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I’m just trying to make images as accurately off my nervous system as I can.

- Francis Bacon

Despite an unsettled lifestyle and not having a permanent studio, the 1950s was a productive period for Bacon. In 1956, Peter Lacy – his lover during these years – moved to Tangier, Morocco, where Bacon visited him.

In this decade Bacon experimented with subject matter and technique, and expanded his sources for imagery – ranging from personal experience to the work of artists such as Velázquez and van Gogh, film stills, pages torn from books and magazines and the analytical photographic motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge. Muybridge’s 19th-century photographs informed several of Bacon’s paintings, including those of wrestling men, although Bacon’s figures have distinctly sexual overtones.

Many of Bacon’s works from this time were painted in series and often hastily completed for exhibition deadlines. He applied paint more thinly than in earlier work, with the colour and texture of raw canvas visible beneath translucent washes. Reflecting the muted colours and claustrophobic atmosphere of 1950s London, Bacon’s palette was dominated by subdued greys, blues and earthy tones. There were some exceptions such as the van Gogh series represented in the exhibition by Study for a portrait of van Gogh IV 1957.

Focus work

Francis Bacon
Pope I – study after Pope Innocent X by Velázquez 1951
oil on canvas, 198 × 137 cm
Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections

This artwork was informed by Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X c1650, a painting of which Bacon said: ‘I’ve always thought this was one of the greatest paintings in the world and I’ve had a crush on it’. In the archival material contained in the cases in this room, you will find a reproduction of this painting from Bacon’s studio, which has been folded and crushed. Despite his admiration for Velázquez’s portrait, Bacon said that he did not see the original while in Rome. He came to regret his pope series as a whole, feeling that it was useless to try to replicate this masterful painting. The figure of the Pope represents Bacon’s tendency to portray authoritative, dominating men throughout the 1950s.

Issues for consideration

  • The 1950s was a very productive and experimental time for Bacon. He drew his inspirations from a variety of sources including personal experience, movie stills and wildlife photography. Develop an idea for a body of work using a variety of conventional and unconventional art sources. Extend your concept further by including personal experiences and images from your everyday world.
  • Bacon referred to other artworks such as van Gogh’s The painter on the road to Tarascon 1888, and Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X c1650 in his own artworks at this time. Debate the importance of appropriation and its significance in adding to or questioning the value of a work of art.
  • Bacon came to regret his pope series, feeling that his original inspiration by Velázquez was one of the greatest paintings of all time and that it was useless to replicate it. Do you agree or disagree with his point of view? What do you think makes a great painting? Select the painting you feel is the greatest of all time and write an essay explaining the reasons for your choice.