Francis Bacon was born on October 28, 1909 in Dublin Ireland . During the time period that he was brought up in violence was an everyday occurrence (Russell, 14). This is important to know as much of Bacon’s work includes images of human violence. As a child Bacon had a feminine manner and an odd habit of dressing in women’s clothing (Russell, 15). This only added fuel to the fires of the already turbulent relationship between Francis and his father. Francis received very little formal education and literally none in the form of art education, therefore “he developed an awareness of life that was quite independent of formal education,” (Russell, 14), which is to say that he developed his own way of looking at things and the world from a very young age. The family moved back and forth from Ireland to England giving him no sense of routine or familiarity as a child, which is very important when growing up (Russell, 13). For the most part Francis spent his time with his grandmother or great-grandmother, (Russell, 14), which probably only increased his femininity and therefore, his father’s aggravation towards Francis. Growing up Francis was not a stranger to “strangeness,” (Russell, 15), which is reflected in the odd or strange subject matter he would choose later in his painting. Francis and his father never got a long, in fact he remembers his father as being a “highly strung, intolerant, dictatorial and censorious character, much given to moralizing and to arguments that ended in lasting discord,” (Russell, 13). His father also “set a rather puritanical tone, and one that Bacon found difficult to live up to,” it was so hard for him to live up to, in fact, that his father banished Francis at sixteen from his family’s home for “trying on his mother’s underwear,” (Russell, 15). It is important to understand this aspect of Francis’s upbringing, the relationship between Francis and his father, because it will be reflected later on in Bacon’s work.
As far as art goes “Bacon despises illustration and does not like his paintings to be given any one interpretation,” (Russell, 120). There are at least two interpretations to each of his paintings, more than that depending on how they are looked at, but the main two are what he is consciously trying to convey to on looker and what his unconscious is trying to express about Francis’s own personal life. In John Russell’s book Francis Bacon, the idea of “unconscious scanning,” is discussed, which is “active but unfocused attention as a result of which we make discoveries and establish correspondences which are denied to ‘normal’, concentrated, focused attention,” (Russell, 45). Through unconscious scanning the artist gets to avoid “defensive rigidity,” which is basically the conscious fear of letting personal feelings or happenings out into the open, because if those things were let out then one would become vulnerable. Defensive rigidity is the opposite of what an artist should do, because an artist needs “not to force, not to anticipate, not to tighten,” (Russell, 45), or in the words of Bacon himself, “If only people were free enough to let everything in, something extraordinary might come of it,” (Russell, 59). But when defensive rigidity is blocked out then the artist is left with what is called “the chaos of the unconscious… a serial structure of supreme beauty and complexity; and that is accessible only to unconscious vision,” (Russell, 45).
The theory of ‘unconscious scanning’ and ‘defensive rigidity,’ found here in an art criticism book, is confirmed within the studies of psychology. Sigmund Feud is a famous psychological for his work with psychoanalysis, which “involves the free association of ideas, and their interpretation by the patient… to discover these interpreted events and to grasp their significance to the patient, linking aspects of the patient’s historical past with the presence relationship,” (Farlex). Within Freud’s work refers to the unconscious as “a reservoir within one’s mental state which contains elements of which one is unaware, but which may to some extent be brought into preconscious and conscious awareness, or inferred from aspects of behavior,” (Farlex) which is very similar to ‘unconscious scanning’. Also an idea of Freud’s that is very much like ‘defensive rigidity’ is his view of “resistance,” which is defined as “a process by which unconscious elements are forcibly kept out of the conscious awareness by an active repressive force,” (Farlex). But, as previously stated, because Francis Bacon is an artist he has trained with self to not over think or let anything out, to absorb everything, which is why his paintings allow us an insight into his unconscious as well as his on-the-surface meaning.
It is in Francis Bacon’s painting that the art of unconscious scanning is truly mastered, and all unbeknownst to him. Bacon’s paintings “produce a side image as well as a direct image, and they act as a shadow into the past, a shadow which streaks backward into the collective memory,” (Russell, 87). This is something that was undoubtedly important to Bacon himself, because he always wanting the act of looking at paintings to be “an activity in which the whole psyche is engaged,” (Russell, 89), which is definitely true for his work because there is the meaning on the surface that most people would get just by looking at the painting, but a whole other and intense meaning can be found in them through a little research. This is precisely why his paintings are sometime viewed as “mythic translation[s] of our inward structure which move us to the extent to which they throw light on ourselves while at the same time resolving our contradictions,” (143). Bacon, while a very private person is able to communicate his feelings or thoughts unconsciously through painting, because he believes, “’there is an area of the nervous system to which the texture of paint communicates more violently than anything else,’” (Bacon/Russell, 32). Bacon’s paintings include such deeply personal things that he just couldn’t force himself to talk about really, because he felt that “if you can talk about it, why paint it?” (The Painter’s Keys). Also that, “all of our actions take their hue from the complexion of the heart,” (The Painter’s Keys) especially the form of art for the artist.
Painting 1946 coincides with this theory, as is “[throws] enough ideas for half a dozen pictures,” (Russell, 57). It is “an objective, accurate and verifiable account of society in certain of its aspects,” but the fact that it was “arrived at by a process to which both unconscious and lateral thinking contributed,” (Russell, 47), suggests that there is another, more personal, meaning behind it. On the surface, Painting 1946 is making a statement about World War Two where “all was spelt out, right down to the dictator’s yellow buttonhole,” (Russell, 57) and it is theorized that the faceless mouth on the groom-like figure is supposed to represent Mussolini(Russell, 57). It is also said to believe that Painting 1946 was “one of the few in which he came near to realizing his full intention – in which three of his preoccupations are mysterious conjugated: war, meat, dictator,” (Russell, 57). It is definitely not a stretch to think that he would be trying to comment on the war through the use of this painting. He grew up through out the times of World War One, was old enough to understand what was happening in World War Two, and as said previously, violence was not uncommon for child of his era to witness. With this all being said, his fascination with violence and the war can be easily understood.
But through his use of unconscious scanning and the use of chance, or rather the “difference between what is loosely called ‘pure chance’ and what is, rather, a reliance upon involuntary prompting from within,” (Russell, 47), he is conveying another meaning. Take notice of the painting in general how “the enclosures also [assert] the figures as a focal point… by [the use of] various compositional devices and even… by the use of arrows,” (Current Biography Yearbook (1985), 15), meaning the arrows painted in the background draw the onlooker’s attention to the ‘groom’ figure. Francis wanted “to make the interior so much there that the form will speak more eloquently,’” (Russell, 133). Even this quote could be taken more than one way; he wanted the “interior” – the furnishings of the room to add to what the figures in the painting were saying, or he was wanted the actual figure’s interior to add to what he was saying (what appears to be white garland hanging in the upper part or the back ground can double as the horse’s innards). The ‘groom’ figure in the war theory is said to be representing Mussolini or the “dictator”, but as previously stated Francis Bacon remembered his father as being “dictatorial” or a dictator. Therefore, the ‘groom’ figure could be representing his father, more specifically a certain situation concerning his father. Two unusual and unfortunate things happened between Francis and his father as a result of a groom (one who is employed to help take care of horses). One is that on one of the occasions where Francis’s father caught him dressing in women’s clothing he had their groom whip Francis with the horsewhip. Two is that although it is generally accepted that Francis was banished from home for dressing in his mother’s underwear, there is another explanation; Francis’s father “banished him at sixteen from the family home, reportedly because of his sexual indulgences with the groom in the racehorse stables,” (Russell, 14). So the ‘groom’ figure could also be symbolizing the painful memory of that particular beating of the groom himself or of his banishment. Moreover, it is rumored that in an interview Francis Bacon admitted to having been sexually attracted to his father, giving yet another meaning behind the groom; the sexual connection between himself, his father, and the groom. Also taking another look at the quote on this painting, speaking of its connection to World War Two, “all was spelt out, right down to the dictator’s yellow buttonhole,” (Russell, 57), the flower painted in the “dictator’s yellow buttonhole” is a yellow carnation and yellow carnations are said to mean “refusal and disappointment” (Oliveri). This is easily connected to Bacon’s father. He was disappointed in his son for the way he was, the way he acted, and he therefore refused his son and banished him.
Also in Painting 1946, around the ‘groom’ figure is in what looks like a cage, and this is keeping up with Bacon’s habit of using “wirelike lines that made [the figures] appear to be trapped in aloneness in glass box,” (The Current Biography Yearbook, 15) or to give “the look of a general bareness: half studio, half condemned cell,” (Russell, 19). In accepting the groom figure is a reference to his father than the connection to the groom figure and the cage is not a hard one to make; having been banished from his family home and never feeling really comfortable or appreciated or stable in any environment with anyone, he would have felt alone and half in his studio, half in a condemned cell. This would also go on to connect with the horse that is in a crucified-like position in the back ground; someone or something being crucified would feel really hurt, and ashamed, two feelings Francis probably felt when being banished from his family, especially when taking in consideration why he was banished. Also, the fact that the figure being crucified looks like a horse’s body connects it directly to the incident of his banishment, and the groom.
Now notice in the ‘horse’s’ left shoulder blade there is what appears to be a white swan painted within the bones of the shoulder blade, the beak is pointing up toward where the neck would be and the body of the bird curves with the horse’s spinal cord. Swans are believed to be associated with “wisdom and creativity” according to the Greek myths, which considered “that bird related to the muses,” (Khandro Net). The swan is painted above the ‘groom’ figure so Bacon is saying that the swan is above his father or that because of his own creativity and wisdom, and help from the muses – whom gave him the gift of painting - the swan has helped him rise above his father, or become better than his father, sort of the ultimate revenge. Also in Greek mythology “when Apollo was born at Delos the event was marked with the flights of circling swans,” (Khandro Net), this is important to know because the Greek God Apollo had many male lovers. Therefore, the presence of the swan and its involvement with Apollo could be a connection to the fact that Francis himself was homosexual. Moreover, it could be connected to the fact that because Francis was homosexual he was banished from home. In painting it is believed that “the difficult thing is to use animal form in such a way that it returns the observer to human form and gives him a heightened understanding of it,” (Russell, 48). This is certainly accomplished in Painting 1946, the swan starts as a swan, reminds the observer of Francis Bacon, and gives a heightened understanding of him for it.
In the back ground of Painting 1946 there are blind tassels that in fact look like drooping tulips. These tassels are a reoccurring image in Francis Bacon’s works. But the fact that these particular ones resemble tulips makes them more interesting than most tassels. Tulips are a “symbol of avowed love,” (S.F. Heart). This can be connected many times within the painting; symbolizing Francis’s avowed love for the groom maybe, or men in general, or his avowed love for his father, or his wish for his father to love him, as a paternal figure, or maybe even other wise.
Francis Bacon once said that “’fact leaves its ghost,’” (Russell, 144). When looking at this quote in regards to Painting 1946 the “fact” is the War World Two references within the painting, and the ghost or shadow, or the underlining image within it is the connections to the painting and Francis’s personal life. He also said in a 1975 interview with Time “I’ve had a very hypnotic and curious [life] – being homosexual I have lived with the most marvelously disastrous people,” (The Current Biography Yearbook, 16). This can connect to the groom and Francis’s relationship with him, as a result of Francis being homosexual, or it can connect to the his relationship with his father and how that was affected by him being homosexual.
In 1962 Francis Bacon did a three part series of paintings called ‘Three Studies for a Crucifixion’. Now it might sound as if these paintings were meant to connect to some biblical reference or are meant to symbolize Jesus’s crucifixion, but that simply isn’t true. In fact, “’a crucifixion [in Bacon’s painting] is not a descriptive title, and still less is it a reference to an actual event. It is rather a generic name for an environment in which bodily harm is done to one or more persons and one or more persons gather to which,’” (Russell in Current Biography Yearbook, 14). Also in true Bacon fashion, within these paintings “he distorts their features, as a candid camera might do, in a way that intensifies the reality of human character,” (The Current Biography Yearbook, 16). But, as always, there is more than one way to interpret these paintings.
In the first ‘Study of a Crucifixion’ what initially catches the eye is the hurt, bloody, distorted, corpse like looking figure in the bottom of the painting and the two clownish looking men standing there looking at it. On the surface this goes right along with Bacon’s other paintings of crucifixion, people watching others getting hurt. There is this tortured body lying there and the other figures are doing nothing for it, just gawking at it. It can be seen how these could also be related to war. There are innocent people dying, from both sides of a war, while others watch and do nothing as the war wages on.
Also, this painting and the idea behind it can easily connect to Francis's personal life. There were more than two people in Francis’s family, more than just him and his father. He was brought up one out of five, and his mother was around, along with his grandmother and great-grandmother, as mentioned before. So there were seven other people standing around watching, not doing anything as “war” raged on between Francis and his father, even as his father metaphorically “killed” him by banishing him, they did nothing. His family became the people standing around watching while the figure gets hurt and tortured, in his case, by misunderstanding.
Through out Francis Bacon’s life he was in and around “an atmosphere of violence on a human scale, man against discernible man, which [stayed, for him a] prime ingredient of life,” (Russell, 16), this is something, again, that is obviously reflected in his work and his flare for painting violent, gruesome scenes. But aside from the political connections and parallels, his painting also connected to him and his life, and the Second ‘Study for a Crucifixion’ is no exception. The most obvious object within this painting in the mutilated dead body lying on the couch in the center of the painting, but the body and the little things painted within it are representing something much more positive than expected.
Of the three studies, the second is the one in which Francis used the color white most often. Now white “can represent a successful beginning,” (QSX). Francis used white in this painting to represent a successful new beginning in the after life for our dead friend. When applying this to Francis’s life, remember how the first ‘Study for a Crucifixion’ told of the pain and awkwardness of being banished by his father, while his other family members watched. Now the second includes symbols of “a successful beginning,” which is to show that after he was banished, when Francis got used to be out on his own, he was enjoying a successful new beginning. This is confirmed in his biography. After being banished he spent the next few years between Paris and Berlin , which were supposedly the best years of his life, and then he began work as an interior designer, and eventually a painter. Allows notice how the arrow in the back ground of Painting 1946 is pointing down, while the blinds in this painting seem to be forming an arrow that is pointing up.
Also within the Second ‘Study for a Crucifixion’ on the left hand side of the dead body there is a white brush stroke that very much resembles a snake. Now, snakes have many different meanings, one of which is a symbol of “transformation. Snakes are often seen as symbols of life, death, and rebirth,” or the “psychic awareness of the transition from this life to the next,” (Surf’s Up). The dead body in the painting is obviously transitioning from this life to the next, in a literal sense, so that is a clear connection. But it also applies to Francis; he is transitioning from his not so good life with his family, who didn’t seem to really understand him or care for him all that much, to the open world where he was free to be himself, explore interests, and succeed. More over, “snakes are also seen as symbols representing evil. The Bible uses the symbol of the serpent in the Garden of Eden to represent Satan,” (Surf's Up). The snake was painted on a dead body in the painting, a dead body that appears to have died through a very painful and torturous murder, which obviously is an evil thing and would have been committed by an evil person. But this also may be alluding to Francis viewing his father as an evil person for banishing him, with out even trying to understand him. However, “in other cases the snake is seen as a phallic symbol,” (Surf’s Up). This is pretty evidently a connection to the fact that Francis Bacon was in fact homosexual. But it could also relate to his rumored sexual attraction to his father, or to the reason why he was banished.
If the second ‘Study for a Crucifixion’ is flipped over it can be seen that down by where the dead body’s feet should be there is what appears to be a decapitated duck’s head, this is important to look at for further analysis of the painting and Francis Bacon’s life. Ducks are a “symbol for a resourceful person,” because they “can elude their enemies in many ways, either by flying, running, swimming, or diving for cover,” (House of Names). This fact relates to Francis Bacon in more ways than one. To survive right after being banished he “existed by odd jobs of a fugitive sort, gambled a good meal, and seemed not to be pushing himself to go anywhere in particular,” (Russell, 29), a resourcefulness that he learned from his father. Also he had habit of using his youthful allure to attract older and wealthier lovers to take care of him, again a sign of his resourcefulness, this time one that he acquired on his own.
The first thing that grabs the observer’s attention in the third ‘Study for a Crucifixion’ is the dead body in the glass case, with it insides and liquids spilling out. It is interesting, because in a conversation Bacon was quoted using “a phrase from Aeschylus about ‘the reek of human blood smiling out,’” (Russell, 48) to describe the third ‘Study for a Crucifixion. On the surface, this one, as many of his other paintings can be seen as making a statement on the war going on, how the cultures involved feel like their whole lives are being put on display for the other, that nothing is theirs anymore or personal, because the opposing country is so involved in what they are doing, as it is in any war. But it saying something completely different for Francis, it is discussing his joy, but at the same time his misery, that he receives as a result of being a painter. “Bacon himself is for much of his life a self-committed prisoner, in a room, doubling as both jailer and prisoner, condemned man and prosecutor, hermit and fugitive,” (131). He is a slave to his work, so he put himself in that position, but because he put himself in that position he is alone and miserable and disconnected from the world, and the more he puts himself in the position the more he finds that he is only comfortable in that position, this is shown through the use of the white bone circle painted around the glass case, because the color “white means safety” and the bone circle is being used to protect the case, as his room protects him. But he is an artist and what he does is so personal and, obviously, can say so much about his life, that he feels like he life is on display, which is horrible because he only feel truly comfortable in that room, in that “condemned cell” (Russell, 19). Then notice the black shadowy figure in the bottom of the painting, this is put there to show his fear of the unknown or of a bad consequence coming about if he leaves his comfort level, this can be confirmed when taking in consideration what the color black means it “is a mysterious color associated with fear and the unknown,” (QSX). So his mention of “’the reek of human blood smiling out,” is referring to the liquids flowing out the bottom of the case in the third ‘Study for a Crucifixion’ because it is escaping the display, he thinks he’s getting away and hiding his life from his observers, or “the creatures who gather as ghouls round any scene of human degradation,” (Russell, 11).
One of the colors used most in the ‘Three Studies for a Crucifixion’ is red. “Red is widely used to indicate danger,” (QSX) which would relate to Francis’s belief that it would be dangerous for him to let his inner feelings or thoughts out, consciously, anyway or for him to start a new life outside the room and the constant cycle of work that he has created for himself. Also “red is used to indicate courage,” (QSX), while he does it a subtle, unconscious way he is letting the world into his life and the way he thinks, which is very courageous. “Dark red is associated with… rage, anger, … courage, longing… and wrath,” the rage and anger would connect to his bitterness and ill feelings still aimed at his father, while the courage and longing may connected to the want to not always have to be in a “condemned cell”. Red also “evokes erotic feelings,” which is hinting at his sexuality. One more thing about red, “it enhances human metabolism, increases respiration rate, and raises blood pressure,” (QSX) this would ensure that not only are the observers’ entire psyches involved, but that their entire bodies were also, and that maybe they would get a small taste of what it is like for the figure in the painting.
Orange is another color included in this series of paintings. What is really interesting about orange is that it “increases oxygen supply to the brain, produces an invigorating effect, and stimulates mental activity,” (QSX), this will allow Francis’s wish of his observer’s entire psyches to be involved while looking at his paintings, to become a reality. Also “to the human eye, orange is a very hot color, so it gives off the sensation of heat,” (QSX) very similar to the embarrassed hotness one feels when they know they are being watch or are humiliated, as Francis and all the figures in these three paintings are. “Dark orange means deceit and distrust,” which connects to the feelings of distrust after the people who were supposed to love him the most, his family, turned their backs on him. Orange is also “symbolic of strength and endurance,” (QSX) because even though he may have gone through an awful lot in his early life, he was strong and endured life on his own to push his way through and to succeed as a painter. Finally “red orange” can mean “sexual passion,” (QSX) which could, again, being hinting to the fact that he is homosexual.
Green is a color that Francis Bacon used only in one of the three ‘Studies for a Crucifixion,’ and that is the third. “Green, as opposed to red, means safety,” (QSX), which obviously connects to the fact that Francis is comfortable in his “glass box” or “condemned cell” because painting is what he is good at and enjoys doing. Also, in consideration of the on the surface war meaning to this painting, maybe, as sad as this may sound, he incorporated green into this painting because when someone dies in a war than at the very least the family can be sure of where they are and that they are in some way “safe” and at ease. “Dark green is associated with ambition… and jealousy,” both of these can be related to the war, and Francis Bacon. A soldier in war would have the ambition to do well in the war and make his family and country proud, and make it home safely. Francis Bacon had the ambition of becoming a great painter. A soldier in war would be jealous of a man allowed to go home, or the men who stayed home. Francis Bacon would be jealous of someone who wasn’t such a slave to there profession.
Black is the final prominent color in these three paintings. “Black denotes strength and authority; it is considered to be a very formal, elegant, and prestigious color,” (QSX) Francis loved to have strength and authority over and within his paintings, and his messages of war and the like are obviously very strong. Also “black is the color grief,” (QSX) which affects many people lives when there is a war going on, but Francis also had to go through the grief of losing his family from his life. “Combined with red or orange - other very powerful colors – black gives a very aggressive color scheme,” this is interesting because in all three ‘Studies for a Crucifixion’ black is with red and orange and it is clearly intended to be very aggressive. All three of them are making aggressive statements.
In all of Francis Bacon’s painting there is a clear-on-the-surface meaning, but when dug deeper into the painting reveals completely separate information on the artist’s life. This is accomplished by Francis allowing “everything in” and allowing his unconscious, as well as his conscious to play a role in his paintings. This gives the multi-layered and interesting and intriguing art work that he is known and loved for.