Francis Bacon was missing from my life when I was young, although I didn’t know it.
Francis Bacon, an Irish artist known for his surrealist and disturbing work, is somewhat predictable as the choice for my favourite artist. Growing up, I was always interested in somewhat disturbing ideas and media. Although I was a fairly happy kid, I just had this innate attraction to horrific ideas and images, albeit through a childish lens – my favourite film was The Nightmare Before Christmas, and my favourite book was the Goosebumps version of Phantom of the Opera.
These interests were not deemed especially unusual, but the way I expressed them was. I particularly remember, at around the age of five or six, drawing a picture of a vampire with blood around its mouth. My teacher was, I suppose understandably, a little concerned about this, but I could only react with a sense of annoyance. I didn’t like the implications of her concern, that there were things I had to restrain myself from expressing, for the benefit of…who? What? So people could be more comfortable? I felt that would be lying somehow. I liked vampires! I wanted to draw them, I thought they were cool. Why couldn’t I express what I wanted to, or how the world was, even if it wasn’t perfect, or cute? This was something I often experienced but couldn’t quite articulate as a child – how strange it seemed to me that people sought to avoid anything dark or depressing.
I think my attraction to dark subject matter did partially come from personal lived circumstances – I moved countries twice as a young child, leading to feelings of loneliness, not quite belonging amongst the other children – as well as a kind of existentialism about the sheer size of the world. When I got older, I started to realise I was attracted to women, which I don’t think requires explanation of how it might bring some difficulties into a young person’s life.
Francis Bacon was also famously, messily, extravagantly, gay. When, at the age of 17, I opened a book on surrealist artists, the first thing I noticed after being hit in the gut by his Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion was the book’s mention of his homosexuality. Something about the immediate impact of the eerie figures combined with the focus on personal life hooked me in, and I began further research on both his art and him as a person.
Unlike me, Bacon had faced a deeper amount of trauma regarding his homosexuality. He had a self-described “difficult” relationship with his father, who kicked him out of the house at 17 when he caught the young Francis crossdressing. After that, he lived in London on limited funds from his family, traversing the gay underworld. The pain and torment of this early rejection, as well as of a man who lived through two World Wars, is in my view deeply felt in Bacon’s work, and I cannot relate to either of these experiences.
Still, Bacon represents an experience a lot of queer people have – the realisation that the constructs everyone lives by, gender or religion for example, are limited and created – although this doesn’t mean they don’t have weight or aren’t “real.” There is a benefit to society casting you out of some of its parts – you understand a little more about the cogs of identity we all live by and operate. Although in some respects positive, this experience can be stressful, as is the pain of rejection. Through Bacon’s surrealist approach, he conveys not only his own perception of a subject, but that of the subject themselves. He imbues in his paintings the aura that exists in each subject and situation, conveying the intersection of symbolic identification and experience.
Take for example, his famous painting Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X. Bacon’s screaming pope is imprisoned in bar-like, horizontal lines, a much darker image than Velásquez’s original. In his interpretation, Bacon not only depicts perhaps his complicated feelings surrounding his father’s recent death, but a clear criticism and defacement of the original patriarchal and stately depiction of the pope. Yet at the same time, a sense of visceral reality is felt here. I feel as a viewer that I am seeing the truth, particularly in the context of the original Velásquez. Bacon is not interested in conveying any sense of prettiness or respect for religious institutions and figures – but he is not unsympathetic to his subject either. His pope screams in pain, but the image simultaneously emits a sense of fear and oppressiveness onto the viewer. Thus the image of the pope is deconstructed; the religious figure here oppresses and is oppressed. But, although difficult, negative emotions must be embraced.
When I look at Bacon’s work, I, like the rest of the world, am intrigued by his incredible technique and his cryptic choices of subject matter and depiction. Yet I think it is this passionate embrace of darkness and existentialism, like they are old friends, that speaks to me most of all in his art. The embracing of the truth, ugly or not. And for that, the little girl drawing vampires and blood within me feels comforted that someone sees her.