Martin Harrison

The following text is an excerpt from the catalogue “Francis Bacon and the Existential Condition in Contemporary Art”, edited by CCC Strozzina, Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi and published by Hatje Cantz Verlag (



Potential Images


The two-dimensional visual material retrieved from Francis Bacon’s studio in 1998 consisted principally of photographs or reproductions of photographs taken from books, magazines and newspapers. The clear distinction made today between “original” photographic prints and images in reproduction was probably less significant for Bacon. The reproductions he accumulated of artworks by, say, Michelangelo, Rembrandt or Velázquez, were drastically reduced in tone and scale from the originals: stripped of their aura as unique objects and homogenized as “images”, they were not substantially distinct from newspaper photograph. Bacon was, to some extent, alluding to this in stating that Michelangelo (an artist) and Muybridge (a photographer) were “mixed up in my mind together” (Sylvester 1995[V1] , p. 114). In the 1940s he became obsessed by Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, but he had not seen the original painting and instead “bought photograph after photograph of it” (Sylvester 1995[V2] , p. 71). Moreover, although he painted his last variation on the papal portrait in 1965, he continued to acquire books about Velázquez, from which he removed reproductions that must have resonated with him but that cannot be related directly to any paintings he made subsequently. This self-reflexive atavism suggests that certain photographs – in their play of flickering light, graphic texture or fixing of an unusual gesture – acted as talismanic objects whose hold over him scarcely diminished.

The significance of Bacon’s “source materials” continues to polarize critics. Some remain resolutely resistant to the potential of his “archive”, arguing that the study of this often fragmentary material is marginal to exploring the profounder meanings embodied in the paintings[1]. But Bacon was a figurative artist who did not make preliminary drawings in the traditional sense: for him, “lens-based imagery” both generated ideas for paintings and functioned as a substitute (or short-cut) for drawings. De-coding his mysterious paintings is problematical, and indeed is seldom attempted[2]. Yet the abundance of visual reference material that has been revealed since 1998 embodies clues to Bacon’s thinking that it would be perverse to ignore. The complex processes by which he absorbed these visual stimuli and integrated them into ideas for paintings are, nonetheless, difficult to determine. Bacon was seldom inspired by a single image, and in the intriguing Untitled (Marching Figures, ca. 1950), for example, although we know that the marching soldiers were based on an illustration in Le Corbusier and Amédée Ozenfant’s Foundations of Modern Art, a plausible link between the polar bear (is it a bear? or a generic “rough beast”?) on its sketchy plinth and the soldiers has so far eluded art historians.


Bacon did not encourage enquiry into the relationship between specific photographs and his paintings. Robert Melville, in the first substantial article on Bacon, written in 1949, identified the merging of the still image of the screaming nurse in the Odessa Steps episode in Eisenstein’s film from Battleship Potemkin with Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X. The American art historian Sam Hunter photographed Bacon in his Cromwell Place studio in 1950, and two photographs he took of collations of “source images” accompanied “Francis Bacon: The Anatomy of Horror”, the article he published in the Magazine of Art, January 1952. That Bacon held on to copies of these photographs supports the notion that he maintained a private fascination with his pictorial “influences”. In his essay accompanying a Bacon retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1963, Lawrence Alloway, whose embrace of both mass media imagery and fine art was rare among his peers, reproduced one of Hunter’s photographs and added details of two Muybridge plates. John Rothenstein and Ronald Alley also included one of Hunter’s photographs in their catalogue raisonnée, Francis Bacon, 1964, together with a Muybridge, a still image from Battleship Potemkin and a photograph Bacon had taken in about 1938 of his cousin, Diana Watson.

John Russell devoted an entire chapter (“The Prehensile Image”) of his book Francis Bacon, 1971, to Bacon’s use of photographs, yet no illustrations were provided to reinforce his discussion. Russell claimed that Bacon had only once worked from photographs or other ready-made material and that there was never a one-to-one relationship between a photograph and a painting, misleading statements that probably reflected Bacon’s editorial influence. Yet in 1975 the first edition of David Sylvester’s Interviews with Francis Bacon included numerous “source photographs”; there were several Muybridge sequences, a Battleship Potemkin still, a plate from K.C. Clark’s Positioning in Radiography and another from Marius Maxwell’s Stalking Big Game with a Camera in Equatorial Africa, 1924, a Clem Haagner photograph of a lion in the Kalahari and four portraits of Bacon’s friends taken by John Deakin. Some of these photographs must have been supplied by Bacon, or with his consent, since they bear signs of his manipulations and markings. However, he must have reconsidered his decision to allow this kind of material to be published, for subsequently it is virtually absent from the Bacon historiography until after his death 1992[3].

Bacon’s reluctance to permit the dissemination of his image-bank should be seen in the context of Britain’s grudging and delayed acceptance of photography. Critics tended to invoke the association with photography pejoratively, and to misapprehend the motives of painters who embraced it, unaware, perhaps, of the practice of Degas or Picasso. The art historian Norbert Lynton argued that the paintings in Bacon’s first Tate Gallery retrospective in 1962 “failed to coalesce into significance”, and demonstrated an “extraordinary dependence on second-hand imagery, even second-hand imagination”; Lynton contested the legitimacy of the photographic and cinematographic effects appropriated by Bacon, “the dissolving of one image into another, the distortion of space and anatomy that goes with monofocal vision, the spatial imbalance created by double exposure” (Lynton 1962).

Bacon’s engagement with photography runs as a sustained subtext through one of the most influential disquisitions around his art, Gilles Deleuze’s Logique de la Sensation, 1981. Deleuze described Bacon’s dialogue with photographs succinctly: “He is truly fascinated by photographs (he surrounds himself with photographs; he paints his portraits from photographs of the model, while also making use of completely different photographs; he studies photographs of past paintings; and he has an extraordinary passion for photographs of himself)” (Deleuze 2003). Deleuze also pointed to Bacon’s (and his own?) ambivalence about the medium in observing that Bacon “ascribes no aesthetic value to the photograph” (Deleuze 2003). But although Bacon claimed he only used them as a dictionary or as aides-mémoire he also said he was haunted by photographs and found them more interesting than paintings. While his offhand and often contradictory remarks to interviewers should not be over-determined, his tactile and extended encounter with photographs, as well as his connoisseurship of significant (and often-overlooked) details within them, indicate that he valued them more highly than might be inferred from Deleuze’s text, although Deleuze was right to argue for the primacy of the paintings, and of “paint-as-sensation.”


In Berlin, Paris and London in the late 1920s Bacon witnessed the inception of photo-journalism. He was familiar with Documents, the magazine founded in 1929 by Georges Bataille and Michel Leiris which combined high art with ethnography and popular culture, and with Minotaure and Cahiers d’Art, whose surrealist bias irrationally synthesized juxtapositions of old and new painting and sculpture with photographs and the cinema; he also collected Crapouillot, a journal whose editors evidently shared Bacon’s twin fascinations with bizarre crimes and politics. Thus, while Bacon may have been inspired to become a painter by the example of Picasso, he was simultaneously alert to alternative manifestations of the avant-garde, and especially to modernist photo-culture, that were enlarging the parameters of art discourse.

Bacon’s use of photographic imagery in the years before 1944 can only be speculated upon, since none of his conversations during this period were recorded and he destroyed all the paintings he made between 1937 and 1943. In Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944, however, the head of the Fury in the left panel was based on a photograph in Baron von Schrenck Notzing’s book, Phenomena of Materialisation (1920); Bacon absorbed this image into a complex amalgam of quotations from Picasso, Degas, Grünewald and medical photographs. In Figure in a Landscape, 1945, the figure whose features are virtually obliterated under the umbrella was “based on a snapshot of Eric Hall dozing in a deck-chair in Hyde Park” (Rothenstein e Alley 1964, p. 36), the first documented instance of Bacon using an original photograph; recent x-ray photographs have revealed that Bacon had painted out a highly realistic rendition of Hall’s head.

Muybridge and the Human Body

Bacon was aware of Eadweard Muybridge’s serial photographs of humans and animals in motion before he began to appropriate their articulated limb positions for his paintings. But in 1949 the artist Denis Wirth-Miller brought to his attention the complete set of Muybridge’s collotype plates in the Victoria & Albert Museum, situated just across the road from Bacon’s studio in Cromwell Place. Bacon immediately adopted them as his lexicon of bodies in motion, and we know, from the evidence in Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, that he continued to accumulate books of Muybridge’s photographs in multiple and different editions. These photographs remained Bacon’s most fertile visual resource for depicting the human body and its associated gestures: augmented by Michelangelo’s drawings and after 1963 by John Deakin’s photographs of George Dyer, they provided his most important templates for representing the male nude. Muybridge’s quasi-scientific, analytical images – although they were intended mainly for artists – were not psychologically neutral, and for Bacon their inherent strangeness suggested many new associations: paradoxically then, these Victorian photographs provided a crucial spur for a figurative artist at mid-point in the 20th century who realized he could no longer recycle stale formulae. He sought out other photographs of the human body in extreme situations, and images of sportsmen, soldiers, medical and scientific photographs, crime scenes and conflict joined his index of bodies under stress.

Odd Snaps

The first of Bacon’s paintings in which the sitter was named was Portrait of Lucian Freud, 1951. But when Freud first arrived at Bacon’s studio to pose for the painting he found the portrait was almost finished. Others who sat to Bacon in the 1950s – David Sylvester, Cecil Beaton and Lisa Sainsbury – noticed that he was scarcely, if at all, painting them “from life”. From 1952 until 1963 Peter Lacy was Bacon’s most important muse, although apart from the occasional cryptic designation “P.L.”, he was not identified as the subject in the titles of the paintings. Figure in a Landscape, 1952, probably the earliest painting of Lacy, was based directly on a snapshot taken in South Africa[4]. Bacon began to paint self-portraits in 1956 and, although he said he sometimes used a mirror for this purpose, he probably depended mainly on photographs.

As Bacon’s oeuvre expanded his paintings, formally at least, tended to be triggered as much by his own works as by external impulses; in the 1950s they were often conceived of, or became, series – Popes, Man in Blue, Blake heads, the Van Gogh paintings. Throughout his life he tried to perfect the idea of a figure crouching together with its shadow or merging with another; long after completing Study for Crouching Nude (1952; Detroit Institute of Arts) he would make notes of ideas for variations on the “Detroit picture”. Although he did not hang any of his own paintings in the houses or studios he occupied, he began to pin reproductions of completed paintings, mostly pulled from catalogues of his exhibitions, adjacent to his various work-spaces.

In the 1950s Bacon was photographed by Bill Brandt, Larry Burrows, Cecil Beaton and Douglas Glass, among others, and with the trajectory of his celebrity in the ascendant following his Tate Gallery retrospective in 1962 he became a quarry for many eminent photographers and photo-journalists. Prints he acquired from some of these photographers – Jorge Lewinski, Harry Diamond and Michael Pergolani – became important additions to his image-bank. After Bacon moved to Reece Mews in 1961, his increasingly detritus-strewn studio exerted an equivalent cultish attraction. The catalogue of his 1975 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, contains no photographs of the artist, yet there is a full-page illustration of his studio – the dust and disorder and random imagery covering the floor had become popular metaphors for Bacon and his art.

Bacon assimilated a vast range of photographic imagery torn from books and magazines, but it was David Sylvester’s perception that although “he used the odd snap of Peter Lacy, he still wasn’t getting it” – the “it” signifying the extended use to which photographs might be put[5]. In about 1960, when he began to commission John Deakin to take photographs of close friends, the new modus operandi coincided with (or partly provoked?) a significant change in his practice. According to Ronald Alley, Three Studies for Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, 1963, was painted partly from life, as well as from Deakin’s photographs (Rothenstein and Alley 1964, p. 155), but Bacon said that when painting close friends their presence in the studio inhibited him; Moraes herself said that she never sat for Bacon. By that time, while Bacon’s large “subject” paintings tended to made in a uniform size, almost two metres high, Bacon initiated a much smaller format, thirty-five centimeters high, for the equally significant category of head-and-shoulders portraits which he continued to paint until 1990.

Deakin’s photographs, made under Bacon’s direct or indirect supervision, were integral to the evolution of the small portraits. While the photographs of Peter Lacy had seldom been larger than commercial snapshot size, Bacon was able to have Deakin make thirty centimeters enlargements from the square negatives. They were printed on heavier paper than the pages he tore out from books or magazines, and it is unlikely to have been a coincidence that Bacon’s tactile engagement with his source materials intensified at this point. He fragmented and twisted, marked, effaced and eroded the prints, transforming them into the equivalents of preliminary studies. Moreover, they were infinitely repeatable, and with the multiplicity of photographs of George Dyer, for example, Bacon’s adaptation of photographs enters another dimension.

The last occasion on which Bacon commissioned photographs from John Deakin was probably about 1970. Deakin died in May 1972, but Bacon continued to rely on his photographs during the following five or six years as he embarked on a series of elegies to Dyer as well as an unprecedented number of self-portraits. In 1979 he remarked disingenuously that he only painted self-portraits out of expediency, because there was no one else to paint, despite having recently completed portraits of Michel Leiris, John Hewett, Clive Barker and Richard Chopping, all of whom were living. From 1975 his most frequent subject was Peter Beard, until in 1980 John Edwards replaced him as Bacon’s principal muse. Bacon encouraged Edwards to study photography and in social situations took to referring to him as “my photographer”. In Bacon’s paintings Edwards’s likeness was based entirely on photographs, a few of them taken by Bacon himself, while some of Bacon’s later self-portraits were painted from photographs taken by Edwards.

Despite their close friendship, not only did Bacon never paint Edwards from life: in all the full-length depictions of Edwards in the 1980s the position of the body was derived from existing photographs of other models. The recurrent cross-legged pose, for example, is familiar from John Deakin’s 1960s photographs of George Dyer, onto which Bacon grafted a portrait head of Edwards; this pose, inaugurated almost twenty years earlier, was evolved from a conflation of two (or more) photographs of Dyer. Towards the end of Bacon’s life, John Edwards lived for part of each year in Florida and Thailand, and during one of his prolonged absences Bacon began to travel with a young Spanish banker, José Capelo, whom he painted several times. Bacon was also friendly at this time with a young artist, Anthony Zych, who features in two large paintings; to achieve his likeness Bacon used photographs taken by Zych’s friend John Ginone. In the finished paintings Zych’s head is transposed onto an entirely unrelated body, which is itself situated in contexts of Bacon’s invention; both the rail and bent arm in Male Nude before Mirror (1990), for example, were borrowed from a photograph of Bacon at Chantilly, taken in 1978 by Bacon’s friend Eddy Batache. What, then, may we learn from this brief survey of Bacon’s use of photographs, given that they are left behind in the paintings themselves? It is evident that, ultimately, the specifics of his image absorption are secondary: the impact of his paintings depends not on the sources he appropriated and transmuted but on the raw sensations he conveyed in vigorous paint.



Dawn Ades, “Web of Images”, in Francis Bacon, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1985, pp. 8-23.

Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sensation, Continuum, London 2003, p. 90.

John Rothenstein and Ronald Alley, Francis Bacon, Catalogue raisonnée and documentation, Thames & Hudson, London and New York 1964, p. 36, 155.

Marcel Finke, “Francis Bacon’s alter ego? Critical Remarks on the Barry Joule collection”, in Martin Harrison (edited by), Francis Bacon: New Studies, Steidl, Göttingen 2009, pp. 125-141.

Martin Hammer, “Francis Bacon: Painting after Photography”, Art History, 35, 2, April 2012, pp. 354-71.

Norbert Lynton, “London Letter”, Art International, October 25, 1962, p. 68.

Robert Melville, “Francis Bacon”, Horizon, December 1949-January 1950, pp. 419-23.

John Russell, Francis Bacon, Thames and Hudson, London and New York 1971.

David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, Thames and Hudson, London 1995, p. 71, 114.

Ernst van Alphen, Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (MA) 1992

[1] For example Martin Hammer,  while rather contemptuous of this line of investigation, nonetheless foregrounds a single, literal juxtaposition of “source” and painting.

[2] Ernst van Alphen, in his Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self,  made the first sustained attempt to deconstruct Bacon’s opaque iconography.


[3] The main exception to this was in Web of Images, Dawn Ades’s essay published in the catalogue of the Francis Bacon exhibition in London at the Tate Gallery, 1985.

[4] The snapshot is identified as Peter Lacy in Marcel Finke’s essay Francis Bacon’s alter ego? Critical Remarks on the Barry Joule collection (2009).


[5] David Sylvester, interviewed by the author, October 1999.

Martin Harrison is a curator, critic and art historian internationally known for his research in the field of nineteenth- and twentieth-century painting and photography, particularly on periods after World War II. He has curated exhibitions in the United Kingdom (Victoria & Albert Museum; National Portrait Gallery), Italy, United States and Mexico. He is one of the most important scholar of Francis Bacon and has published numerous articles and books dedicated to him. His first publication on Francis Bacon was Points of Reference (Faggionato Fine Art, London 1999). Among others, we can include In Camera: Francis Bacon (Thames & Hudson, London 2006), focused especially on the artist’s relationship with photography, and an essay for the catalogue accompanying the Bacon centennial retrospective exhibition at the Tate Britain, the Prado, Madrid, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 2008–2009. He was co-curator of Bacon’s retrospective at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Wesftfalen, Düsseldorf, in 2006 and, along with Barbara Dawson, of the exhibition Francis Bacon. A Terrible Beauty at the Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane in 2009. He is currently engaged in the publication of the catalog raisonné of Francis Bacon.

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