during outbreaks of the Irish Civil War; he was an asthmatic who turned purple the first time he rode with the hunt. The disruptive upbringing of Francis Bacon consisted of private tutorials with a priest and a year of boarding school. Francis Bacon was encouraged by his mother to dress up in her clothes. His adolescence was very turbulent because of his homosexuality and his ambiguous relationship to his tyrannical racehorse-trainer father. Francis Bacon was sent packing by his family at sixteen, for having had sex with some of his father’s grooms and for being caught dressed only in his mother’s underwear.

Francis Bacon went first to London, then to Berlin and Paris, where a Picasso exhibition inspired him to dabble in drawings and water colors, and finally he moved back to London. During the 1930′s Francis Bacon was predominantly a designer of innovative modern furniture. He never went to art school, but experimented during these years with the current French artistic avant-garde as his models. Francis Bacon was excused from military service on account of his asthma, but World War II had nonetheless a galvanizing effect on him. As Francis Bacon launched his painting career in earnest towards the close of 1944, Auschwitz and Hiroshima were godparents to his painted furies.

The paintings of Francis Bacon seem to many to be ghastly views into torment, half-decomposed portraits of things better left unpictured. But Francis Bacon is considered to be one of Britain’s most exciting painters. He deserves his success, for he has resisted every trend and fashion in art to hack out a path of his own. Though shaped by such old masters as Rembrandt, Daumier and Velasquez, Francis Bacon has been as much influenced by the immediacy of the photograph as by anything else. War, terrorism, gory accidents – these fleeting instants of agony fascinate Francis Bacon. His lack of formal training was a handicap he turned to advantage. Uninhibited by drawing skills or rules of composition, Francis Bacon painted simply for effect. This recipe for disaster served him well. The early paintings of Francis Bacon, from the 1940′s, look cramped and underdeveloped, as though bred in captivity. That is their great quality.

Francis Bacon was always fascinated by the work of Edweard Muybridge. The groundbreaking 19th-century photographer was a pioneer in fixing actual moments on film. He was also an inspiration to generations of visual artists. For painters, Muybridge showed a way out from the traditional, academic manner of looking at figures in motion. The very fact that his photographs were purported to represent a straight-forward account of an action and were not posed made them attractive to Francis Bacon, who always wanted to depict facts as he saw them. Francis Bacon hated being described as a realist, and nothing, apparently can be more realistic than a camera mindlessly clicking away.

In real life, Francis Bacon was as mysterious as he was on canvas. Keeping one step ahead of the landlord, he moved about London so much that the art world was never sure where he could be found. In the 1950′s he lived in Tangier for a time; at one time Francis Bacon lived in Monte Carlo, but in both cases, he found the light too strong to paint comfortably. From 1961 Francis Bacon had several studios in the South Kensington area of London, each with problems concerning the light. He was able to paint better in London than in Paris, and, although he wanted his home to be clean, he was also most happy working in utter chaos. Francis Bacon lived with his elderly, eccentric nanny who slept on the kitchen table during the day. She doubled as a hat check girl in an illegal clambing den in the artist’s paint-spattered studio.

For the last thirty years of his life Francis Bacon lived in a bathtub-in-the-kitchen flat with paint tubes on the floor and trial brushstrokes on the walls. Francis Bacon carried around a wad of bills, but wore the same black turtlenecks and drank in the same seedy bars. He worked not just with brushes, but with rags and rakes and sprays. Francis Bacon sometimes squeezed tubes of paint into his palm, flinging the paint at the canvas with one gesture of his hand. A compulsive perfectionist, he destroyed more of his paintings than he finished. Francis Bacon admitted to being obsessed by death; though he used many of the instinctual techniques of the action painters, he did not like abstract art.

Francis Bacon has been renowned as Britain’s finest figurative painter; his works have hung in museums in the United States since the early 1950′s. His commercial success is a telling comment on just how open-minded the general public has become, for the material of Francis Bacon is, to put it simply, sick. He made no bones about the fact that the obsessive subject of his paintings was homosexual despair. Francis Bacon argued, however, that the despair he has observed among heterosexuals amounted to more or less the same thing. To capture the feverish, nightmare quality of the experiences Francis Bacon depicted, he had developed what is essentially a surrealist dream style to near perfection.

Francis Bacon died in Madrid, Spain in April 1992 of a heart attack.

Sources include:
Time Magazine, June 8, 1962; also November 29, 1968
Peter Plagens in Newsweek, May 11, 1992
Paul Richard in the Los Angeles Times, November 9, 1989
David Cohen in Art in America, January 1997
A review of Francis Bacon by Andrew Sinclair
The Golden Gutter Life of Francis Bacon by Daniel Farson and Jeffery Hogrefe in the Los Angeles Time on April 10, 1984.

Compiled and written by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher of Laguna Woods, California.

Biography from the Archives of AskART.