Updated: Apr 20, 2020
Francis Bacon was by no means your traditional artist. He didn't begin painting until his twenties after bouncing around interior decorating jobs, gambling, and living largely off of a family trust fund. However, once he did find painting he found success pretty early on with his triptych, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. The heavy, bleak tone of these paintings would be something seen throughout almost all of Bacon's art career. He'd later build notoriety for his figurative paintings, most notably his depictions of Popes and crucifixions. Wild brush strokes with only some refined details peering through to reveal that this mass did in fact have some human qualities were staples in Bacon's work and the ill-defined atmosphere in which these characters sat only served to push them further.
Bacon was quite a character, and his life alone is quite interesting. There's a fascinating documentary about him done by BBC titled Francis Bacon: A Brush With Violence. I'll link this down below so that if you're interested you can discover the fascinating life and work of Francis Bacon. This documentary was actually the first time I'd really heard of Bacon's work and one of the reasons that it stood out to me initially and stuck with me after was the cover image, the painting Head VI.
Head VI was painted in 1949 and was inspired by a Diego Velazquez painting, Portrait of Pope Innocent X. Bacon referenced works like this a lot and while this is the first to survive, it's not believed to be the first reference to Velazquez. Interesting influences aside, this painting is a striking example of Bacon's painting style and what was to come of his work. The composition interestingly works from the middle out, as the only definitively recognizable element is the mouth. Once the eye can gather that there is a mouth and head, the collar, cloak, and sleeve start to become recognizable. True to a lot of Bacon's imagery, the viewer really has to piece the image together. You're drawn in by the loose, aggressive brush strokes and once you're there, you're forced to put the image together to at least try and gather what this image means. It doesn't seem as though there's much meaning behind this, there's just an overwhelming sense of despair. Again, looking at the focal point of this piece, the pale white skin and purple-ish lips of the face feel like death and the emotion behind the elements that are there feels like a painful scream. So much pain shown through just half of the face, the strong upward brushstrokes that seemingly rip the top of the head off only add to this emotion.
While the terrifying nature of the figure is certainly one of the main draws, there's a subtle element in this painting that is, in some ways, just as haunting. Once you've gathered the elements of this painting, the traditional Pope seated position from the Velazquez reference becomes more clear. However, a series of thin white lines surround the character creating what appears to be a glass box. So taking the scream and haunting emotions garnered by the figures face and adding the appearance of being trapped in a box, the tone of this painting becomes even darker. The character's scream is pushed by the idea of confinement, and the slightly tilted head makes it feel as though the character is not only screaming, but screaming at the viewer. Perhaps pleading for help.
Francis Bacon was a brilliant painter and paintings like this were just a glance at what would become of his body of work. The emotion and aggression that Bacon was able to express in his painting while still subtly and deliberately delivering a message was truly masterful. Once again, I'm going to link the full documentary on him done by BBC below. It's worth a watch to learn more about a fascinating, and sometimes overlooked artist.