This week we’re celebrating the day Francis Bacon was born, 28th October 1909.
In 1985 the Director of Tate, Alan Bowness, called Bacon:
the greatest living painter; no artist in our century has presented the human predicament with such insight and feeling.
Alongside JMW Turner, Bacon is regarded as Britain’s greatest painter. A varied visual lexicon, drawing from photographs torn from magazines and film imagery, combined with an ardent knowledge of the historical tradition of painting led Bacon to depict the human body in ways unique in the history of painting.
Born to an English family in Dublin, Bacon’s early life was plagued by chronic asthma, which he suffered from throughout his life, and he had little formal education. In 1926 he moved to London and went on to live in Berlin and Paris. In 1928 in Paris he saw an exhibition of Picasso’s work and there, inspired, he began to paint and draw.
In Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, three pallid, isolated figures on pedestals flank a hot orange background in a triptych of canvases. With distended necks and deficient limbs these bodies appear otherworldly and nightmarish, warped by an apparent stress and ensuing pain.
Bacon once said:
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.
First shown at Lefevre Gallery, Mayfair, in April 1945 to disquiet and praise alike, this painting is seen to mark the beginning of Bacon’s mature career as an artist. Through the medium of paint Bacon explored the human condition via an existential lens that when combined with his colourful private life led him to cut a controversial figure.
In 1961, Bacon settled in Reece Mews, a former coach house in South Kensington, where he lived and worked for the rest of his life. The following year Tate held a retrospective of 90 of his paintings and Bacon’s self-taught painterly skill was recognised on an international scale. This was followed by a further major exhibition at Tate in 1985 and another following his death in 1992 at Tate Britain in 2008.