Abstract Canvas Prints No 50 : Francis Bacon
The motif of a human scream became central to the work of a more contemporary expressionistic artist: the great Irish painter Francis Bacon (1909–92).
He often referred to a movie still that he kept, taken from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925).
It depicts a screaming nurse on the Odessa steps, with face bloodied and spectacles broken.
The image helped inspire him to create one of the most important and valuable bodies of work in the second half of the twentieth century.
No picture sums up the tortured pain Bacon spent his life trying to express better than his Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953).
He was once dismissed by the British prime minister Margaret Thatcher as ‘the artist who paints those horrible pictures’.
He argued that it wasn’t his pictures that were horrible but the world that politicians like her had created.
Francis Bacon didn’t care for being called an Expressionist (he was), but he did care for Van Gogh. Passionately. Bacon once said that ‘painting is the pattern of one’s own nervous system being projected on canvas’, words which could easily have fallen from the lips of Vincent van Gogh.
In 1985 Bacon made a painting called An Homage to Van Gogh, an addition to the series of tributes to the Dutch genius he produced in 1956/7.
They were based on Van Gogh’s The Painter on the Road to Tarascon (1888).
The original was destroyed during the war, but for Bacon it represented two important facets of his artistic hero’s work.
The first was Van Gogh’s painterly style and colourful palette: his Expressionism.
The second was the romantic image that Bacon (along with most of us) felt compelled to create of Van Gogh: that of a penniless, unappreciated, sensitive genius, who forfeited all for art, making his own lonely way in the world: Modernism’s first martyr.
Two years after painting The Painter on the Road to Tarascon, Van Gogh was dead.
At just thirty-seven years old and in his creative prime, he died from wounds received when shooting himself in the chest two days earlier.
By his side was his adoring younger brother, Theo.
Within months Theo too was dead, having suffered a syphilis-induced mental and physical collapse.
It brought to an end a decade-long partnership that produced some of the greatest art that has ever been – or will ever be – produced.
Not, though, in the mind of his old friend and tormentor, Paul Gauguin.