The paintings of Francis Bacon continue to trouble their viewers, not least those viewers who try to slot his work into a particular genre or movement. Bacon rose to prominence painting the human body, hardly an uncommon subject, but he did so in the middle of the twentieth century, just when abstraction had achieved near-complete domination of Western art. Though his work may not have been deliberately fashionable, it wasn’t straightforwardly realistic either. Even as they incorporated humanity, his artistic visions twisted it out of shape, often in complicatedly grotesque or bloody ways. What could have inspired such enduringly nightmarish work?
That question underlies Francis Bacon: A Brush with Violence, the 2017 BBC Two documentary above. Some answers are to be found in the painter’s life, whose fragile and asthmatic early years were shadowed by the formidable presence of the elder Bacon, a Boer War veteran and racehorse trainer. As Bacon’s friend and dealer Lord Gowrie says, “His father got his stable boys to whip him, and I think that started one or two things off.” Like many studies, the film draws connections between Bacon’s harrowing artworks and his even more harrowing sex life, conducted in shadowy underworlds at great — and to him, seemingly thrilling — risk of physical harm.
Bacon proceeded down his long life’s every avenue in the same deliberately reckless manner. As with men, money, and drink, so with art: he would gamble everything, as another interviewee puts it, on the next brushstroke. His impulsive creation often preceded equally impulsive destruction, as evidenced by one assistant’s memories of following the artist’s orders to destroy a great many paintings that would now command serious prices at auction. When Bacon realized what he needed to paint — a process that began with a youthful trip to Paris, where he first encountered the work of Pablo Picasso — he knew he could accept nothing else.
Those paintings attract ever more intense critical scrutiny, an enterprise that has recently produced Francis Bacon: A Tainted Talent, the four-part documentary series just above from Youtube channel Blind Dweller (recently featured here on Open Culture for a video essay on Jean-Michel Basquiat). Almost wholly untrained in the classical sense, Bacon developed not just a distinctive set of techniques for making visible his tantalizingly appalling inner world, but also kept refining those techniques to make his work ever less outwardly shocking yet ever more affecting on subtler levels. In his lifetime, this made him the highest-paid artist in the world; more than thirty years after his death, he remains a movement of one.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.