Francis Bacon: Five reasons to visit

To coincide with Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms opening at Tate Liverpool, we round up the key themes in the show and discuss how Francis Bacon remains an inspirational modern master.

Francis Bacon, Seated Figure 1961

Francis Bacon,

Seated Figure 1961

Oil paint on canvas 

1651 x 1422 mm

© The Estate of Francis Bacon. Image courtesy Tate.  

1. Take a look at Bacon’s unusual use of architectural framing

In the 1930s Bacon began using a dramatic compositional trope which he would retain throughout his career; the ghostly lines which frame his figures. Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms is a rare exploration of this motif. 

In his writings, Bacon expressed the view that a scene represented within a ring is stripped from its narrative. It is likely he placed his subjects in ‘invisible rooms’ to remove them from their context, too. He places them on what the French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, described as a ‘mobile pedestal’; displaying the central form just like an object in a museum.

By adding these architectural shapes to his paintings he creates a sense of confinement and isolation which emphasises his subjects’ intense emotional states.

Francis Bacon Sand Dune

Francis Bacon
Sand Dune 1983
Oil paint and pastel on canvas
1980 x 1475 mm

Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel
Photograph © Peter Schibli, Basel
© 2012, DACS, London

2. See, first hand, rarely seen documents and drawings

Bacon denied making preparatory sketches, insisting on the spontaneity of his paintings, as seen in this interview with David Sylvester:

David Sylvester: And you never work from sketches or drawings, you never do a rehearsal for the picture?

Francis Bacon: I often think I should, but I don’t. It’s not very helpful in my kind of painting, as the actual texture, colour, the whole way the paint moves, are so accidental, any sketches that i did before could only give a kind of skeleton, possibly, of the way the thing might happen.
Interview with Francis Bacon, David Sylvester, 1992

However, after his death several drawings emerged. Bacon spoke of ideas for paintings falling into his imagination ‘like slides’ into a projector and these lists may represent an attempt to capture those moments of inspiration.

A pen sketch on paper of a figure crawling with a box drawn around it

Francis Bacon
Figure Crawling c.1957-61

© The Estate of Francis Bacon. All Rights Reserved. DACS 2016. Image courtesy Tate.

3. He has inspired some of the great film directors of our time.

Crucifixion 1933 inspired Jonathan Demme in 1991’s Silence of the Lambs and paintings such as Triptych–August 1972 1972 influenced Christopher Nolan in The Dark Knight Rises 2012. Here, Nolan discusses how the makeup of lead villain the Joker references Bacon’s work:

Heath Ledger [who played the role of Joker] and make-up artist, John Caglione, and myself were trying to figure out a way to take the clown make up but make it more threatening somehow; more real world, and textured. I wound up taking a book of Bacon paintings and showing them a lot of the different distortions of the way that the paint would run together and the colours would mix.

Video placeholder
Film meets Art – Chris Nolan inspired by Francis Bacon
Dark oil painting with an abstract white figure in the center with arms stretched out.

Francis Bacon
Crucifixion 1933
© The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2016.
Image courtesy Murderme Collection. 
Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd 

Francis Bacon, ‘Triptych August 1972’ 1972
Francis Bacon
Triptych August 1972 1972
Tate
© Estate of Francis Bacon

4. His work is all about being human

Bacon was a moralist and his work focuses on the human condition, as seen here:

I am a painter of the 20th century: during my childhood I lived through the revolutionary Irish movement, Sinn Fein, and the wars, Hiroshima, Hitler, the death camps, and daily violence that I’ve experienced all my life. And after all that they want me to paint bunches of pink flowers … But that’s not my thing. The only things that interest me are people, their folly, their ways, their anguish, this unbelievable, purely accidental intelligence which has shattered the planet, and which maybe, one day, will destroy it. I am not a pessimist. My temperament is strangely optimistic. But I am lucid.
The Independent 2003

Francis Bacon, Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho 1967

Francis Bacon, 1909-1992

Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho 1967

Oil paint on canvas

1980 x 1475 mm

© The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2016. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie. Acquired by the state of Berlin

5. He is a modern day master

Bacon was obsessed with the work of Michelangelo, Velázquez and Degas, as well as ancient Greek and Roman works. But referring to old masters, doesn’t make you a master. Bacon earned that title by taking these classic references and turning them on their head.

His painting Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X 1953, unapologetically refers to the old masterpiece of the same title. However, Bacon’s version is horrifying and hints at the moral corruption of the church. Meanwhile, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion c.1944, distorts this major religious event beyond recognition:

There was painting in England before the Three Studies, and painting after them, and no one…can confuse the two. John Russell.
Francis Bacon 1993

Throughout Bacon’s work you can sense him gaze unflinchingly on society, on humanity and on the world. His portrayal of people and animals is fearless and brutal but the result is a raw representation of truth. In the aftermath of the Second World War, Bacon’s paintings couldn’t have been more appropriate, or more inspired, and they continue to be today.

Francis Bacon Study after Velazquez Portrait of Pope Innocent Ten 1953

Francis Bacon
Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X 1953
Oil on canvas
153 x 118 cm

Photo: Michael Tropea, Chicago Purchased with funds from the Ciffin Fine Arts Trust © Nathan Emery Coffin Collection of the Des Moines Art Centre, Iowa

Francis Bacon Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion

Francis Bacon
Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion c.1944

© Tate

See also