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I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail, leaving a trail of the human presence and memory trace of past events, as the snail leaves its slime.

- Francis Bacon

Bacon’s bold vision emerged in the final years of World War II in a Britain shattered by profound violence and destruction. Only a few of his paintings from the 1930s and early 1940s survive, the artist having destroyed many of his works during this period.

Bacon was excused from active military service due to asthma, but he worked for a time in Civil Defence. This too was curtailed because of the dust caused by the constant bombing and demolition in London. With his lover, the collector and businessman Eric Hall, he moved to a cottage in Hampshire.

Much of Bacon’s work from the 1940s relates to his crucifixion series. The scream – drawn from a range of sources including the screaming nurse in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin – recurs in many of his paintings. Bacon’s screaming figures crouch beneath umbrellas or are enclosed in cage-like structures.

A series of paintings of heads from this period blur the boundaries between human and animal. And at the close of the decade Bacon began painting the male nude, a move towards the eroticism and surprising tenderness that characterised some of his later works.

Focus work

Francis Bacon
A study for a figure at the base of a crucifixion c1943–44
oil and pastel on board, 94 × 74 cm
Courtesy Murderme

This study is a variation on the right panel of Bacon’s breakthrough triptych Three studies for figures at the base of a crucifixion 1944, painted after several years during which Bacon destroyed or painted over nearly all of his work. The monstrous figure in this image has been linked to the vengeful Eumenides of ancient Greek mythology. Informed by both Aeschylus’s bloody play Oresteia and TS Eliot’s 1939 reworking of it in The family reunion, these frightening creatures appear in many of Bacon’s works.

Issues for consideration

  • What is your initial response to this image? How do you feel when viewing the work? Consider the forms and colours used by the artist. What messages do they convey? Write a journal entry through Bacon’s eyes after the completion of this artwork, indicating his own feelings about the world at large and this painting.
  • The war significantly influenced Bacon’s art practice. Discuss the motifs he used as a metaphor for this subject. Discuss whether they are successful in conveying his message to the audience.
  • Research Nicolas Poussin’s painting Massacre of the innocents c late 1620s. Are there any similarities to Bacon’s screaming figures? How has Bacon shown the influence of this image as well as placing it into a contemporary context?