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A Major Exhibition of Paintings by Francis Bacon at the Milwaukee Art Museum


Posted on October 1st, 2006

Milwaukee, WI, October 2006— During the 1950s, painter Francis Bacon began to formulate the iconography of his dark and troubled world in paint. The exhibition, Francis Bacon in the 1950s , opening at the Milwaukee Art Museum, January 27-April 15, 2007, features nearly fifty paintings from the period in which Bacon was at the height of his creative powers. In this intensely fertile time, many of Bacon’s themes-screaming popes, howling dogs, and haunting figures trapped in tortured isolation-began to materialize as the man himself was becoming one of the most significant artists of the twentieth century.

Francis Bacon in the 1950s takes a profoundly personal look at this fascinating period in Bacon’s career and is the first exhibition to examine Bacon’s formative works. Curated by Michael Peppiatt, a close friend of Bacon’s, the exhibition provides a first-person perspective on the artist’s emerging style in the first decades of his career through paintings, drawings, and a selection of archival materials that illustrate the artist’s life and work.

At the core of the exhibition are thirteen paintings collected by Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury, who were among the artist’s earliest patrons and, eventually, close friends. The works include loans from public and private collections across the world, a number of which have rarely been seen in public.

This unique opportunity to view exceptional works by Bacon is credited to a new partner of the Milwaukee Art Museum, the global financial services firm UBS.

“We are proud to partner with the Milwaukee Art Museum, to be the presenting sponsor of Francis Bacon in the 1950s “, said Kim Jenson, Regional Manager – Upper Midwest, UBS Financial Services Inc. “Our Firm has a long standing commitment to the arts and we are pleased to help bring this outstanding exhibition to our clients, employees and the broader community of Milwaukee and the surrounding areas.”

Throughout his life, Bacon controlled every aspect of his art, from the selection and presentation of his work to the interpretation. He commanded that all exhibitions of his art be classic retrospectives, focusing on his most recent works. As a result, his later work was more visible. In contrast, Francis Bacon in the 1950s brings together paintings from a single decade in that earlier, less visible period.

“The usual feeling you get in a Bacon show is of tortured, strangled human beings alone in a room,” explained Peppiatt. “These paintings have a much more narrative quality, a much more approachable Bacon, of sorts. Someone who hadn’t decided who he was going to be, someone still in search of himself.”

By the 1950s, Bacon had acquired sufficient technical prowess as a painter and expressed his often dark vision with force, but he was not fully in command of his disturbing images. Eager to explore themes and take risks in his early career, Bacon created images that contain a rawness and sense of urgency that would be lost in his later works.

To guest curator Michael Peppiatt, the fifties seemed to hold a lot of the clues to who Bacon was: “That was when he located his biggest themes. He felt that he had to focus on the most important things of all to man…his existence. ”

Bacon is one of the most unique and powerful artistic visionaries of post-war European art. The 1950s were the most fruitful years in Bacon’s career, but they were also the most tumultuous and tortured of the artist’s existence. During this time, the artist was regularly without a fixed address, borrowing rooms and changing studios with incredible frequency. The artist established a pattern of all-night revelry, culminating in a feverish fit of creativity-painting into the early morning hours. Much like Bacon’s approach to life, his approach to the canvas was radical, aggressive, and seething with raw human emotion.

The Artist

Bacon’s staunchly Catholic father banished him from their Irish home when he was sixteen after learning of his homosexual activities. Bacon departed for Berlin, where he participated in the bohemian nightlife. Leaving Berlin in 1927, Bacon traveled to Paris where he saw an exhibition of drawings by Picasso that inspired him to become an artist.

The Surrealism of Picasso was not the only influence on the artist; poetry and film had a significant role in forming Bacon’s artistic vision. Bacon described his process: “I am like a grinding machine, I look at everything, and everything goes in and gets ground up very fine.” For example, Sergei Eisentein’s famous film, Battleship Potemkin (1925), had a major impact on the artist. The blood-splattered face of the screaming nurse in this film was an enduring image for the artist, and one that featured in many of his paintings, most significantly, Study for the Head of a Screaming Pope , 1952.

Although he never attended art school, Bacon began to draw and paint in watercolor upon his return to London in 1929. There he established himself as a furniture and interior designer. While Bacon did not seriously pursue painting, he did exhibit a few early paintings alongside his design work. It was not until the end of the war when he began to formulate his evocative style of misshapen figures that reflect his disturbed worldview.

The artist’s work was met with financial success during the 1950s, and the artist himself became an instant hit in art circles, showing work at major galleries and moving comfortably between his aristocratic patrons and the seedy side of society. Throughout this period, Bacon visited exotic places where he engaged in relationships that would shape his life and influence his work. Bacon’s relationships with his lovers were vibrant and interesting, like the artist himself; however, some had violent and tumultuous overtones. Bacon’s personal relationships often bled onto the canvas, and are evident in the violence, intimacy, and passion portrayed in his work. According to the artist: “My work is like a diary. To understand it, you have to see how it mirrors my life.”

In the early 1960s Bacon settled into a studio space in South Kensington, where he resided until his death in 1992. Bacon described the studio: “I feel at home here in this chaos because chaos suggests images to me.” Heaps of photos, bits of illustrations, books, catalogues, magazines, and newspapers provided nearly all of his visual sources. Bacon added: “Images also help me find and realize ideas. I look at hundreds of very different, contrasting images and I pinch details from them, rather like people who eat from other people’s plates.”

The artist utilized the entire space: paint was mixed on the door, and scraps of clothing were used to apply paint. When the artist died, seventy works on paper were found along with one hundred slashed canvases.

Catalogue and Tour

A fully illustrated, 174-page catalogue is available.

The exhibition will be on view at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, UK, October-December 2006. From Norwich, the exhibition will travel to the Milwaukee Art Museum, January 27-April 15, 2007; then on to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, May 5-July 30, 2007.

This exhibition was initiated by the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK, with funding from the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Charitable Trust. It was curated by Michael Peppiatt, who is also the author of the exhibition catalogue. The exhibition has been made possible by UBS, the global financial services firm.

About the Sponsor

UBS is one of the world’s leading financial firms, serving a discerning global client base. As an organization, it combines financial strength with an international culture that embraces change. As an integrated firm, UBS creates added value for clients by drawing on the combined resources and expertise of all its businesses. UBS is the world’s largest wealth manager, a top tier investment banking and securities firm, and one of the largest global asset managers. In Switzerland, UBS is the market leader in retail and commercial banking. UBS is present in all major financial centers worldwide. It has offices in 50 countries, with about 39% of its employees working in the Americas, 36% in Switzerland, 16% in the rest of Europe and 9% in Asia Pacific. UBS’s financial businesses employ around 75,000 people around the world. Its shares are listed on the SWX Swiss Stock Exchange, the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and the Tokyo Stock Exchange (TSE).

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