With several false starts to his painting career and a successful foray into furniture design, Francis Bacon's early years were fraught with indecision and self-doubt, despite support from other artists and major collectors. After a hiatus during which he destroyed most of his work, Bacon found a renewed fervour for painting, rejecting both expressionism and abstraction. His return to painting at the height of the horrors of World War II only reinforced his early exposure to what he referred to as the emotional and disturbing violence of Berlin and the despair of life. Bacon's fascination with the corruption, decay, passion and desolation of the human species remained a continuous focus. In responding to the vibrant horror of his work, one art critic commented that the 'joys of painting, the presence of a brilliant mind, are not enough to dispel one's morbid embarrassment, as if one had been caught, and had caught oneself, smiling at a hanging'.1
Bacon's intrinsic understanding of the human figure provided limitless possibilities in reflecting states of anxiety, morbidity, death and fear. His repetitive depiction of the isolated figure in the seclusion of an interior and a disturbing ambiguity only compound the feeling of innate despair and deny any easy narrative. Coupled with his exacting compositions and application of pigment, which is painted on the reverse of primed canvas, Bacon creates an exhilarating juxtaposition of form and field.
In 'Study for self-portrait' Bacon portrays himself, as in many of his portraits, contained within a geometric 'interior' form that evokes the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann in his courtroom glass cage.2 Isolated and imprisoned by the 'exterior' expanse of the canvas, Bacon lurches forward in a distorting and twisting spasm which doubles and blurs as if in constant motion, yet remains anchored to the chair. His aim in painting these disturbing and isolated figures was to distort into reality - not away from reality - to reveal the truth and the essence of the person rather than merely paint an illustration. Bacon argued that the only way to convey fact or truth was through a form of distortion, a distortion that reflected life's suffering and despair.3 Within the spasmodic event, the figure oozes and dissolves through the barrier of the containing form and splurges into the foreground. It is as if the body, in reaching the limit of the barrier, removes a part of itself from itself and thrusts it out in a frenzied attempt to escape the containing space. All that remains at the point of disjuncture is a circular void, the detached flesh already decaying in the empty field beyond him.
The contrast between the disrupted fleshiness of the body and the clean expanse of the colour field heightens the sense of physical abjection. The brute and raw nature of the figure represents in some ways what Bacon refers to as the dung heap of life. In this self-portrait Bacon looks on the world with a squeamish horror, his face doubled and blurred in his desire to capture the human scream of suffering.
1. Max Kozloff, 'Francis Bacon, 16 Nov 1963', 'Writing on art from the Nation: 1865-2001', Thunder's Mouth Press, New York 2001, p 307
2. The geometric form is the parallelepiped, a polyhedron with six faces that are parallelograms
3. See 'Francis Bacon: a retrospective', the Trust for Museum Exhibitions, New York 1999, p 8
© Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection Handbook, 2006
Francis Bacon: five decades - trailer
oil and pastel on canvas
198.0 x 147.5 cm stretcher; 217.9 x 166.4 x 7.5 cm frame
Signature & date
Signed and dated u.l. verso, black fibre-tipped pen "Francis Bacon 1976".
© Francis Bacon/DACS. Licensed by Copyright Agency
Shown in 9 exhibitions
Francis Bacon: oeuvres récentes, Galerie Claude Bernard, Paris, 19 Jan 1977–26 Mar 1977
Francis Bacon: works 1970-1977, Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City, Oct 1977–Dec 1977
- Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Caracas, Venezuela Feb 1978–Feb 1978
Three years on: acquisitions 1978-81, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 15 Oct 1981–01 Dec 1981
- Palazzo Reale 04 Mar 2008–24 Aug 2008
Francis Bacon: five decades, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 17 Nov 2012–17 Feb 2013
Francis Bacon, Monaco et le French Culture, Grimaldi Forum, 01 Jul 2016–04 Sep 2016
Francis Bacon: de Picasso a Velázquez, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain, 30 Sep 2016–08 Jan 2017