How to spot a Francis Bacon painting
- Tate Liverpool
- 20 June 2016
The postwar painter created works featuring screaming popes and tortured figures. Here’s a guide to identifying some of the key stylistic motifs that recur in Bacon’s oeuvre.
Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms examines the artist's use of spacial structures and is at Tate Liverpool until 18 September, 50% off entry with a National Art Pass.
Triptych or diptych format
‘I see images in series. And I suppose I could go on long beyond the triptych and do five or six together, but I find the triptych is a more balanced unit.’
Francis Bacon had spent years as painter before he produced his breakthrough work, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion in 1944. It was the use of the triptych format that helped establish his own sense of artistry and style. Many of Bacon’s works are in the two-panel diptych or three-panel triptych format; formerly, the triptych was primarily used in altarpieces. This compositional device enabled Bacon to create a sense of narrative and movement to his works, and to employ another of his favourite stylistic emblems: religious iconography.
Bacon used religious motifs such as popes and the crucifixion as well as the triptych format, and also depicted scenes from Greek mythology as symbolic themes in many of his works. The painter was highly influenced by the work of the Old Masters and was dedicated to honouring the western tradition of painting. In 1953 Diego Velázquez's Portrait of Innocent X (1650) was ‘reinterpreted’ by Bacon in his Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X – a distorted, screaming version of Velázquez's masterpiece. Bacon created more than 45 versions of this throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. He never saw the original.
Geometry as a framing device
Bacon’s lone figures are usually set within geometric structures such as circles, triangles, rectangles and squares; sometimes one or a couple feature in a painting. Figures are framed within these abstract ‘rooms’, and create a sense of loneliness and entrapment around the central figure. This technique allows Bacon to convey perspective and space within an abstract model of painting.
The lone, screaming figure
In life, Bacon was a hugely charismatic, colourful character – yet his bold, isolated figures captured in violent and traumatised postures convey the artist’s bleak existential outlook. Bacon is perhaps one of the most important figurative painters in the 20th century; his raw, dark depictions of humanity moved portraiture away from idealised form, and borrowing heavily from abstraction and symbolism projected subjects as disturbed, anxious biomorphs writhing in both physical and psychological pain.
Flat colour fields
Bacon uses lots of black, navy, red, orange, yellow and purple in his paintings. Because he liked to paint on raw, unprimed canvas, his oil paints would soak in immediately and stain it. This technique was central to Bacon’s ability to create flat colour fields rather than a more painterly, brushstroke-laden canvas. The eye therefore falls to the key figure and the geometric framing device.