Francis Bacon: Humanist artist who believed life “is meaningless” (Part 1)

Francis Bacon: Humanist artist who believed life “is meaningless” (Part 1)

John Whitehead in an article noted:

Bacon, however, clearly expressed his atheistic pessimism: “Man now realizes that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without purpose, other than of his own choosing.” On another occasion, he remarked: “We are born and we die and there’s nothing else. We’re just part of animal life.”

Thus, Bacon, in terms of humanity and the supernatural, reached not only a position of unbelief but of despair. His paintings express modern humanity’s condition: dehumanized man dispossessed of any durable paradise.


I first read about Francis Bacon in a book written by Francis Schaeffer. I was interested in looking into his art. His art really shows where modern man has come to the place of desperation since modern man has embraced the closed system that does not include God. What is left for man but what time and chance can bring. Bacon admitted that he was very depressed about man’s future and it comes out in his paintings.

I wish he would have read the work of Francis Schaeffer. I have posted links to Schaeffer’s works below.

Photograph of Bacon taken by John Deakin for Vogue, 1962

Francis Bacon was a modern painter.

August 1, 2009 • Volume 23, Number 10


Francis Bacon: The darker side of art

By Jenna Smith  |  ChristianWeek Columnist

Francis Bacon’s Painting 1946

This summer, the Metropolitain Museum of Art is hosting the first major Francis Bacon exhibition it has known in twenty years. “Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective” celebrates the 100th anniversary of the artist’s birth. The British painter had the rare luxury of becoming rich and famous in his own lifetime. By his death in 1992, his paintings were already selling for millions, and their value has only risen since.

Bacon is a celebrated and controversial figure in the art world, or any world at that. One New York Times critic wrote, “If paintings could speak, Bacon’s would shriek.” Those who shudder in the presence his works are justified in doing so. The harshness of his critique of humanity is surpassed only by the grotesque nature of his images. Open bleeding flesh, exposed bones and carcasses fill the canvas. His faces and figures are often distorted, made to look broken or mutilated. The violence in his art is palpable. In a televised interview with Charlie Rose, Thomas Campbell, director of the Met, said “These are paintings that are created to evoke a reaction. Their subject matter is disturbing, unpleasant even revolting. But the surface of his paintings is also so engaging… you’re compelled to look.”

Critics, art historians and philosophers alike have offered up explanations as to Bacon’s view on life. He was abused as a child, a lifelong alcoholic who died of sclerosis of the liver, and he reached his prime as a painter during the last years of World War II.

His negative view of humankind was not unfounded. It would be false, however, to romanticize Bacon’s suffering. He rejected people’s complaints about his art being too harsh, stating, “People complain that I show the horrible side of life. I try to show the excitement of life.” In some ways, whether the viewer likes this or not, Bacon felt he was stating facts, not pushing buttons on our delicate sensibilities.

Gary Tinterow, the show’s curator, said this to Rose: “Here is the problem. He was constantly rubbing our face in our own mess, the mess that men and women are capable of doing to one another. He is constantly reminding us of our own bestiality….he would say that his art was the history of Europe in his own time.”

As if to add insult to injury, Bacon had recurring themes of Christian religious art in his work, recognizing the power of tryptichs and iconography. The crucifixion is especially present, representing for him the epitome of what horrible cruelty men are able of inflicting one upon the other. Take Painting 1946, for example. A faceless crucified figure dominates the backdrop, its skinless rib cage exposed. Above it hangs what looks like sausage from a butcher shop, and at the bottom of the canvas are two pieces of a carcass. A disfigured man holds a black umbrella in the centre of the painting. Bacon’s message is clear: we are meat.

Study After Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (“The Screaming Pope”), 1953

Bacon also loved painting popes. His Study after Velzquez’s portrait of Innocent X evokes a renaissance portrait of this pope, except once more, there is a twist. Innocent X’s mouth is open in a scream, barely hidden by black shuttered stripes. Tinterow commented on his take of Christian religion: “He was an old-fashioned militant atheist…there was always a general squeamishness about his take on Christianity.”

What can a Christian’s response be to such art? What should it be? Can we accept the place of violence and darkness in our dialogue with art? Should we take into consideration his contribution to the ongoing debate about human existence? I would be inclined to say we must. We may not like the fact that there is little redemption in Bacon’s work, nor are we obliged to agree with his interpretation of the crucifixion. But there is undeniable power in his works, shocking us even today, some 60 years after their execution. And there is undeniable truth to his take on humanity.

Let us not be too hurt by his distortion of Christianity. He had a much bigger bone to pick with humans than he did with God. “He respected Christian ethics, and maintained that the Christian way of life was amongst the best in the panoply of ways of life,” commented Tinterow. “It’s just that his common sense forbade him from believing in the Church. He recognized, however, that the Church didn’t believe in him. The feeling was mutual.”

Jenna Smith is completing a joint Masters degree in the faculties of music and theology at the Université de Montréal. She lives in Montreal where she directs Innovation-Jeunes, an arts and nutrition centre for teens.

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