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1980s

We are born and we die, but in between we give this purposeless existence a meaning.

- Francis Bacon

Bacon’s work in the 1980s varies stylistically from that of previous decades. His technique was confident and the sense of chaos and drama of his earlier paintings was replaced with more sober control. In these works the paint is flat yet vibrantly coloured; the shadows, which feature in many of his earlier works, are solid and fleshy.

By 1980 most of Bacon’s close companions had died. Apart from the artist Lucian Freud and the art historian David Sylvester, who outlived him, Bacon was the last of a fascinating circle of Soho-scene figures. Towards the end of his life he was sustained by his stable relationship with John Edwards, although a liaison with Spaniard José Capello took Bacon to Madrid, where he died in 1992.

Bacon painted until the end of his life and left behind a unique and powerful body of work. As Alan Bowness, former director of the Tate in London, said:

...for Bacon the virtues of truth and honesty transcend the tasteful. They give to his paintings a terrible beauty that has placed them among the most memorable images in the history of art.

Focus work

Francis Bacon
Figure in movement 1985
oil on canvas, 198 × 147.5 cm
private collection

This is one of several paintings portraying men wearing cricket pads. The figure here is isolated between planes of iridescent orange on an elevated field or tabletop. When asked about his references to cricket Bacon resisted pinning it down, commenting only that he was aware of the game’s importance to the British. His interest in sports of all kinds is more indicative of his attraction to the virile male form in movement.

Issues for consideration

  • Compare this painting to Bacon’s earlier work. What is different about his approach? Discuss how referencing popular culture, such as sport, in art practice is similar to and/or different from referencing art history.
  • Find an example of an abstract and a conceptual artwork created in the late 20th century in London. Compare these works to Bacon’s practice. How do they differ?
  • Do you agree that Bacon is now an iconic figure in British painting? Who makes these decisions: artists, audiences, critics? Debate this in class using specific artworks as evidence to support your point of view. Can Bacon still be an inspiration to contemporary artists? What can we learn from his approach to art-making?