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Francis Bacon: "I absolutely don't want to paint any freaks"

Francis Bacon (1909-1992) is among the most renowned British artists of the 20th Century. Some of his works on paper are also in the Deutsche Bank Collection in London. In the course of his life Bacon also took issue with the works of other artists from the most diverse epochs - ranging from old masters from the Renaissance to contemporary 20th Century artists. An exhibition in the Art History Museum in Vienna places Bacon's work for the first time in the context of art history. A Portrait of the Painter by Marion Löhndorf.

With a sweeping gesture in a never-ending series of novel artistic approaches, and in an oeuvre which spans a good half of a century, Francis Bacon has set the stage with scenes of horror. Pain, despair, violence and loneliness are recurrent themes in his work. This, at any rate, is how his oil paintings have been read by critics. Bacon's figures, with mouths agape that are ready to let out a scream, Bacon's figures seem to be victims of invisible catastrophes. "We all have to be conscious of the possible catastrophe which could hit us at any given moment of the day," he once said. Bacon felt that humor and cleverness should not have a place in art. Yet he himself was considered to be very witty and exceptionally ingenious. He enjoyed life with the feeling, as he once said, of being just as at home in the gutter as he was in the Ritz. He drank and played excessively and gave rise to numerous anecdotes. He skillfully managed his career while claiming it was of no interest to him. Three great exhibitions gave him his reputation: the London Tate Gallery honored him with two retrospectives in 1962 and in 1985, The Grand Palais in Paris in 1971. Due to the art market boom during the 1980's, Bacon was a rich man when he died in April of 1992 at the age of 82.

Schwarz-Weiß-Photographie von Francis Bacon
in der Reece Mews Nr. 7
Photo von Peter Stark, Frühe siebziger Jahre
©The Estate of Francis Bacon / VG Bild Kunst, Bonn 2003
Collection Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane

When Francis Bacon was born in Dublin on the 28th of October, 1909, there were no indications of his future status in the art world as an exceptional figure. No one in his family had an interest in painting – his father raised and trained horses and Francis Bacon never had a formal education, not to mention formal training as an artist. The British born family with five children was quite mobile with frequent moves back and forth between Ireland and England. They changed homes and domiciles keeping close contact to the extensive and eccentric relations who offered Bacon considerable material illustrating the diversity of human behavior and weaknesses. An interest which he was keen on most of his life and which – or so he claims – he placed above his interest in art. (BBC Interview with Francis Bacon from1963)

A descendant of Elizabethan namesake Francis Bacon, Bacon's father was a gambler, who was dictatorial, intolerant and in constant need of money. When Bacon himself finally turned sixteen, his plan for the future was simply "to do nothing." He had a pronounced urge for freedom that had been cultivated by his family's mobility. In 1928 the two formative months he spent in Berlin seemed for him to be a continuation of the freedom and liberation from the compulsion of English manners and reserve which he had experienced in Ireland. From Berlin he went to Paris, which didn't leave a great impression on him at this point in his life. It wasn't until the later years that the French capitol city became somewhat of a second home for him - nothing seemed so desirable as having his work shown in Paris.

Francis Bacon: Oedipus and the Sphinx after Ingres
(Oedipus und die Sphinx nach Ingres), 1983
Lissabon, The Berardo Collection - Sintra Museum of Modern Art
©The Estate of Francis Bacon/VBK, Wien, 2003 / VG Bild Kunst, Bonn 2003

He had a first breakthrough as painter when one of his paintings was reproduced in Herbert Read's book Art Now and then purchased by a renowned collector. After this promising beginning, which Bacon himself characterized as a false start, he stopped painting once again.The only exception were the three paintings which he contributed to an exhibition in 1937. He took on part time jobs and played. His asthma prevented him from being inducted during the war. Not until 1944 did he start painting again and concluded finally that this had become an obsession for him.

Bacon exhibited new paintings for the first time since 1937 in a group show in April of 1945. The work which became a cornerstone of his fame was the painting Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), which shows three figures that are half human, half animal, half fable ... They gyrate in twisted positions and are without eyes; one of the figures is bandaged, two of them seem to scream. The space behind them is suggested by geometric lines. These beings in pain were not in keeping with the context of the exhibition and the other objects in it – including works by Henry Moore – which seemed to conform to the idea of a quick return to normality after the war. They also stood apart from the "Zeitgeist" prevalent in British art and literature, which seemed to take more of an issue with the past than with the immediate present, that is, with the war and the situation after the war.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres :
Oedipus und die Sphinx, ca. 1826
London, The National Gallery
©London, The National Gallery / VG Bild Kunst, Bonn 2003

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