I was drawn to Francis Bacon’s work recently after reading on a few chapters in the Tallis recommended reading list. There was a book by John Berger in the week 1 reading: Chapter 5: ‘Uses of Photography: For Susan Sontag’ in About Looking. London: Bloomsbury (2009). I was scanning the subsequent chapters when I saw Berger had written about a number of artists. There was a chapter called Francis Bacon and Walt Disney that drew my attention (as well as Lowry and the Industrial North). As I read Berger’s interpretation of Bacon’s work I found myself googling the images he spoke of and been fascinated and drawn in by them. I then googled if any of his work might be exhibiting this year and as luck had it the Royal Academy was opening a Bacon exhibition the following week. So, I booked tickets.
In the interim period, I purchased several more of Berger’s books. I love his writing and his points of view on visual culture and find his work incredibly pleasant to read, which is always a bonus. One of these books was Portraits, John Berger in Artists.
I’m so grateful for having read Berger’s thoughts on Bacon’s work before visiting the exhibition. It allowed me to consider a perspective I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
The first image presented as you walked into the exhibition was; Head I 1948. A beastly mouth exploded out from a man’s face, who appears to be in a bed in a glass case. The blacks of the background are astoundingly beautiful. This is something I noted in many of his works, the colours in his blacks and shadow colours had such a beauty to them, something which doesn’t really come across in digital/printed copies.
Crucifixion 1933 was the second image I came across. Again there was such beautiful use of colour in the dark background. There’s a face almost screaming inside a set of ribs (well that’s what I saw). The limbs appear to be unrealistic and almost an afterthought, and I saw the white spirit like crown of a head. Perhaps that is not what Bacon saw or intended but it was my interpretation and it seemed to make sense to me in the context of the painting’s title. I started to wonder how I could perhaps merge different elements of someone into a portrait. How I could blur the reality by not photographing what is visually there but more accurately a sense of who is there and their state.
Next, there was a set of vibrant orange paintings which at first I didn’t feel particularly drawn to. Figure study 1 1945-46 looked to be clothing hunched over as if the person inside it was lost. The person was invisible. The posture and gesture; hanging as if in grief or lacking the will to fall into any other stance.
It was the posture and lack of a visible being that finally caught my attention with this painting. It reminded me of my invisible motherhood series and that sense of being spent, done and invisible sometimes as a mother. I’m pretty certain this wasn’t the intended meaning. But it had me consider ways of completing that series which feels a little incomplete.
Fury 1944. A distorted form almost looking like furniture, neck craned to eat and demolish the arranged flowers in the room. It felt to me like the anger and rage was eating up the picturesque beauty, feeding off it, demolishing it.
It also made me think of women as furniture in domestic settings, contorting themselves to meet the needs of others whilst suppressing their own. There’s an artist whose name escapes me just now who has explored this idea.
Study of a figure 1945. Another distorted form reaching out to eat an arrangement of flowers.
Chimpanzee 1955. Hauntingly beautiful in real life, it reminds me of some of the tarot cards I’ve used as inspiration in the past. Where the edges of the invisible/glass cube meet you can see the lines. The blacks are again beautiful and the hash marked area behind the chimp had the most beautiful colours and brush strokes. The printed reproduction doesn’t come close to the actual version.
The glass cubes appear frequently in Bacon’s work and it’s interesting to me as when I was creating my series Trapped Within The Image Of Ourselves, I thought about and researched how I could use a glass or perspex cube to photograph myself inside of. It quickly became apparent it would be too expensive and large to create. The cubes in these images remind me of that concept and returned me to it.
Below are the Tarot cards which reminded me of Bacon’s work. Foutain Tarot Deck, designed by Andi Todaro
Two bodies merge onto one. Embraced. It’s making me think about the maternal merging, with child. Again not at all what Bacon intended as this is assumed to be two men but it made me think about merged forms, two bodies merged together.
This painting was so breathtakingly beautiful in real life. There is an eagle swooping down on a snake. The painting in real life was huge (almost 2m tall) and the colours were just stunning.
Yet again the printed version of this painting looks so flat and unmoving in comparison to the real thing. The colours and brush strokes create such a sense of mood in this image. The colours in the shadows are again just breathtaking.
This painting was huge, (again around 2m tall) and it had such a presence in the room. The colours were much more rich and vibrant than shown here and the brush strokes were intriguing. It’s around this point that I was starting to look closely at how Bacon distorted the faces in his portraits. It’s almost as if he had smudged them to create the distortion.
The colours and brush strokes on her face were fascinating to me. There’s a real sense of grit and texture in the paint when seen close up (IRL).
Next to many of the paintings there were displayed found imagery from Bacon’s studio. Most of this imagery was in the form of photographs and photographic sequences. Next to this image, there was a sequence of photographic images of two men embracing in a very similar pose. What drew me to this image was the lines of light coming from above and the colour palette. It again reminds me of the colours and design in the Fountain Tarot deck, the illustrations of which I’m very drawn to also.
Triptych studies of the human body 1970. Use of triptych to suggest a never-ending cycle.
I’m intrigued by the idea of triptychs, the continuation of a line between the three representations, a continuation of a theme. Different angles or representations on each. Independent yet linked impressions acting at once. Could I use this to address various aspects of relationship, opposite (love and hate say) with indifference or disassociation on the middle.
He works a lot with mythological stories yet wishes not to provide an illustrated narrative.
I really enjoyed the rooms of Triptychs. It was his Triptychs of portraits that first really piqued my interest in Bacon’s work and related it to my own. I like the continuation of line that flows through them and I like the different representation of the same person from different perspectives. These paintings were huge and you had to stand back to take in the sets of three.
The following Triptychs were not in the exhibition but they are what lead me to look for an exhibition of his work.
Finally, at the end of the exhibition, I read that Bacon used dust a medium. Like ashes. We all return to it. It’s the one thing that remains
In the shop, I saw the work of Heloise Bergman. After all my mother said 2017.
Royal Academy of Arts. Francis Bacon Mand and Beast. Visited on 02.02.2022 https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/francis-bacon
Images above have been taken from the Royal Academy of Arts Catalogue. Distributed by ACC Art Books Ltd Suffolk 2021.