The modern Irish master

You don’t have to travel all the way to the Tate Britain in London to see a unique piece of Francis Bacon’s legacy, says Caroline O’Leary

You don’t have to travel all the way to the Tate Britain in London to see a unique piece of Francis Bacon’s legacy, says Caroline O’Leary

As a country, Ireland prides itself on its cultural talent, having produced four Nobel Prize winners for literature and many important figures in the areas of acting, theatre, film, poetry and more. Yet few Irish artists have truly succeeded in making their mark on the world canvas and distinguishing themselves outside of their home country. Painter Francis Bacon is a unique exception to this rule, an artist of such talent and innovation that his works are now almost equal in value to those of masters Pablo Picasso and Claude Monet.

Such is Bacon’s success that last year his work Triptych, 1976 sold at Sotheby’s auction house for a post-war record of €56.465 million, making it the twelfth most expensive painting ever sold. In celebration of Bacon and his career, a major retrospective exhibition of his work is now on show at the Tate Britain in London, coinciding with the centenary of the artist’s birth next year. This exhibition, the first since Bacon’s death in 1992, is a cross-section of the artist’s life and works, celebrating his unique talent and inspiring us to examine the life and painting of this enigmatic artist who we seem to so rarely notice.

At first glance, there is something about Bacon’s work that intrigues the viewer. Triptych – August 1972 is a quintessential example of his technique. The flat, stark backgrounds throw the distorted foreground figures into high relief and expose the full extent of twisted limbs, gaping mouths and staring eyes. Curator of the Tate exhibition, Chris Stephens, describes Bacon as “probably the most important painter of the human figure ever.” Yet, as with Bacon’s greatest inspiration, Picasso, it is not the figures themselves that draw the viewer in but rather their unsettling manipulation. Such manipulation ranges from distorted limbs and features to the dissection of certain figures, exposing not only the blood and tissue that is common to man and animal but also the vulnerability they share.

A Francis Bacon painting is difficult to mistake, or, indeed, avoid and the artist was capable of both repulsing and fascinating the viewer – a rare ability possessed only by a few artists, such as master of surrealism, Salvador Dali. Also affecting the viewer is the texture of his works, a result of his preference for painting on the unprimed side of canvas and enhanced by his own deliberate “printing” with materials such as cotton, corduroy and cashmere. Looking at these paintings, you are transported into Bacon’s own garish world.

Bacon’s rather extraordinary life explains somewhat the inspiration behind both the artist’s subjects and his innovative techniques. Born in Dublin to English parents in 1909, his life reads like a bizarre, hedonistic soap opera. At the age of 16, he was banished from his Naas family home after being caught by his father cross-dressing in his mother’s underwear, the final nail in an already strained relationship with his family due to his homosexuality. Bacon then worked his way around London and later Europe, advertising himself as a “gentleman’s companion.”

The cultural influences of Paris and Berlin, specifically exhibitions of artists such as Picasso and Nicolas Poussin, eventually inspired him to return to London and take up painting. Seemingly entirely self-taught, Bacon first began a business as a furniture designer and interior decorator before moving onto oil paintings and rugs with the support of well-connected friends.

His first and most important painting of that time was “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944,” which established his signature style with its burnt orange backgrounds and stone gray monstrous figures. Based on the furies of ancient Greek mythology, the biomorphic quality of these characters are an obvious allusion to Picasso’s own distorted figures. The painting was both acclaimed for its originality and feared for its grotesque and unnerving creatures, the like of which had not been seen in art before.

Bacon’s talent and technique – and, thus, his acclaim – evolved steadily, but his personal life continued to be blighted with misfortune, something identifiable in his work. In particular, the suicide of his partner and muse George Dyer on the eve of his first major retrospective exhibition in 1973 can be seen in pieces such as In Memory of George Dyer and May-June 1973. In the latter, lost, shadowed figures of his former lover are presented in different poses and guises, expressing the figure’s dark, unhappy life and Bacon’s own grief at his loss. Less personal subjects were also dealt with in great detail, as can be seen in some of his most celebrated paintings, such as his series of studies based on Velázquez’s famous “Portrait of Pope Innocent X.”

After experiencing a difficult childhood in Ireland, Bacon was not a frequent visitor to his birth country. Yet, despite his constant travelling and home-base in London, his former partner John Edwards bequeathed the entire contents of Bacon’s studio to the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin after his death. Draft material and papers, originally gifted to friend Barry Joule, were later donated to form the Barry Joule Archive in Dublin. These materials, particularly the studio, delighted critics by offing unprecedented insight into Bacon’s method, techniques and eccentricities. In his studio, one can find piles of paint cans, pastels, crumpled photographs with creases coloured in and even the paint-stained walls of the room, which he frequently used instead of palettes.

The most real part of Bacon, in a sense, then, can be found in Dublin and, while his Tate exhibition will soon leave for Spain and New York, this studio will remain in the city and allow us to enjoy the genius of Ireland’s greatest artist.