“I think art is an obsession with life and after all, as we are human beings, our greatest obsession is with ourselves”
Francis Bacon’s first surviving nude painting dates from 1949. The painting shows a man with his back to the viewer, behind whom we can see a smooth surface, which might be curtains. His backbone stands out from his body, similar to an animal’s ribcage, reminiscent of the back of the figure depicted in After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself (ca. 1890─95), a Degas work that Bacon deeply admired.
Four years later, the artist painted two nude men together for the first time, an image which could not be shown in public in England, where homosexuality was still a crime. In Bacon’s nudes, especially those rendered after Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962)—a turning point in his career—, isolated figures in everyday poses predominate, and the painter transforms them until they are virtually unrecognizable, twisting their bodies in an almost animal-like way as if they were carnal sculptures in the round that revealed all their angles in a single glance, in an attempt to reinvent the portrait. In some cases, the sex of the nudes is ambiguous; in others, it is very clear.
Bacon admired the work of Rodin; he saved pictures of his sculptures and made annotations on his figures. The preparatory bronze shown here was made by Rodin as a memorial to James Abbott McNeill Whistler. The works by Whistler and John Singer Sargent in this gallery reflect the influence of Spanish art on British painting, a legacy that sometimes reached Bacon through the filter of the great masters of Edwardian England.
These Bacon paintings are based on the photographs of Eadweard Muybridge, and some of them on the photographs that the painter commissioned from John Deakin, which portrayed Bacon’s close friends. In these nudes, which are characterized by their extraordinary intensity, Bacon tends to depict the main figure in isolation. He rarely worked in the presence of the sitter but instead drew from the photographs he had commissioned from Deakin, whom he gave very precise instructions on the poses which echoed some of the poses in historical works or in Muybridge’s images.
* David Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon 1962–1979, Interview 2 – 56:57