Francis Bacon, ‘Study for Portrait II (after the Life Mask of William Blake)’ 1955
Francis Bacon
Study for Portrait II (after the Life Mask of William Blake) 1955
© Estate of Francis Bacon

Between 1956 and 1961, Bacon travelled widely. He spent time in places marginal to the art world, in Monaco, the south of France and Africa, and particularly with Peter Lacy in the expatriate community in Tangier.

In this rather unsettled context, he explored new methods of production, shifting to thicker paint, violently applied and so strong in colour as to indicate an engagement with the light of North Africa. This was most extreme in his series based on a self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh, The Painter on the Road to Tarascon 1888, which became an emblem of the modern predicament.

Despite initial acclaim, Bacon’s van Gogh works were soon criticised for their ‘reckless energy’ and came to be viewed as an aberration. They can now be recognised as pivotal to Bacon’s further development, however, and allow glimpses into his search for new ways of working. His innovations were perhaps in response to American Abstract Expressionism, of which he was publicly critical. Although he eventually returned to a more controlled approach to painting, the introduction of chance and the new vibrancy of colour at this moment would remain throughout his career.