The truth in Francis Bacon’s work

Published 19 November 2021

Ahead of the exhibition ‘Francis Bacon: Man and Beast’ Jenny Saville RA reflects on the profound impact Bacon has had on her life and work.

  • From the Winter 2021 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Jenny Saville RA was one of five artists invited to respond to the exhibition, Francis Bacon: Man and Beast alongside Rose English, Isaac Julien RA, Christina Quarles and Raqib Shaw in the RA Magazine.

    Francis Bacon is always with me. Reproductions of his paintings are scattered all over my studio. Turn in any direction and you will see him: in my kitchen, where I have his portraits pinned up; on the floor, where his monographs lie open; on the wall of the studio, where a photograph of Bacon overlooks me while I work. I have felt our kinship since I was 15 years old, when I visited his 1985 exhibition at the Tate. I was blown away by the concentrated power of his works. In a period where abstract painting was becoming predominant, here were figurative images that felt utterly current yet remained rooted in Old Master painting and ancient art.

    Both the South Bank Show documentary about Bacon with Melvyn Bragg and David Sylvester’s seminal book Interviews with Francis Bacon had a profound impact on me. They showed me that as an artist, one need not have a conventional life: one could be absorbed in paint, absorbed in ideas around the human, and that making art could drive your whole being. It was a spirit of freedom to do whatever you wanted – as long as there was truth in it, however brutal. Bacon gave me that permission as a young person growing up. If you liked looking at violence, if you liked looking at blood and death, Bacon showed that you could do that as an artist.

  • Jenny Saville RA, Torso II, 2004-05

    Jenny Saville RA, Torso II, 2004-05.

    Courtesy the artist and Gagosian.

  • He died in 1992, the year I graduated from art school, before I had the chance to meet him; but I did become close to David Sylvester, who told me much about him. While there are parallels with Bacon in the way my work developed – in particular, my use of photography as source material – he is a painter that you cannot steal from.

    His visual language is too unique, in its mixture of modes, the combination and contradiction of formal spatial structure and informal, almost abstract mark-making. Each canvas is designed with precision, with his figures framed by cages, apertures or other geometric devices. Together with his sharp lines and colour contrasts, these frames act to combat sentimentality. But the brilliance of Bacon is how his human and animal figures are always breaking out of these devices, going beyond their frames, creating a sense of visual panic. There is a leakage that makes you deeply anxious. Something similar happens in his depictions of flesh. When you see an image of an out-of-shape body, you try and repair it in your mind, to confine it to its correct proportions. Bacon exploits that innate process, breaking down reality to find explicit truth.

  • Francis Bacon, Head I

    Francis Bacon, Head I, 1948.

    Oil and tempera on board. 100.3 x 74.9 cm. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Richard S. Zeisler, 2007 (2007.247.1) © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2021. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.

  • In the spirit of Bacon, as well as Rembrandt and Soutine, I painted a carcass in 2004. The canvas, Torso II (2004-05; above), shows the ox meat as a classic carcass hung up vertically, but when I arrived at the abattoir with my cameras and sketchbooks, it was lying on the floor. I knelt down and lay close beside it, continuously taking photographs. It was perfect: the weight of it, the guts exposed, the water on its flesh glistening, the river of red dripping down. It was such a heightened visual experience, as if I was inside a painting. It felt more than a carcass. It felt almost human, or as if humanity was somehow summed up by this big piece of meat.

  • Francis Bacon, Second Version of Triptych 1944

    Francis Bacon, Second Version of Triptych 1944, 1988.

    Oil and acrylic on 3 canvases. 198 x 147.5 cm (each). Tate: Presented by the artist 1991 © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2021. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.

  • As Bacon knew, humans are animals and our animal instincts are our strongest drives. Probably that’s why he was attracted to ancient Greek literature, drawing inspiration from tragedies that explored metamorphosis and the animal in the human. Like the ancients, Bacon tries to tell the truth about humans. One particular painting I love, Two Figures (1953; above), smells of that truth. There is a sexual aggression beyond all social niceties.

  • Francis Bacon, Two Figures

    Francis Bacon, Two Figures, 1953.

    Oil on canvas. 152.5 x 116.5 cm. Private collection © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2021. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.

  • In Bacon’s bullfighting paintings, there is an almost sexual dance between the bullfighter and the bull. To witness that dance in reality, in a bullfighting arena in Madrid, is a very powerful thing. It ends with the bull almost begging to be killed. Then it is dragged across the sandy ground, with big sweeps of blood traced on the surface, like the way Bacon dragged his loaded brush across a dry, stained ground. Humans have a deep awareness that the only certainty in life is death. We have a thirst for violence and to witness violence. Engaging with these darker aspects is vital for us: we watch horror movies, we come back to Greek and Shakespearean tragedy, because seeing violence psychologically keeps us in balance. Bacon also gives us that catharsis. In that respect, and in his incredible powers of composition, he is timeless. Like Titian, Rembrandt, Picasso and the playwrights of the ancient world, he will be with us still in hundreds of years.

    See Jenny Saville RA’s paintings and drawings alongside Renaissance masterpieces at five museums in Florence.

    • Beauty and the beast RA magazine page

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