Last Updated 20 Jun 2022

Francis Bacon and Brett Whiteley

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Brett Whiteley and Francis Bacon Essay Question: Discuss the way Whiteley’s work; ‘Self Portrait in the Studio’ 1976, and Bacon’s ‘Figure in Movement, 1976’ show two very different approaches to practice. How have these artists used gesture, colour, and form differently in these works to explore totally different emotional and psychological territory? Francis Bacon and Brett Whiteley show two very different approaches to their practice. They use gesture, colour and form differently in these works to explore different emotional and psychological territory.

The making of an artistic practice is based on the artist’s view of the things affecting and contributing to his society and perspective on the world. Differing styles in this depend on the artist and their intent in making their artwork which is evident in the two contrasting works of Whiteley’s ‘Self portrait in the studio’ 1976 and Bacon’s ‘Figure in movement, 1976’. They portray their views through a range of techniques. Artistic practice is the way in which an artist goes about their work. It refers to the conceptual and making processes of an artwork.

An artist will find a suitable subject matter, develop skills and use visual codes and symbols to portray their ideas and concepts to hopefully trigger a certain audience response. An artist would want to be reflective of the society and world of that time to have the audience be able to connect with ideas and concepts they want to convey. How they make it and why they make it is a testimony to their different media, styles and techniques and also their use of the visual qualities and relationships as well as the influence of their global and personal world and other artists and their movements.

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Francis Bacon says that he is ‘deforming and reforming reality in his paintings’ this is evident in his work ‘Figure in movement, 1976’. Distorted features of the human form are typical with Bacons figurative style. Bacon stated that his aim was to ‘not make illustration of reality but to create images which are concentration of reality’. Subject matter is not something that Francis Bacon said he traditionally looks for but he was inspired by people like Muybridge and his photography of deformities and animal locomotion.

In his studio he has collection of his works spread out on a table, ‘these things spread around the table are perhaps what more conventional artists would call subject matter’. He is also inspired by medical books of x-rays and diseases of the mouth which he interprets as beautiful and interesting. He finds dead carcasses of cattle in the butcher as one of the most vibrant colour palettes and interesting forms. In the background of the work there is a pig carcass which is evidence of his interpretation of beauty .

He uses a mash of dark grey colours for the forms and a bright orange base with a black background ambiguously. In the work ‘Figure in movement, 1976’ Bacon based the conceptual idea from a book which had a line ‘The reek of human blood smiles out at me. ’ This provoked a strong sense of imagery which transformed in to his art and in particular this work of two distorted forms wrestling. He successfully depicts violence in to the work which has been fuelled from that line and the audience successfully receives it.

Francis Bacon is seen as an artist who creates his work very unconventionally. He uses the unprimed side of a canvas as he became accustomed to it after losing all his money and using the other side of old paintings because he couldn’t afford new canvases. He does not do sketches before taking on a painting and feels whichever way his brush takes him is the way that he wants to go. He says that ‘I have an overall image that I want to do but it’s in the working that it develops’, and ‘I believe in a deeply ordered chaos of work. Bacon never attended an art school because he thinks ‘I would have been taught all those old techniques that I just don’t want to know, I wanted to find my own techniques. You can’t any longer make illustration because it’s done so much better by the camera and the cinema. ’ He has a habit of manically working paint into a canvas not only with a paint brush but with cloths and dishwashing instruments which adds to the frenzy of his work.

Francis Bacon doesn’t put much emphasis on the meaning of his work but on the mood and feeling it creates, ’I do believe that today modern man wants a sensation really without the boredom of its conveyance, a cut down of conveyance as far as possible so you just give over to sensation’, though interestingly he says ‘I never feel anything when I do paintings there’s nothing to feel. ’ Many come away with the feeling of horror from a Bacon work but that’s not the intention ‘what horror could I make that could compete with what goes on every single day. Brett Whiteley’s painting ‘Self portrait in the studio’ won the Archibald prize in 1976. It was one of several Archibald prizes that he one in the ‘70’s. Whiteley was known for the topics of nudes, portraits, landscapes, still lifes of the female form, birds, and abstracts which all feature heavily in his self portrait of not only him but things that are dear to him and reflect his life and work as represented in the form of his studio. In this work Whiteley is trying to express that ‘yes, this is a mirror image of myself but I am not just Brett Whiteley, I am also Brett Whiteley who is part of this environment at this time. This painting is a testimony to what he loves and his working space in which he has created his career from and his artistic practice. He expresses this by including important elements of his life. Brett Whiteley strongly uses emotive qualities of colour. The whole painting is held together by the unifying prevailing quality of blue which is his signature colour. He is recognised for this colour because he is always referencing the water especially in this painting of his studio overlooking the harbour in Lavender Bay.

This colour is also spread on to the walls and acts as a calming effect on the receiving audience. The colour is rich and bright to contrast with other points of focus in the room. The way he has developed the forms and shapes in the room are meant to convey the idea of man only being as big as any other point of reference. Whiteley reinforces this idea by making all focal points distorted and exaggerated. This is a celebration of his interest in female form and his figurative sculpture works.

It is evident in ‘Self Portrait in the Studio’ that Whiteley has worked with slow, spontaneous gestures and worked back in to the canvas with scratches. The drawings of surroundings are minimal and simplistic and have been drawn with free loose lines to convey emotion. Whiteley says that ‘the best times when paintings are done when I’m not in charge of it all, if I keep my ego out of it there is kind of a pure flow of that recommendation and that solution of a kind of neat rightness that goes in as best and as accurately as one can.

This approach contributes to the mood, feeling and meaning of the work and the sense of the way being an artist has impacted on his life. The small self portrait in comparison to his big studio also reflects how it dominates his life but is reflected as his most enjoyable escape. The painting also has a dream like feel showing his relationship with his art. Both of these two artists have very differently developed their practices.

I think an interesting comparison between them is that Francis Bacon was always referencing death and in his documentary ‘The Art of Francis Bacon’ when talking about how Egyptian art inspired him said ‘I guess they were always trying to defeat death by leaving images but it won’t really make a difference. We will all be dead. ’ And that one of Brett Whiteley’s famous quote is ‘Art is the thrilling spark that beats death, that’s all. ’ I think these two conflicting statements perfectly sum up the contrast they have in ideas and show how they explore emotional and psychological territory differently.

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