In the art world there are a few stand out artists whose works are truly terrifying to behold: Henri Fuseli, Francisco Goya, H. R. Gieger, Hieronymus Bosch, Theodore Gericault, Odilon Redon, are perhaps some of the best known. Of course it must also be acknowledged that fear is highly subjective, and what we find terrifying in art stems from our own subjective interpretations. I for example find the artwork of surrealist Kay Sage deeply disturbing (though a number of friends have disagreed with me on this); her achromatised worlds are inhabited by wandering shrouded figures which are bound by some sinuous musculature evoking an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia, and the landscapes in which they are situated are strangely bleached and barren, containing these eerie geometric structures which waver somewhere in the liminality between natural and artificial, skeletal and architectural.
Even so, there is one artist who seems to bring about an almost universal dread in all those who view his work, and that is of course, Francis Bacon. Bacon’s artworks are made up of shrieking figures, ghastly contortions of flayed meat and gristle, they are visceral, oozing and corporeal to the point of revulsion. But what makes Bacon’s art all the more terrifying is the very real truth behind them, and how these works come to so accurately represent aspects of his harrowing past. In his final interview Bacon described his childhood in just a few simple words – ‘it was cold, hard, like a block of ice’ (A Brush with Violence, 2017). Young Francis had a serious case of asthma, he struggled breathing and suffered frequent and violent asthma attacks which were exacerbated by his growing up on a farm with many horses. This unsurprisingly produced an omnipresent, looming terror of being unable to breathe, of drowning almost, and this was coupled with another deep-seated fear; the fear of his father’s reaction to his repressed homosexuality.
At just 10 years old, these fears festered, amplified by his lonesome and shy nature. Even here then we can begin to see some of the real driving influence behind many of his most famous works: these recurrent haunting figures in Bacon’s work, whose mouths are open painfully wide, and trapped inside glass boxes desperately gasping for air, could represent Bacon’s youth – his fears and repressions. His famous pope image thus also begins to show some clarity: the father-pope figure, perhaps represented his repressed homosexuality, seen as sin by the Catholic church. There is seemingly here a sense of religious suffocation; many of those he grew up with were devout and Bacon himself was an athiest, and a keen Nietzschean to boot. And so religion became a very powerful and regulatory force in his life, emblematising the inability to speak truth and express his true sexuality, ever in the fear that he would be seen to be corrupt by his controlling father.
Indeed, Bacon’s fears were realised upon his father learning of his homosexuality, after which his father had him regularly whipped by the stable-boys (whom he also had sexual relations with). This excessive violence at such a young age gave rise to masochistic tendencies (likely a Freudian reaction which acted as a means of psychological fortitude), and this violent, sexually charged pathology provided the framework upon which the majority of his work would rest. One day, after being caught dressing up in his mother’s clothes, Bacon was disowned and sent away by his father, and he subsequently fled to London, surviving on the measly £3 a week of his mother’s trust fund, as well as any money made from petty crime and even prostitution throughout his teen years.
He eventually managed to save enough money to move to Paris, where he stayed for a number of years living with a friend and visiting all of the Parisian galleries which would inspire him onto his artistic path. At twenty he moved back to London and worked as an interior designer, as well as other minor jobs until his break came in his late twenties when 4 of his works which he’d done whilst still working on his interior decorating, were shown in the prestigious 1937 Young British Painters exhibition. Over the next few years he slowly gained notoriety, and by 1944, with the release of his infamous ‘three studies for figures at the base of a Crucifixion’ (see featured image) he had become one of the best regarded new artists in the country.
Bacon’s romantic life was turbulent to say the least, and he had relationships with many men throughout his life, but none had as much influence on his work as Peter Lacy, a retired pilot who he met in 1952. Lacy is said to have bordered on the psychopathic, and at one point is said to have thrown Bacon through a window with such force that his eye had to be sewn back into its socket. Yet despite the intensely violent nature of their relationship Bacon described Lacy as the love of his life, and their explosive relationship served as a primary influence for much of his later work including his seminal ‘three studies for a Crucifixion’ (1962) which enacts a brutal scene in the bedroom.
Expressionist or Surrealist?
Bacon is most frequently associated with the expressionists, although he was often approached to display work in surrealist exhibitions and his work is described by many critics as ‘biomorphic surrealism’. As we have already seen, there are undoubtedly surrealist tendencies to Bacon’s art, and these recurrent images hold the same psychological tethers to the past, the subjective iconographies which are so common to the symbolic works of surrealists like Dali or Ernst. Bacon was adamant that the haunting aspect to his work was ‘accidental’, and his description of his process seems undoubtedly surrealist: ‘[my work is contrived] not out of any conscious will… it has a life completely of its own. It lives on its own, like the image one’s trying to trap… [my process] unlocks the valves of feeling and therefore returns the onlooker to life more violently’ (Sylvester interview).
We might view the paintings of Bacon as being something akin to an exorcism, a form of purification, an externalisation of the very deepest and darkest repressions which weighed so heavily on his tormented psyche. What makes the work of Francis Bacon at once so harrowing and so profoundly important is that they express great truth, uninhibited truth, in all its grotesque hideousness, something only the greatest artists are able to accomplish.
I feel ever so strongly that an artist must be nourished by both his passions and his despairs… – Francis Bacon
NB: Featured image is Bacon’s ‘three studies for figures at the base of a Crucifixion’ (1944). Also be sure to watch the fantastic recent documentary on Francis Bacon, A Brush with Violence (2017) which can be viewed here on youtube.