Erin Hagen

Francis Bacon at the Pompidou Centre

As one of the 20th century’s most influential abstract artists, Francis Bacon is internationally renowned. Spoiler alert, his art might make you feel uncomfortable. At worst, it will fill you with an anxious kind of existential dread. With that out in the open, why are we so curious about it then? What makes Bacon so fascinating? Why would someone pay a whopping $142.4 million for one of his paintings? Paris’ Pompidou Centre is currently hosting an exhibit of Bacon’s paintings which focuses on the last two decades of his career.

What is The Pompidou?

The Pompidou Centre, named after former French President, Georges Pompidou, who also commissioned the building. It officially opened in 1977, and is internationally known for its unusual architectural design which shows coloured pipes and beams on the outside of the building. Love it or hate it, you won’t forget it! The Gallery features works of Modern and Contemporary Art from the great masters of the world.

So, who was Francis Bacon?

Francis Bacon (1909-1992) was born in Dublin, Ireland. His father was a retired military man, who later became a racehorse trainer. Bacon lived a somewhat nomadic childhood, moving from Ireland to England, then back again, several times. While the family was successful financially, his father had a severe and difficult temperament. Also, he did not abide Bacon’s early homosexual tendencies. Their relationship would be fraught with tension and violence. As a result, Bacon was kicked out of the family home. His reaction? Bacon packed his bags and moved to Berlin. Germany's capital in the Roaring 20s was a carnival of earthly delights. The artistic community was vibrant, the nightlife was off the charts, and people were much more accepting of homosexuality. Bacon felt accepted and naturally lived it up!

He travelled to Paris in 1928, and visited a Picasso exhibition, and was so taken aback by it, that he said to himself, “And I thought, at that moment, that I will try and paint too”. He had no formal training as an artist, and yet pursued his passion regardless. Kudos to him!

While he did paint in the 20s and 30s, not many works exist from this period. Most likely because the artist destroyed them. For a while, he embarked upon a career in interior design, as well as assorted odd jobs to support himself and his habits. His big artistic break came with the creation of the ‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’ in 1944. Unfortunately, people weren’t ready for his art. It wasn’t pretty, and some audiences found it repulsive. Other popular motifs of Bacon's were the screaming Pope, the crucifixion, and screaming half faces mixed with splayed animal carcasses.

The Later Years

Meanwhile, Bacon continued living the good life, and his high stakes gambling was legendary. He had difficulty adhering to deadlines, even for his own shows. In addition, Bacon had many tumultuous and violent relationships. All of that, mixed with substance abuse problems were a recipe for disaster. And yet, he became spectacularly financially successful. People were fascinated with his art. His crowning success was a retrospective, in his honour, at Paris’ Grand Palais in 1971. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to relish in this achievement.

Bacon's partner, Georges Dyer, committed suicide in their Parisian hotel room two days before the exhibition. After 1971, his works reflects this intense grief and he made several paintings of Dyer. During this period, Bacon also focused on self-portraits. When asked why, he responded, “everyone around me are dropping like flies”. However, the artist’s work was more and more sought after and increased in market value. Yet, Bacon progressively isolated himself. He passed away in Spain, while on vacation, at the age of 82.

Bacon is a distant relation of his namesake, Francis Bacon (1561-1626), first Viscount of St. Alban. He was an Elizabethan philosopher and writer who also held the title of Lord High Chancellor of England. Not too shabby!

The Exhibit

The Pompidou has brought together the artist’s seminal works from 1971-1992, and relates them with the literary pieces that influenced Bacon. In total, there are 60 paintings, including 12 triptychs and self-portraits. In the last two decades of his life, Bacon’s work changed in nature. This was naturally due to the fact that he experienced so much personal loss. But tastes do change, as well as creative style.

Interspersed amongst the art, there are little rooms with recordings of the works of Aeschylus, Nietzsche, Bataille, Leiris, Conrad, and Eliot. All of these works inspired Bacon, he himself admitted that they gave voice to his internal struggle and experience. At the end of the show, an interview of the artist is shown on a large screen in English with French subtitles.

After Bacon’s death, his London studio was photographed, all of the items were packaged, and shipped off to Ireland. Then they were painstakingly put back together at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin. It has been on display since 1998.

What did we think of the exhibit?

The Rain

It all started in the rain, as most Parisian stories often do. When purchasing a timed ticket online, as the Gallery advises, they say to arrive 15 minutes in advance. For some reason or another, they were late opening that day, and the crowds of people had to wait in the cold winter rain. Fear not dear reader! Since art reviewing is not for the faint of heart, the author came fully prepared for all elements. Twenty-some odd minutes later, the line started moving.

The Bacon exhibit is located on the 6th and top floor of the building. While there is an elevator, who would want to miss the spectacular view of Paris while slowly climbing the escalator? By the way, there is no ticket office in the main lobby, they ask for proof of purchase just before you enter the exhibit.

Literature and Paintings

From afar, the paintings look quite cheerful. Bacon used light pink and yellow as well as bright orange in his later part of his career. However, upon closer inspection, they take on another tone altogether. There are fragmented faces, blurred, grotesque, and melted figures. Along the journey, visitors enter small and dimly lit rooms with one square block in the middle. The only image present is the book behind glass. Read aloud in French and English, the texts are intense. No hope, or beauty, or flowers to be found, only honest brutality. That's when it all sinks in, and Bacon's art starts to make more sense. Honest brutality, death and horror.

Final Impressions

The interview shown at the end of the exhibit sums it all up elegantly. Bacon said, “The artist has to invent realism”. It’s too easy to say that he used this medium to exorcise his own demons. Maybe he exalted in them, or perhaps it was simply a chronicle of his life. While we know some of the events that happened in Bacon’s life, we should not pretend to know him, nor his inner workings.

What is it that we love? The screaming disjointed figures? The nameless horror? The thrill of the void? Or maybe it gives voice to our own tragedies in a way we cannot express. Regardless, Bacon will continue to touch, intrigue, and chill generations to come. What I love most is his honesty...

The Gift Boutiques

Oooh, we do love a good gift shop! Naturally, there is a small boutique right after the exhibit ends on the 6th floor. Of course you kind find books about Bacon as well as the usual exhibit swag including tote bags, magnets, and notebooks featuring the art that you’ve just seen. However, don’t miss the gift shop and bookstore (two separate places) on the main floor of the Gallery before you leave. They have everything from home furnishings, plates, jewelry, and even berets. Vive la France!


-Buy a timed ticket in advance. In fact, it's mandatory for this exhibit. You don’t need to have a printed copy, the barcode on your cell phone will do just fine.

-Arrive 15 minutes early before your timed ticket, as the Gallery suggests. However, be prepared to wait outside for a while. Umbrellas and extra layers during the colder months are definitely recommended!

-Heads up, toilets are located on the main floor of the Pompidou. The exhibit is on the 6th floor, and I couldn’t find any. Best to go in advance! Am I sounding like your Mom? Good, she was right.

-Take note of which gallery the exhibit is in, that way you will get on the right escalator, as the building is enormous. However, if you have any doubts, head to the large information kiosk in the middle of the lobby. Pompidou staff are happy to help you!

-Backpacks must be worn on the front of your body, so as not to bump into others and the art. Yes, you may look like an awkward tourist instead of a sophisticated person that goes to fancy art exhibits in Paris, and that’s OK. If you are horrified at the thought of compromising your personal style and comfort, there is a coat check on the main floor.

-Never received one of the leaflets for the exhibit, guess you need to ask if you really want one.

-There is a lovely café overlooking the main lobby of the Pompidou. If that doesn’t tempt you, there are bistrots, restaurants, and cafés aplenty surrounding the Gallery. This is Paris after all, and we are spoiled with choice.

Your Visit to the Pompidou

While we highly recommend this exhibition, if you can’t catch it in time, there’s always another option. The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas is also hosting the same exhibit from February 25 - May 25, 2020. Otherwise, the Pompidou Centre is a fabulous place to visit all year round, and their permanent collection is astounding!

Dates: September 11, 2019 - January 20, 2020

Address: Place Georges-Pompidou, 75004, PARIS

Hours of Operation:

11:00 a.m. - 10:00 p.m.

*Please be advised that the current transit strikes will affect the closing time of the Gallery.

Ticket price: 14.00 €

Your Paris Pass includes free admission and fast track entry to the Pompidou's permanent collection!

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