The Brilliantly Nightmarish Art & Troubled Life of Painter Francis Bacon

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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Fran­cis Bacon on the South Bank Show: A Sin­gu­lar Pro­file of the Sin­gu­lar Painter

William Bur­roughs Meets Fran­cis Bacon: See Nev­er-Broad­cast Footage (1982)

Art His­to­ry School: Learn About the Art & Lives of Toulouse-Lautrec, Gus­tav Klimt, Frances Bacon, Edvard Munch & Many More

The Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Paint­ings of Jean-Michel Basquiat: A Video Essay

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.

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  • Tim A. says:

    I attend­ed Dean Close School (1970–1975) but at that time none of us pupils knew that Fran­cis Bacon was an alum­nus, even though he was alive at the time. Now, of course, the school has a the­atre named after him. Bet­ter lat­te than nev­er, I sup­pose.

    What the school does­n’t have, as far as I can tell, is any­thing named after their oth­er most famous alum­nus, Bri­an Jones, found­ing mem­ber of the Rolling Stones. It is remark­able to me that the two most famous and suc­cess­ful alum­ni were kept com­plete­ly secret from the stu­dent body. Bri­an Jones was expelled from the school, and I think Bacon was too.

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