Francis Bacon

One of the great post-war painters of the twentieth century
Francis Bacon, 'Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (second version, c. 1944)'

I can vividly remember the first time I saw a Francis Bacon painting. And I can place it exactly. It figures prominently in a scene from Tim Burton's dark re-imagining of the Batman franchise. Jack Nicholson's Joker invades a museum of contemporary art, and defaces every work in sight to a 1980s Prince song; he paints the phrase 'Joker was here' on the wall of Edward Hopper's Approaching the City (1946), and dismantles sculptures from their plinths. But there is one work of art that he does not touch: 'I like this one,' he leers. It's Francis Bacon's ghoulish and distinctive Figure with Meat (1954).

I love Francis Bacon's paintings for their stark, horrific portrayals of human beings as animals of flesh and blood. His smeared portraits of moving yet static figures unsettle our assumptions of the human subject as a unified and complete individual; in Bacon, the human being is a site of intense psychological and physical conflict, defined not only through the poses, but through the claustrophobic, disorientating spaces that confine them.

Sex and death define much of the psychological trauma in Bacon's work, personified in paintings like 'Two Figures' (1969), where love-making becomes a hideous, writhing memento mori. Bacon's paintings dislodge the stability of repressive cultures, cataloguing the horrors of the century that brought reason and nightmare into a hideous and brutal synthesis. Screaming popes question the order and rationality of established cultural authority, while desperate, yelping chimpanzees offer a glimpse of our more primitive, disordered selves.

Bacon's acknowledgement of the so-called darker sides of our nature not only confronts the spectator with the visceral or the unpleasant, but offers an opportunity for catharsis and emotional release. Through Bacon's painting there is an open acknowledgement and attempted expression of our psychological grey areas: a recognition of our darker aspects as a natural facet or mediator of our emotions. What 'respectable' elements of society seek to repress, or hide under the carpet, Bacon paints in visceral, crimson colours: bright for all to see.

Francis Bacon, 'Three Studies for Self-Portrait' (1976)

Francis Bacon presents the horrors we see within ourselves as life-affirming aspects of our natural make-up. There is a uniquely compelling beauty to his work that not only offers the chance to think and reflect, but to dream. There are some people who consider Bacon a painter who despised the human race, accentuating the negative, but to see in those terms is to miss the point; Bacon's work holds a unique affection for human beings. Self-Portrait (1976) might present its subject's identity as a dissolution into an indeterminate and chaotic mass, but it may also be seen as a paean to the fluidity of possible definitions: a liberation of boundaries. Francis Bacon presents new and challenging emotional landscapes that are just as beautiful as any conventional piece, and offer glimpses of ourselves never seen in any other way.

Since I discovered his work something within me has changed forever. I know that things will never be quite the same again. Whenever I visit any art gallery there is a part of me that actively seeks out whatever Bacon fare might be on offer. He is the only painter that provokes a physical reaction in me: a blend of simultaneous repulsion and fascination. The paradox of modern man - a comfort and discomfort with one's own flesh, a simultaneous sense of pride and shame. To look at Bacon's paintings is to accept the human body as something both beautiful and hideous, humble and mortal and fragile and vital.