The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is currently featuring a retrospective of the 20th century British/Irish artist Francis Bacon. Considered one of the most important artists of his time, Francis Bacon: From Picasso to Velázquez surveys more than six decades of the artist’s painting, displaying an impressive selection of his paintings alongside those of some of the Spanish and French masters who influenced him the most. This is one of the most daring exhibitions of Bacon’s work ever to be mounted and showcases many works never before displayed in public and offers an interesting insight into his work, especially later works which are in private collections.
This show reveals the importance that Bacon attached to tradition and allows visitors to grasp one of the keys to his creative impetus. Even though Bacon’s work embodies modernity and expresses the angst common to men of his time, he also boldly and ambitiously revisits and carries on the legacy of the great masters while providing referents to the culture of his day and age. The human figure is at the core of most of his compositions, which reflect a stark existentialist view of the individual. Bacon painted extraordinarily expressive portraits with a large dose of authenticity, which means being alive in all senses and with all its consequences. He sought to capture the mystery of life and reduce reality to its essence, synthesizing it in the guise of paint. Iberdrola’s support of this show on the British artist with Irish roots is part of our close partnership with the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, as well as our commitment to disseminating art and culture wherever we operate. I would like to congratulate everyone who has worked to put together this wonderfully broad and representative selection of paintings from Francis Bacon’s career. It is very gratifying for Iberdrola, in its role as a patron of the arts, to have contributed to materializing a project which allows us to further explore the oeuvre of an exceptional artist.
The exhibition seamlessly displays 80 works many large scale, including some of the most important and yet least exhibited paintings by this artist, alongside the works of the classic masters from French and Spanish culture who played a huge role in his career. Transgressive in both is life and his art, Bacon broke down many barriers that were deeply entrenched at the time, placing human beings in front of a mirror in which we could see ourselves in a raw, violent way. Francis Bacon was a fervent Francophile. He was an avid consumer of French literature by authors like Racine, Balzac, Baudelaire and Proust and passionate about the art of Picasso and Van Gogh, both of whom lived in France, and the painters who preceded them like Degas, Manet, Gauguin, Seurat and Matisse. Bacon lived in and frequently visited France and the Principality of Monaco. As an adolescent, he discovered Nicolas Poussin’s Massacre of the Innocents (1628–1629) near Chantilly, and in 1927 he had a revelatory encounter with Picasso’s work when he visited the exhibition Cent dessins par Picasso in the Paul Rosenberg Gallery in Paris, which, in fact, spurred him to decide to embark on his career as a painter. In 1946, he left London for Monaco, where he lived for three crucial years in his career, and where he would regularly return until 1990.
Bacon always regarded his retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1971 as the peak of his career, even though it came at one of the most tragic times of his life, just after the death of his partner, and despite the fact that he had held major retrospectives in London and elsewhere. Throughout his career, Francis Bacon continued to develop ever closer ties with Paris, as attested to by the portraits of his Parisian friends and that fact that he kept a studio in Le Marais until 1985. After his initial contact with Picasso’s oeuvre in the 1920’s and 1930’s, Bacon’s influence from Spanish culture is the most obvious in his obsession with the portrait of Pope Innocent X that Velázquez painted in 1650, which would serve as Bacon’s inspiration for more than 50 works. Curiously, Francis Bacon never saw this Velázquez painting, which hangs at the Doria Pamphilj Gallery in Rome, in person; when he had the chance to lay eyes on it during his visit to the Italian capital in 1954, he preferred instead to retain the reproductions in his memory instead of seeing the original painting. In addition to Velázquez, he was also fascinated by other classic Spanish painters such as Zurbarán, El Greco and Goya, whose paintings he fervently admired at Madrid’s Museo del Prado, a museum he asked to visit alone just a few years before his death after seeing the Velázquez retrospective held there in 1990. Francis Bacon died on a brief visit to Madrid in 1992, and even though he never had a permanent home in Spain, he was known to have made extended sojourns in Málaga and visits to Seville, Utrera and Madrid.
Born into a wealthy British family living in rural Ireland, a place of upheaval in the early 20th century, Francis Bacon was confronted with Pablo Picasso’s work in Paris’s Paul Rosenberg Gallery at the tender age of 17. Bacon himself revealed that this signaled his shift towards a career in art; this is attested to in some of his earliest works, such as Composition (Figure) (1933), which clearly references Picasso’s works from the 1920’s, especially Las casetas, the series depicting deformed bathers holding a key, an object that fascinated Picasso and seduced Bacon as well. Starting with absolutely no technical training, Bacon gradually entered the world of art and quickly assimilated what other creators near him, such as Roy de Maistre, were able to teach him. The mere handful of paintings that have survived from this time—Bacon was dissatisfied with most of them and destroyed them—attest to his early influence from Analytical and Synthetic Cubism, and from Picasso’s biomorphic Cubism, which would lead Bacon to develop a language of his own. This vocabulary garnered recognition for the first time in 1933, when the critic Herbert Read reproduced Bacon’s Crucifixion (1933) in a privileged spot, opposite Picasso’s Bather (1929) in his publication Art Now: An Introduction to the Theory of Modern Painting and Sculpture. Even though Bacon received this recognition at the start of his career and at a After World War II, in which Francis Bacon worked in a civil capacity because of his chronic asthma, the artist’s work was once again recognized by critics and the public. He also drew the attention of gallery owner Erica Brausen, who soon exhibited his paintings in different European countries. In 1948, the Museum of Modern Art of New York purchased its first Bacon work from Brausen. During this period, the artist created a new universe of images conceived via literature, film, art, and his own life. Bacon approached this iconography using a unique language, reflecting human vulnerability with utter rawness. Somewhere between human and animal—as in some of Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs—the figures begin to appear enclosed and entrapped in cages or cubes. Bacon used this device to focus the viewer’s attention on the figures, which were smudged or disfigured, reduced to strokes of grayish and bluish colors reminiscent of El Greco and the drawings of Alberto Giacometti, which Bacon preferred over his sculptures. Later in this period, Bacon also paid homage to Vincent van Gogh, whom he evoked through his loose brushwork and bright palette, which contrast with the dark figures in other paintings. Bacon was fascinated by the way Van Gogh veered away from the rules and literal reality in favor of expressiveness.
Until 08/ 01/2017 Guggenheim Museum Bilbao