History of Abstract Expressionism: Francis Bacon’s Life on Edge



The pictorial production process of human beings is known to have commenced with the paintings that they drew on the cave walls. At that time, the visual art invented by humanity was directly related to nature. However, the human form, which developed after eras, began to evolve within the civilizations they established. Sedentary life and especially dealing with agriculture formed the basis of today's perception of civilization, which is the primary condition for the evolution of culture and art perception. Theological beliefs, philosophy and education, ideologies and principles such as symbolism, imagery and expressionism paved the way for different understandings and mindsets of art. Related to this, the art movement called “Abstract Expressionism” was born from the strong bond between art painting and history. As in each branch of art, abstract expressionism has its own rules and structure. The art movement, which skillfully conveys the characteristics of the period in which it emerged, supports both the understanding of history and the psychological and spiritual process of the artists. With the help of this, evaluation of art history provides inspiration and acknowledgement of human history to new generations.


Abstract expressionism originated in the mid-twentieth century in the American art scene following the period of the Second World War. The perception is considered as the first art movement to be the inspirational cornerstone of both European and American art movements. It is crucial to comprehend the fact that abstract expressionism is based on an ideology of subconscious creation by using characteristics, such as emotionality, dynamism, brutality, mystery and lyricism, to evoke expressionist essences. That is, abstract expressionism, which mirrors the humans’ mentality in an erratic social environment, becomes a major art movement of American art culture along with global modernism with its significant characteristics.


First and foremost, the art movement reflects the human phenomenon imaginatively in the field of art, which both embodies the internality and protest structuring. In other words, it describes situations that are not inspired by the perceptible world but the ideal world of humanity. Secondly, abstract expressionism art consists of two main styles and general groupings: action painting/painters and colour field painting/painters. In both of the styles, the aim is to create a chaotic appearance in the paintings by utilizing wild brush strokes, non-solid colour choices and the rule of irregularity. As a consequence of this, the art movement is also named “Action Painting” as artists’ endeavour to create actions by working on various angles; they throw the paint onto the canvas. This allows the emotionality and abstractness to be conveyed profoundly. The term is pointed out by the art critic Harold Rosenberg in 1952 in order to characterize the artworks of abstract expressionist artists like Willem de Kooning and most importantly, Paul Jackson Pollock. Pollock was famous for the painting technique called the “drip technique” that requires colour splashing and pouring colour onto the wet canvas which covers an entire room. Thus, this all-over painting composes an expressive effect of irregularity along with abstraction. Concerning this, sharp images and vivid details provide a consistent background.



(Credit: Jackson Pollock Jackson Pollock. [Photograph]. Pinterest.)


Another style called “Color Field Painting” was inspired by European modernism along with abstract expressionism. The method comprises a colour field distributed across the canvas with a single colour. It requires sections of unbroken surface and a level image plane in the colour field. The movement emphasizes fundamental uniformity of form and method above gesture, brushstrokes, and motion. It is crucial to mention that the colour field painting artists like Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman were intensely bound up with producing the compositions with large expanses of colour in order to elicit a contemplative reaction to the observer. Moreover, those artists conveyed the emotional transfer of paintings they created by concentrating on spirituality and myths. To put it differently, they were a group of artists who were sensitive to beliefs.



(Credit: Mark Rothko. [Photograph]. Pinterest.)


In a 1948 article, Barnett Newmann asserted, "Instead of creating cathedrals out of Christ, man, or "life," we are making cathedrals out of ourselves, out of our sentiments." From approximately 1960, this technique to painting evolved into what became known as colour field painting, which was characterized by painters employing vast swaths of more or less a single flat colour. That is, instead of portraying the dynamism of large-scale paintings, they represent the antsy lifestyle and the impacts of the war. Many expressionists have the ability to present their interests in existentialism through their dynamic characteristics. Existentialism is profoundly recognized as freedom of choice in not only life but also art.


Brief History of Abstract Expressionist Art Movement


During the Second World War, America’s art view was composed of two main social ideologies: regionalism and social realism. Those political and social implications built a negative notion about modern art which was considered a part of European culture in that period. There was a political force in Europe and North America where the consolidation of national markets and the spread of nationalist ideologies tended to sustaining rapid industrialization. The limitless desire for consumption brought by popular culture had turned into a permanent structure in art objects and ideologies. Based on this, the perception towards modern art had evolved into an instrument used to reflect human desires. However, the war also led many creative artist refugees, such as Andre Breton and Mondrian, to emerge as the theorists of surrealism and the modern art movement.


In 1941, one of the artists and an art collector, Peggy Guggenheim and her surrealist artist husband Max Ernst fleed from Nazi Europe and went to America. In New York City/Manhattan, (October 20 1942) she opened an art gallery named “Art of this Century”. She aimed to exhibit the influences of European modern art, such as Picasso, Dali and Braque. Additionally, she organized exhibitions for American painters like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clifford Still and Robert Motherwell.



(Credit: Art of This Century gallery, New York City, 1942—installation design by Frederick Kiesler)


“Art of this Century was of the utmost importance as the first place where The New York School could be seen... Her gallery was the foundation, it’s where it all started to happen” – Lee Krasner.


Yet, as stated previously, American art was highly conservative, making it unfavourable to abstract expressionists. In the 1950s, intending to oppose art conservation in America, a group of artists wrote a letter to the Metropolitan Museum of Art located next to Central Park in New York City. Consequently, the letter was signed by twenty-eight artists. The photo below shows the original version of the letter:



The letter was published in the New York Times on May 22nd 1950. The day after, Herald-Tribune responded to the attack and, in defence of the Met, called the artists “The Irascibles”, irascible meaning “easily angered.” [Cambridge Dictionary. (2021, June 30)]. The controversy was sparked and the abstract expressionists were in the public eye. The extremely influential Life Magazine, the same one that got Pollock famous just two years before, wanted to do a photo story to be published at the same as the winners of the Met’s contest. At the beginning, the main aim was to photograph the artists holding one of their paintings in front of the Metropolitan, but that proposal was rejected since it would appear as though they were attempting to enter Metropolitan and were being turned away on the steps.


(Credit: Nina Leen, The Irascibles, left to right, from back row: Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Ad Reinhardt, Hedda Sterne; Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell; Bradley Walker Tomlin; Theodoros Stamos, Jimmy Ernst, Barnett Newman, James Brooks, and Mark Rothko. Reproduced in Life magazine, January 15, 1951. Courtesy of Getty Images, used with permission. The Irascibles. (n.d.). [Photograph]. Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute.)


It is obvious that abstract expressionist art had a significant effect on both European and American art worlds throughout the 1950s. Indeed, the trend signalled the wartime transfer of the intellectual centre of contemporary painting from Paris to New York City.


To put it another way, the abstract expressionist art movement is a mindset rather than a technique. When the history of the movement is considered, there is no doubt that abstract expressionism creates an opposition instead of a sense of satisfaction. Abstract expressionist art has an impact that not only highlights the artists’ functionalism in art critical debate but presents a fresh interpretation of modernism as well. The creators, supporters and masters of the abstract expressionism movement made an art revolution by completely changing the norms of the modern art understanding of the 20th century. The living conditions during and after the war, society's perspective on artists and their bond with life are important factors in understanding how this mysterious inner world is reflected on the canvas. Such that, one of the most important abstract expressionist artists of the 20th century achieved to reflect his inner world and the confusion of his period by referring to the abstract point of view: Francis Bacon.

(Credit: Francis Bacon. (n.d.-b). [Painting]. Three Studies for Self-Portrait, 1976 Richard Gray Gallery.)


Francis Bacon: A Life on Edge


Francis Bacon was born in 1909 (28 October), Dublin. When World War I erupted in 1914, his father Edward Anthony Mortimer Bacon was appointed to the war department. As a consequence, the Bacon family’s journey between England and Ireland had started. Bacon, who lived a virtually nomadic life, was home-schooled due to his asthma. This situation enabled him to grow up independently of the education system and to form his marginal personality. Not only his chaotic lifestyle, such as the health problems he experienced during his youth and being kicked out of the house due to his sexual preference made him very strong, and resilient; but also made him an intense art addict. He was rarely sleeping but consuming alcohol, gambling, painting and eating abundantly. Bacon created a series of artworks that were both entrancing and daringly unique. His startling painting energized the group of artists that surrounded him in mid-century London and impacted numerous generations of artists to grow. The art historian John Richardson says:


“Many people of my generation, that’s where they first saw an image by Francis Bacon… Just after the war, my mother had a house in South Kensington, and I was always watching what was going on outside. And I remember seeing somebody who was carrying a very large canvas. This guy had to be Francis Bacon.”


(Credit: Francis Bacon. (n.d.). [Photograph]. Pinterest.)


In 1927, he encountered Poussin’s artwork named “Massacre of the Innocents” while studying French in Chantilly. He was affected by the emotion that the painting expressed powerfully the screams of a mother whose kid seems to have been slaughtered. During that time when he was in Paris, he was also impressed by Picasso. Then, Bacon created works influenced by Picasso in the 1920s, but he did not like most of his artworks under the influence of Picasso, since instead of following the path of the existing artist, he realized that he had wanted to produce new and unprecedented artworks. Hence, he got rid of the influence of Picasso and turned to new forms of figure and art understanding.


The piece titled Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, which he began in 1944, marked a watershed moment in Bacon's artistic career. Because, as a result of this effort, Bacon's name became well-known to the general public. According to the analysis and articles made about the work, this trio of Bacon's work aims to explain the brutality created by the Holocaust and the pessimism and pain of people living in such a world. With respect to this, Bacon expressed the psychological collapse caused by the Second World War through his point of view without suppressing the fear of death. Although the artist has been described as a Surrealist, his works are still considered Expressionism because they mirrored emotions.

(Credit: Francis Bacon Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944 (n.d.). [Painting]. Tate.)

This article deals with the history of abstract expressionism and Francis Bacon, one of the important representatives of the art movement, on the relationship between his perception of art and life. Taking everything into account, the most obvious conclusion to be drawn is that Francis Bacon's works include more than just remnants of the creator. He is man's fundamental self; he is the representation of a soul. Bacon, who left a shocking effect on the world by transferring the changes and transformations he created to his art, is the most important proof that man is not a creature that moves only with his senses. That is, the existence of abstract expressionist art encompasses all layers of the relationship between individuality and society profoundly. That is why traces of the abstract expressionist movement preserves its place in society until today.


Resources and References;


- Taşkesen, S. (2018). SOYUT DIŞAVURUMCULUK AKIMININ PERFORMANS SANATA ETKİSİ VE ROL DEĞİŞTİREN BEDEN OLGUSU. Güzel Sanatlar Enstitüsü Dergisi. Published. https://doi.org/10.32547/ataunigsed.414197

- Peppiatt, M. (2009). Francis Bacon in the 1950s (Illustrated ed.). Yale University Press.

- Hajali, S. (2017). Abstract Expressionism: A Case Study on Jackson Pollock’s Works. Journal of History Culture and Art Research, 5(4), 311. https://doi.org/10.7596/taksad.v5i4.606

- Gotthardt, A. (2018, November 12). Francis Bacon on How to Be an Artist. Artsy. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-francis-bacon-artist

- Gotthardt, A. (2016, November 23). What You Need to Know about Francis Bacon. Artsy. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-francis-bacon

- Art | Francis Bacon. (n.d.). FrancisBacon.Com. Retrieved July 5, 2021, from https://www.francis-bacon.com/art

- Alphen, V. E. (1993). Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self (Essays in Art and Culture) (1st Edition) [E-book]. Harvard University Press.

- Hodge, S. (2021). Sanatin Kisa Öyküsü; Ana Akimlara, Eserlere, Temalara ve Tekniklere Yönelik Cep Kilavuzu. Hep Kitap.

- Dogan Ozcan, C. (2019). FRANCIS BACON: THREE STUDIES FOR CRUCIFIXION (1962). Ulakbilge Dergisi, 7(43), 889–897. https://doi.org/10.7816/ulakbilge-07-43-03

Image Resources;

- Mark Rothko. (2021, July 5). [Photograph]. Pinterest. https://tr.pinterest.com/pin/123004633562274500/

- Jackson Pollock. (2021, July 5). [Photograph]. Pinterest. https://tr.pinterest.com/pin/269371621452765232/

- The Irascibles. (n.d.). [Photograph]. Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute. https://www.mwpai.org/view/exhibitions/past/the-irascibles/

- Francis Bacon Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. (n.d.). [Painting]. Tate. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/bacon-three-studies-for-figures-at-the-base-of-a-crucifixion-n06171

- Francis Bacon. (n.d.-b). [Painting]. Three Studies for Self-Portrait, 1976 Richard Gray Gallery. https://barryraphael.wordpress.com/tag/john-minihan/

- Francis Bacon. (n.d.-a). [Photograph]. Pinterest. https://tr.pinterest.com/pin/6473993201870786/

- Art of This Century. (n.d.). [Photograph]. Art of This Century. https://ar.pinterest.com/pin/104145810121573030/

- Open Letter of Metropolitan Museum of Art. (n.d.). [Photograph]. Open Letter to Roland L. Redmond, President of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. https://www.si.edu/object/AAADCD_item_9959

Documentaries;

- Francis Bacon: A Brush with Violence (2017). (2017, February 4). [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MgrO5za0lSY


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