Whilst looking through old photographs on my phone recently, I was reminded of the truly spell-binding Francis Bacon oil painting that I saw on display at the Ulster Museum in January; entitled Head II, completed 1949. Without question, Head II by Francis Bacon (1949) is one of the most disturbing paintings I have ever seen, but it is the disconcerting quality to this work which is definitive of the painterly style which has made Bacon one of the most celebrated artists of the last century.
As part of a series of six portraits, Head II is an intensely psychological work which takes a rather unorthodox approach to its portrayal of the human form. Though we would assume the eponymous ‘head’ to be a human one, there is something unquestionably bestial to its presentation. I was intrigued to learn from the accompanying description plaque of the painting that Bacon often studied zoological photographs and adapted and worked some of the forms and shapes he found in them into his portraits. It is clear that Head II has been influenced by animal forms, particularly in the presentation of the head’s prominent, projected jaws which bear startlingly white teeth. Francis Bacon is recorded as having said that ‘I would like, in my arbitrary way, to bring one nearer to the actual human being’, and there is no doubt that this is what he has set out to achieve in Head II; the predominantly grey and black palette and rather morbid subject matter of this work are effective in conveying the darker side to the human psychology, that is, the inner pain and suffering endured by the mind of the individual.
Some may say that perfectionism is the mark of a great artist, if this is true, then Francis Bacon must be one of the very best painters ever to have existed. Bacon is said to have cut through over one hundred of his paintings which he felt to be irredeemable as art works. Although technically incomplete works, these slashed paintings are among the most famous works in Bacon’s artistic repertoire, and have even commanded extremely high sums of money in recent years. In 2011 the Channel 4 programme Four Rooms featured one of Bacon’s slashed canvases, the owner of which managed to sell it to a professional dealer for forty-eight thousand pounds. These amazing auction results are evidence of the nature of the contemporary art market, that is, that the persona of the artist has become worth much more than the painting itself; now, the most important aspect of an art work is the name of its artist, and as long as it can be associated with a name as eminent as ‘Francis Bacon’, it can demand a very handsome price tag.
Undoubtedly, Bacon’s most famous work is his painted triptych Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969) which made headlines in 2013 when it broke the record for the highest price ever paid for an artwork at auction, selling for 142 million dollars. This triptych depicts the artist’s close friend and fellow painter, Lucian Freud, in three different stances seated on a chair enclosed within a metal frame. Bacon’s paintings are characterised by their bizarre distortion of the human form, and Three Studies of Lucian Freud is a perfect of example of this unique style of the artist’s; in each depiction the subject’s face is contorted in a different manner, having the effect of conveying three rather complex and intimidating facial expressions. With each canvas measuring 198cm x 147.5cm, this work is a colossal piece, its grand scale further emphasising the unnerving atmosphere evoked by the painting’s lurid ochre walls. In the contemporary art market, recent auction results have proved that bigger is always better and therefore it seems only reasonable to presume that the overwhelming scale of this work is one of the agents behind its sky-high sale price. Of course, this is not the only factor. As art journalist Jonathan Jones has noted, the extraordinarily high figure that this work achieved is down to its choice of subject, the formidable Lucian Freud, who is renowned as one of the modern masters of twentieth-century art. It has often been debated if this work merits its multi-million pound price tag, but whether you agree or disagree, it cannot be denied that Three Studies of Lucian Freud is a superb example of Bacon’s artistic ingenuity and extraordinarily unique painterly style.
As many critics have testified, it is only matter of time before Bacon’s world record is broken, however I have no doubt that it will be a long time before Bacon’s status as one of the world’s most talented modern artists is truly negated. Along with his phenomenal painterly ability and his innovatory, radical approach to the portrait, Bacon’s work takes an intense gaze into the human mind which, I think, will make them long stand as some of the most intriguing and challenging art works of the Twentieth Century.