Art of the 20th Century


Art Styles in 20th century Art Map






Francis Bacon (1909-1992), arguably the preeminent British painter of the twentieth century, was also for forty years the most controversial. Bacon's art often appears deliberately disturbing. His subject was the human form. Bacon reinterpreted the physical construction of the body with a new and unsettling intensity. To him it was something to be taken apart by the artist's penetrating gaze and then put back together again on canvas. He forces us to see, perhaps for the first time, the separate shapes and stresses hidden in the familiar human figure.

Bacon's treatment of the face could be especially challenging. In his portraits, generally of people the artist knew well, the subjects are sometimes shown screaming. Even in repose the features shift and reshape themselves before our eyes, yet they never become unrecognizable despite the swirling paint.

Often called an Expressionist or even a Surrealist, Bacon himself strongly rejected both labels. He insisted that in its own way his work was close to the world we see every day, remaining true to what he called "the brutality of fact."







The idea of a theater that parts the curtain on the figure in its most hidden intimacy culminates in the triptychs, the defining format in Bacon's painting. His sequences of images possess a sense not of narrative but rather of repetition. The fundamental objective is to involve the viewer in a suggestive setting, reinforcing the effect of the spatial boxes in which the figures are placed. In the preparatory studies for faces in portraits, Bacon used a smaller format clearly inspired by the frontal and profile photographs typical of police mug shots; he also made use of sequential snapshots taken by automatic photo-booths.


Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion
The reference to the Crucifixion theme is only oblique—three figures, the idea of mutilated bodies.
The bulbous forms bear a certain similarity to the monsters in some Surrealist canvases,
a movement with which Bacon's work had some early affinity.
More than four decades later, the artist painted a second version of this composition.

Second Version of "Triptych 1944"
 Bacon here returns to one of his signature images,
painting a second version of the Crucifixion that in 1944
had established the format of the triptych in his work.
The blind, bulbous figures are essentially the same,
two having appendages that end in open mouths.
What is different is the space in which they are placed,
especially in the central panel, and the treatment of color,
now darkly contrasting and more solemn, even elegiac.


Three Studies for a Crucifixion
 Almost twenty years after Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion,
 Bacon returned to its evocation of sacramental slaughter and to its triadic structure.
The panel to the right represents an animal's carcass slit open,
but its form was suggested by a thirteenth-century Crucifixion by Cimabue, when seen upside down.

Triptych, August 1972
The three panels create a space subtly disturbed in its symmetry:
there is a door in each panel, but of different size;
and the scenes in the side panels are turned at slightly different
angles with respect to the plane of the central canvas.
The contrast between the bare, antiseptic setting and the mutilated
figures produces an intensely dramatic effect with great sobriety of means.


Triptych, May-June 1973
In this triptych the painter alludes to the circumstances
of the suicide two years earlier of his friend George Dyer with horrifying precision.
Yet the solemn harmony of purple and black lends
the composition an unexpected ceremonial dignity.


Triptych, March 1974
The figure in the central panel derives, once again, from Muybridge's photographs.
The figures on the side panels open and close the composition:
one, facing away, looks into the canvas, while the other—
the photographer who seems to direct his camera lens toward the viewer—
looks out from it. Both clothed figures contrast with the nude
figure in the center panel and reinforce the immediacy of its presence.


Three figures in a room

 Triptych Inspired by T. S. Eliot's Poem "Sweeney Agonistes,"
 Bacon refers to the line from Eliot's poem that summarizes life as "birth, and copulation, and death,"
 the three acts—according to some interpreters—to which the three panels refer.
The joined pairs on their platforms, right and left, derive from the photographs
of naked wrestlers taken by Eadweard Muybridge.

Three Studies for a Portrait

Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards


Three Studies of Muriel Belcher

Three Studies of the Male Back
The different positions of the mirror offer a paradoxical sequence,
whose aim is to disturb and question the relationship of the viewer to the painting.
The high, diagonal point of view, as in an architect's axonometric drawing,
accentuates the idea of the individual surprised in his privacy.



These apparently arbitrary collections of images and diverse
objects bear some resemblance to the dream logic of Surrealism,
although they all in fact belong to Bacon's established repertoire:
nude figures in tension, skeletal anatomies attacked by birds of prey, and so on.
Everything seems to converge on the bloody ceremony depicted in the central panel,
a ritual that the portrait busts on the side panels attend indifferently,
like sphinxes—the guardians of a secret.


Studies of the Human Body
 Muybridge's photographic studies reappear as a source of inspiration,
producing images of the human body in positions awkward and tense
to the point of becoming unrecognizable.
The figure's precarious balancing act on the elevated bar increases the tension.


Studies from the Human Body

Three Studies for  Heads

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