The unimaginably expensive prices works of art go for these days may leave those who pay attention to the art market either gratified or depressed. The most expensive painting in the world right now is Three Studies of Lucian Freud, which was bought for an incredible 142.4 million dollars at a New York Sotheby’s auction this past November.
Maybe it is appropriate that the painter of the most expensive painting in the world lived a life of excess. Francis Bacon, noted Irish expressionistic post-war painter of the dark, violent, and disturbing lived a personal and artistic life fueled by alcohol, sex and chaos as much as by a search for unconventional beauty. The pure intensity of his works was matched by the intensity of his work habits and lifestyle.
Here are some facts about Francis Bacon:
He believed a messy environment was conducive to creativity:
Francis Bacon’s studio is preserved in the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin. Why, might you ask? Well, it is infamously messy, so much so that it garnered a significant reputation and became a symbol for the troubled genius artist. This might be a bit unfair. Bacon believed that his creativity came out of chaos, although he always qualified that it was a kind of organized chaos. His studio was exploding with paint tubes, containers, brushes, palettes, images for inspiration and general detritus. Paint covered the walls where he tested out various colors. He said that a clean studio made it hard for him to work. In his words, chaos “bred images.”
He worked exclusively from photographs:
When people think of portrait painters they usually think of a live model sitting in a studio, trying not to move as a painter painstakingly depicts every facet of their appearance. That is not how Bacon liked to do it. He didn’t believe in live models and instead used photographs as the basis of his memorable images. For his portraits he would ask his sitters to take still photographs of themselves from different angles. The end result resembled police mug shots that were strewn in the huge piles of source material lying on the studio floor. Bacon would take the photographs and create studies which he would use to make the final painting, either as a single image or a triptych as in the case of Three Studies of Lucian Freud.
Bacon also used photographs as inspiration for many of his other paintings. One of his most famous series (which he actually didn’t think was much of a success) was his recreation of Velasquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X. Of Bacon’s many influences, Velasquez was one of the strongest . He took the image of the Pope and meshed it with a famous film still depicting a screaming bloody woman from Alfred Eisenstein’s early silent film classic Battleship Potemkin, amongst the most memorable images from the history of film. The result was one of his most classic and unforgettable collections of paintings: a ghostly, haunting, screaming pope- an image of terror and violence.
Bacon was very interested in motion and as such used the sequential photographs of Eadweard Muybridge as inspiration for many of his figures. Many of the twisting, convoluted, and often disturbing contortions of the figures come from how Muybridge recorded the physical motion of both normal and disabled human and animal bodies. Bacon even used images from radiology textbooks in order to treat physicality in a real and objective way. Much of this objective observation made Bacon’s images appear tactile and real despite their more abstract aspects. He saw the human body as a machine made up of meat and bone, amorphous and twisted.
He lived a life of excess:
Much like the subject of my last post, Hunter S. Thompson, Bacon lived life to the fullest. He would eat big meals several times a day, he took drugs to keep himself awake or to put him to sleep, he drank excessively. He was a notorious for staying out until late at night, and when his friends were getting tired he would beg them to come back to his place and drink more. He loved drinking in his studio, at his favorite pubs and clubs, and had a penchant for gambling at casinos.
Bacon used his alcoholism to his advantage. He said that drinking loosened him up and allowed him more versatility. He saw art as a game, similar to his partying, allowing for distraction from the troubles of his life. He even took hangovers as positive, believing that when his body was giving way to effects of too much drink, his brain would become a frizzle of energy.
He could even talk convincingly about his art while absolutely plastered:
He believed in the importance of regular work:
He partied hard but he worked hard too. He thought that inspiration was a positive side effect of getting up every day to the job of painting. He would start when the sun came up and continue until afternoon when the feasting and partying would begin again. Getting to sleep was always a problem for him.
Despite his hard-hitting lifestyle, he managed not to get very overweight, and he lived a relatively long time, dying in 1989 at the age of 83.
His figures may have looked distorted or ugly but he didn’t see them that way:
Margaret Thatcher infamously called Bacon “that man who paints those dreadful pictures.” She was not alone in that opinion. It is hard to look at something that appears so ugly in a conventional sense and to try to find beauty in it. However, there is beauty in ugliness (just as there is ugliness in beauty.) It is true that Bacon was interested in the dark side of existence but it was a darkness that he embraced as opposed to trying to repel. The theme of death pervades his work. He always said that death is part of life, that the two could be separated.
He knew that many would think that his strangely contorted representations of his sitters were insulting, even attacks upon them. He thought they might have been right. Nonetheless he felt that he was being honest. Honesty was important to him.
He engaged in what he called a “pitiless analysis” of his subjects, objectifying them in order to find new methods of description. Nonetheless, any meaning in the work was always tied to his search for a beauty within formalism. In this way his images of violence and death were never politicized. He was no Picasso or Goya. Instead, they were existential.
It didn’t matter much to him if people liked his work anyway. If they didn’t, he knew he was doing something right.
He believed in the power of the unconscious:
Bacon saw the unconscious as a force for creation. He said that he didn’t think out his work but instead let it flow through him and that he allowed his artworks to grow naturally. He did not believe in doing preparation drawings. All the work needed to be done on the canvas. He also preferred not to use the prepared front of the canvas but the unprepared back. Then you couldn’t make mistakes as the unprepared canvas did not allow for alteration but instead forced you to push the paintings in new and unforeseen directions.
Bacon went so far to say that he had nothing to express in his paintings. They did not come from the place of an artist making decisions about his form or anything of the kind. Instead they were an automatic response to whatever felt right in the moment. They were as much about a feeling as they were about imagery. Bacon was always looking to concentrate as much psychic energy into a single image as possible. He never felt like he achieved his goal, but this is probably why his images seem so strikingly claustrophobic or hermetic.
He believed in the importance of chance:
The amazing price that Three Studies of Lucian Freud fetched may not be a surprise in today’s hyper-over-valuated art market. Nevertheless, I am glad that if it had to be someone whose art would be garnering such prices, it would an artist like Bacon. There are very few with the scope of vision, drive, or talent he possessed that are recognized by the art market.
It would however be different from Bacon’s point of view. His interest in the unconscious also corresponded to his interest in gambling and chance. He always thought that an artwork worth making involved taking risks if it was meant to accomplish anything at all. Even after his work had become chic in the 1980’s, all he could say was, “that’s luck.” That’s probably the same thing he would have said today upon hearing the news of his painting’s record breaking sale. If nothing else, this is evidence that real vision and talent can still be appreciated even in an industry as changeable, cynical, and superficial as the art world.