Beginning on the early 1950s, despite the dominance of Abstract Expressionism in both the United States and Europe, there were recurring waves of insistence on a return to the figure, a new naturalism of naturalistic fantasy. Crucial to the new figuration were Alberto Giacometti and Jean Dubuffet. The only other figurative Expressionist powerful enough to be compared with Giacometti and Dubuffet were British. Chief among these was the Irish-born Francis Bacon, one of the artistic giants of his time.
Bacon has been called the greatest poet of the second half of the 20th century and even those who deeply dislike his work find it memorable and horribly impressive. He is an artist obsessed by the horror of existence and the terrible vulnerability of being. He professed to see no hope, and yet his very life is a denial of such despair, because creativity can never really come without some belief in the meaning of what is created. Certain images recur again and again in Bacon’s paintings, and the best known is that of the screaming pope, after Velazquez’s great portrait of Pope Innocent X.Order now
Bacon refused to study Velazquez’s portrait, preferring instead to paint from his memory of that painting’s authoritarian majesty. Here, he shows the pope, father of the Catholic Church, both enthroned and imprisioned by his position. Bacon’s relationship with his father was a very stormy one, and perhaps he has used some of the fear and hatred to conjure up this ghostly vision of a screaming pope, his face frozen in a rictus of anguish. The pope is pushed down to the bottom half of the canvas and squashed low in the chair. Around him, bacon has built the suggestion of a cage or cell.
He has marked him out with an arrow, as if this clenched and tortured image was an exhibit in the artist’s chamber of horrors. Bacon has also drawn from another famous image, Rembrant’s great Carcass of Beef, and his hung the animal’s flayed and bloody flesh on either side of this human animal. Rembrant painted his carcass with reverence; Bacon sees these carcasses as raw meat – the pope as he will be – dangles them, almost insouciantly, behind the papal chair. Bacon’s portraits are just as unique as when he uses paintings of the past as the basis of his work, and transforms these in terms of his own inward vision of torment.
He insisted on painting portraits only of his friends, and Lucien Freud was one of his closest. He insisted too that he did not want to paint his subjects from life, but from photographs, and the absence of the actual person set him free to mold and deform with a wild virtuosity. Here, he seems to have painted the portrait, and then, perhaps with his figure or thumb, smeared out the features of the face; yet, despite this arrogance with paint and feature, enough significant traces remain to recognize the face of the sitter.
In the late 1940s and the 1950s there was a deliberate and concerted attempt to reintroduce subject matter figures, most frequently in a macabre effect. Along with Giacometti and Dubuffet, Frances Bacon was a major contributor to the postwar European figuration and fantasy movement. His devotion to the monstrous, the deformed. or the diseased has been variously interpreted as a reaction to the plight of the world and humanity. His paintings reveal his superb qualities as a pure painter and his obsessive sense of tradition.