Occasionally I find that someone can be influential without you even realising it. They can change the way you see parts of the world or art itself but you may not even remember them. This was my experience with the renowned figurative artist Francis Bacon (no not the 16th century lord chancellor of England.) He’s an artist that helped me to redefine how I saw surrealism, and really helped me to see the positive energy is a genre that can occasionally be pretty dark. It was only when a friend of mine mentioned they had seen his work that I remembered he even existed.
Born in Ireland but trained and working through London, Berlin and Paris – Bacon drifted through art in a far more casual sense then you might expect. He frequently socialised in London’s fashionable Soho district and went in and out of work as an interior decorator and furniture designer. He later admitted in a journal of review by Schmied that he spent too long looking for a source of inspiration – and I suppose that’s an initial thing to consider with him. He’s a figurative artist, so no matter how surreal or abstract his works are they are always based off some kind of defined object, something grounded in our perceived reality. While the majority of surrealism shares this trait, Bacon especially seems someone more concerned with adapting existing physicality rather than creating on entirely abstract concept or object. Bacon often saw his art as focused on particular ‘images’ for periods of time, and many of his works such as ‘Three Studies of Lucien Freud’ (1969) revolve around repeating motifs that change in slight design aspects. His focus in art often changed from lone figures to geometric rooms and shapes, animals and people alike. I find his style transforms that section of reality that he’s chosen as a subject into a distinctly personalised perceptive image. It feels, more so than with some other artists, that you’re getting Bacon’s own view of an object.
I think it’s this personal account of the world that helps to fill his work with so much raw and bold abstract energy. His work feels charged with emotion, whether it be the rush of colours from deep to thin textures or the contours of his twirling, jagged figures. Work such as ‘Portrait of George Dyer Talking’ (1966) or ‘Fragment of a Crucifixion’ (1950) show figures twisted into shapes full of emotive energy. You get a sense of sadness and pain from these that transfers itself directly from the surface of the artwork into our minds. It’s an artistic process that replicates the process of light reflection into the eyes and the brain – an untarnished line of transformation between stimulus and perception. His abstraction of these figures doesn’t take away from the realist emotion he most likely feels when perceiving them himself. Indeed, while I don’t usually like to go into too much personal information with an artist, there is a distinct sombre note in his works after the death of his lover George Dyer in 1971. It all feels like a personal account of life.
But with that personality also comes a brightness on terms of energy. Even his seemingly darker works such as ‘Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X’ (1953) which shows the pope like figure screaming into the darkness, covered in golden lines draining downwards reflecting a perceived horror of the character – show a deep sense of feeling, despite the abstractly surrealist nature of the picture. This is as well as ‘Figure In a Landscape’ (1945) – which features a abstract impression of Eric Hall sleeping on a seat in Hyde Park. Here we see the same disfigurement of an object in his previous work, with charcoal black smudges like waves underneath a pitch blue sky and over the lines of grey shrubs. The image is physically unclear but retains the central form of a figure on a bench. It conveys that sense of passing time and watching the world go by in an incalculable state of doziness.
In fact it shows a trend which Bacon shows in his later work (70s onward) where he paints many studies on his friends or drinking companions. Despite his bleak existential outlook on life his work remains with a distinct energy – be it sadness or joy. It has that distinct mix between the two, like everything he sees is bittersweet. It’s a certain kind of happiness which is, in itself, abstract. It fuses the defined emotional lines of human perception so it mirrors the moment you feel intensely but don’t really know what to call it. Despite the fact that many of the images he’s influenced by include the crucifixion – as a scene of public pain on which to hang sensations and feelings within human behaviour – and the scream (particularly from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 classic film ‘Battleship Potemkin’ , The ‘Odessa’ scene) – as a catalyst for much of his work in the grotesque human image – he retains a kind of energy that I can’t help but find positive. Bacon is someone who focuses on the abstraction of the human form, and so any viewer will often see different images in any one painting reflecting different aspects of humanity – but I often find a deep feeling – like a mix of hope ad depression. The surrealist design of many of his focal objects help to prevent any kind of definition of that emotion, and so really it’s hard to come up with a name. I don’t think ‘i’m feeling Bacon’ would really catch on.
A beautiful example of the limits of figurative abstraction, Bacon demonstrates that the human body is as malleable and inexplicable as the human mind. Whether he conveys a dark sadness or an ecstatic complacency – his work is charged and electrified with the unmistakable scent of emotion. His abstract figures capture the eye and keep it locked in embrace, it’s really no wonder he’s influence so many artists since. Go check him out, but for god’s sake don’t forget about him.