A Portrait of Francis Bacon’s Influence on Cinema (#3 Will Shock You!)

Francis Bacon (1909-1992) was an Irish-born British surrealist/expressionist figurative painter, known for his bold, grotesque, emotionally charged imagery, which frequently depicted popes, crucifixions and portraits of close friends.

Bacon took up painting in his late 30s, having drifted as an interior decorator, bon vivant and gambler. He said that his artistic career was delayed because he spent too long looking for subject matter that could sustain his interest.

Despite his bleak existentialist outlook, Bacon in person was highly engaging and charismatic, articulate, well-read and unapologetically gay.

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Portrait by American photographer Irving Penn, 1962

In 1935 he saw Sergei Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin (1925); the scene of the nurse screaming on the Odessa steps later became a recurrent part of Bacon’s iconography and a major theme in his paintings.

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Bacon in turn went on to have a huge influence on popular cinema; below are some of the movies and artists who credit him.

Alien

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Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944)

With the Facehugger dead, the crew of the Nostromo has one last dinner before returning to cryosleep; unexpected to them (besides Ash), a creature violently erupts from Kane’s chest: the Chestburster.

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AlienKits Chestburster Vinyl Model Kit 1/1 Scale

Ridley Scott: I think finally, when you want to be really scared, you’ve got to have a very private thought. You’ve got to think about what it is that physically makes you very uneasy, that upsets you in a primal way. And I’m not very easily upset.. But we looked at various painters’ works, and the one that caught us was by Francis Bacon, the three fleshy necks with the jaws on the end. The primality, if there is such a word, was what interested me. (Cinefantastique magazine) 

HR Giger: The second [form of the] alien was born through the crab. Bacon did a crucifixion in 1945, and there is a kind of beast in it that has a head that is only a mouth. Ridley said he wanted something like that. it was logical. This beast has to come out, to chew and claw its way out suddenly, unerringly. (Cinescape magazine)

Hellraiser II

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Figure with Meat (1954). The figure is based on the Pope Innocent X portrait by Diego Velázquez; however, in the Bacon painting the Pope is shown as a gruesome figure and placed between two bisected halves of a cow (likely derived from Rembrandt’s Carcass of Beef).

Clive Barker has stated that the scene in Hellraiser II where Doctor Philip Channard is transformed into a Cenobite was directly inspired by Bacon’s painting.

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Silence of the Lambs

To create the physical world of The Silence of the Lambs (1991), production designer Kristi Zea drew on descriptions in the book by Thomas Harris, but she was also inspired by a variety of images, including paintings by Francis Bacon, newspaper and magazine clippings, and historical photographs.

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Batman (1989)

The Joker and his henchmen destroy several works of art in a scene at the Gotham City Museum. However, they spare Figure with Meat.

“I kind of like this one, Bob. Leave it.”

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The Dark Knight

In this video by the Tate museum, London, Christopher Nolan talks about his longstanding fascination with the work of Bacon, and how the artist’s warped and fleshy figures inspired the look of the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008).

David Lynch

Francis Bacon—amongst others artists like Rene Magritte, Edward Hopper and Arnold Böcklin—directly informed Lynch’s nightmarish mise-en-scène. The director says he discovered Bacon at a gallery in 1966 and found the experience “thrilling”—later using the painter’s work as inspiration for The Elephant Man and Twin Peaks‘ disorienting Red Room.

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(Screenshots from The Art of David Lynch, a fascinating short by VoorDeFilm, link below)

RoboCop (2014)

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Michael Keaton, playing Omni Corp CEO Raymond Sellars in the 2014 reboot of RoboCop, stands with Bacon’s Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus (1981) hanging behind him in his office. Bacon’s work often casts a sinister air; perhaps the human-like figures twisted in agony are a foreshadowing of things to come? (spoiler: yes)

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Bacon’s triptych of paintings are symbolic of the breakdown of the family (Orestes being the son of Agamemnon, whose house was doomed in Greek myth) and the body (Bacon’s usual butcher’s eye view of the world). Both of these themes are highly relevant to the movie; RoboCop dwells on the emotional damage to Murphy’s family, and veers into bodyhorror when the full extent to which Murphy’s body has been butchered becomes apparent (ironically, the movie itself was also “butchered” by studio interference).

Epilogue

Bacon’s tempestuous life was portrayed onscreen in Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (1998), directed by John Maybury and starring Derek JacobiDaniel Craig and Tilda Swinton.

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A recent BBC documentary about the artist, A Brush With Violence (2017), is available in full on YouTube.

Know any more uses, influences or references to Francis Bacon’s paintings in the movies? I’d love to hear about it!

“There is no beauty without the wound”.

Sources

Francis Bacon (artist) – Wikipedia
“The Art of David Lynch”— How Rene Magritte, Edward Hopper & Francis Bacon Influenced David Lynch’s Cinematic Vision – Open Culture
Figure with Meat – Wikipedia
StarBeast — Alien, the Chestburster
Alien: Ridley inspired by Francis Bacon