‘I’m greedy for life; and I’m greedy as an artist,’ said Irish-born British painter Francis Bacon. ‘Greedy for food, for drink, for being with the people one likes, for the excitement of things happening.’ Together with his contemporary, Lucian Freud, Bacon is widely considered the most important British painter of the modern age — a self-taught 20th-century master who lived his life in Bohemian excess, and whose work reinvigorated the figurative tradition through a unique exploration of the human figure in all its grotesquery and isolation.
Born in Dublin, the son of an English racehorse trainer, Bacon had no formal education. He left home aged 17 for Berlin and then London, where he worked as interior decorator and designer of furniture and rugs. Bacon had begun drawing and painting in Berlin, but it was only in 1931 that he began devoting himself to his art. He received little critical or commercial success, however, and after a disappointing 1934 solo show his output dwindled. It was his 1944 triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion that brought him to wider attention. While his early works had been inspired by Cubism and Picasso’s later works of biomorphic distortion, Three Figures saw the development of a unique figurative style.
By the 1950s, Bacon had become one of the most controversial painters in Britain and, together with Freud and Frank Auerbach, a leading luminary of the Soho avant garde. With the art world dominated by abstraction, Bacon’s work was not only emphatically figurative but drew on traditions of figuration, from Renaissance crucifixions, seen in Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962), to the works of Baroque Masters exampled in his endless reworkings of Velázquez’s Portrait of Innocent X (c.1650). As his career matured, distorted biomorphism mellowed into a more overt figuration, beautifully exampled in his late 60s masterpiece, Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969), and Study for Self-Portrait — Triptych (1985-86).
Together with those of Freud, Bacon’s paintings are some of the world’s most valuable and important works of modern art.
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