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Pablo Picasso, Figures on the Seashore, 1931 

© Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2018 © Musee Picasso, Paris, France/Bridgeman Images

‘Let’s say perhaps that Picasso helped me to see…’[1]

Francis Bacon

Bacon studio material, fragment from unknown source, Pablo Picasso opening or closing a door

Bacon studio material, fragment from unknown source, Pablo Picasso opening or closing a door. Collection: Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane Source Clipping © The Estate of Francis Bacon

Pablo Picasso (25 October 1881 – 08 April 1973) was one of the most famous and influential artists of the 20th century, and is, to date, celebrated for his versatility, inventiveness and productivity. The Spaniard worked in a wide variety of media, ranging from drawing, painting, print making and sculpting to ceramics. He played a crucial role in the development of collage and, together with Georges Braque, pioneered Cubism. Amongst his best-known works are the Proto-Cubist painting of a group of prostitutes, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, which was highly controversial at the time of its execution, and Guernica, 1937, a monumental black and white painting which illustrates the terror of a German bomb attack on the Basque village of the same name. The urge to challenge Picasso’s dominant position in the art world and to eventually surpass his idol was a major driving force behind Bacon’s early work.[2]

The impact of Picasso on Bacon’s work is well-recognized, but it is still unclear how and when it first became relevant. Bacon often emphasized his admiration for the surrealist beach scenes that Picasso had painted in Cannes and Dinard between 1927 and 1932, for their protagonists’ ‘organic form that relates to the human body but is a complete distortion of it’, and those works are regarded as pivotal for Bacon’s own concepts and shapes.[3]Bacon furthermore repeatedly claimed that seeing a Picasso exhibition at Chez Paul Rosenberg gallery in Paris in 1927 triggered his wish to become a painter.[4]And yet, this exhibition did not feature his cherished beach scenes nor precipitate an immediate turn to painting; rather, after his return to London, he initially embarked on a career as an interior designer.[5]Picasso’s surrealistic period only manifested itself in Bacon’s paintings after 1933.[6]

In fact, Bacon’s work of the late 1920s and 1930s indicates a less exclusive interest in Picasso’s Surrealism, and a less sudden entrance of his influence.[7]Bacon’s first attempts in painting show traces of Picasso’s Neoclassicism.[8]While Herbert Read suggestively juxtaposed Crucifixion, 1933, with Baigneuse aux Bras Levés, 1929, in his 1933 publication Art Now, David Sylvester pointed out that it also bears resemblance to Picasso’s Crucifixion drawing after Grünewald, 1932.[9]The same author saw coherence with Picasso’s biomorphs in Bacon’s Interior of a Room, c.1935, while Martin Harrison underlined the similarities between Bacon’s Studio-Interior, c.1936, and Picasso’s Jeune Fille dessinant dans un intérieur, c.1935.[10]Bacon eagerly absorbed Picasso but failed to uncouple himself from his influence to create truly independent work. This frustration perhaps fed into his decision to temporarily retire from painting between 1937 and 1943.[11]

After this hiatus, however, Bacon took up the fight once again. As the artist himself explained, Picasso resonated strongly in his breakthrough work, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion from 1944, and the linear biomorphs, with their elongated, tubular necks and bulging bodies are evocative of works such as Picasso’s Figures at the Seaside, 1931, and Guernica, 1937.[12]Soon after the execution of this work, Picasso’s direct influence on Bacon’s work rapidly waned. Bacon developed a more painterly approach, palpable in Painting 1946, for which Picasso’s model lost its significance, and his commitment to the human figure in 1949 emancipated him fully from his idol. References to Picasso did, however, continue to appear throughout Bacon’s career. For example, he repeatedly returned to Picasso’s motif of the key turning in a door, which the latter had employed as a hidden hint to his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter.[13]It features, for instance, in Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne, 1967 and Painting, 1978.[14]



[1]Michel Archimbaud, Francis Bacon In Conversation with Michel Archimbaud, London: Phaidon, 1993, p.32.

[2]Martin Harrison, In Camera Francis Bacon: Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, London: Thames & Hudson, 2005, p.7 and p.36.

[3]Archimbaud, 1993, pp.33; David Sylvester, Brutality of fact: interviews with Francis Bacon, London: Thames & Hudson, 1987, p.8; Harrison, 2005, p.17.

[4]Archimbaud, 1993, pp.32; Sylvester, 1987, p.186.

[5]Harrison, 2005, p.17 and p.19.

[6]Martin Harrison and Rebecca Daniels, ‘Australian Connections’, pp. 32-43, in: Francis Bacon: Five Decades, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 17 November 2012 —24 February 2013, Anthony Bond (ed.), London: Thames & Hudson, 2012, p.33.



[9]David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London: Thames & Hudson, 2000, pp.13 and p.15; Herbert Read, Art Now, London: Faber and Faber, 1933, ill. no. 106 and 107.

[10]Sylvester, 2000, p.16; Harrison, 2005, p.33.

[11]Cf. Harrison, 2005, p.33 and p.36.

[12]Sylvester, 2000, p.19.

[13]Cf. Harrison, 2005, p.19.