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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Francis Bacon

As artists, we have all, from time to time, railed against popular stereotypes of those whose creative bent involves their applying paint to various flat surfaces. We abhor the image of the psychologically unstable, drunken, bohemian oddball, caterwauling through life, unable to hold a job, with morals that give alley cats a bad name, and the artwork that people love to hate. Even though we may secretly admire such miscreants, and may even have shared some aspects of their lifestyle during certain formative years in our lives, the fact that people make few distinctions regarding these extremes and our own blatant, middle-class existence, never ceases to cause us some degree of distress. Sometimes we even wonder if there ever existed such people or if the whole image is the result of unscrupulous gallery owners' need to glamorize the lives of their artists in order to sell paintings. Well, wonder no more. At least one such artist exemplified this stereotype. His name was Francis Bacon.

Three Studies of Figures in Beds, 1972, Francis Bacon
It's not easy to like the work of this English painting phenomena. In fact he has been much more favorably viewed in France, German, even the United States than in the Queen's England. There is hardly a museum in the world that doesn't own at least one of his works, or wish they did. And invariably they are ghastly, beefy, ugly things even his friends refuse to hang in their living rooms. Often there is a discordant homosexual theme running through his triptychs, usually stopping just short of the obscene, but never in traditional good taste. Recurring images of popes, sides of beef, wrestling nude men--distorted, cubistic to a point, truncated, but never without a keen sense of sharp insight into himself, others, and society in general. His 1972 series, Three Studies of Figures in Beds is a typical example.  One might call them Muybridge on a bad day.

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of the
Crucifixion, 1944, Francis Bacon
(One of) Eight Studies for a Portrait
(Pope Innocent X), 1953, Francis Bacon
The son of a racehorse trainer, and a distant descendant of his Elizabethan namesake, Bacon was born in 1909. As a result of repeated squabbles with his father (a strict disciplinarian with a gambling addiction) over numerous sexual encounters with the grooms at the stables, Francis ran away from home at sixteen, first to London, then to Germany where he lived up to the worst stereotypical images we have to contend with. He never painted until he was thirty and came upon a Picasso show which deeply effected both his style and his decision to become a painter. After WW II, he came to prominence as a result of his grotesque Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (above). In the fifties, he cemented his place in the London Art world with the even more disturbing Eight Studies for a Portrait (right), one of which was based upon a combination of Velazquez's portrait of  Pope Innocent X (below, right) and a screaming nurse from Eisenstein's silent film about the Russian Revolution, Battleship Potemkin (below, left). 

Screaming nurse from Eisenstein's
Battleship Potemkin
Pope Innocent X, 1650, Velasquez

Bacon's work is cultivated. It is intended not to be easily digestible, just as his lifestyle has been carefully nurtured to fit the artistic stereotype. Maybe the "wild and crazy" artist image isn't as unjust as we like to think.

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