‘Oh yes, cinema is great art!’ Bacon enthused about the medium of film, going on to remark that, if he had not become a painter, he would have liked to have been a director himself.Abel Gance, Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais and Luis Buñuel were amongst Bacon’s favourite filmmakers, but the work of Russian director and film theorist Sergei Eisenstein (23 January 1898 – 11 February 1948) held a special position within the broad range of his visual interests, and a particular significance for his painting. Eisenstein started his career making propaganda films in the Soviet Union during the 1920s. After unsuccessful attempts to work in Hollywood and Mexico in the early 1930s, he returned to Russia, where he stayed for the rest of his life. He is best known for the silent movies Strike and Battleship Potemkin, both from 1925, and October, from 1928, as well as the historical dramas Alexander Nevsky, 1938 and Ivan the Terrible, released in two parts in 1944 and 1958 respectively. Together with Lev Kuleshov, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Dziga Vertov, Eisenstein was one of the most prominent figures to advance cinematic montage techniques. The term ‘montage’ describes a movie editing method in which disparate, even conflicting shots are juxtaposed to suggest, in combination, a novel meaning.
By his own account, Eisenstein’s work, and particularly Battleship Potemkin, had a great impact on Bacon.The movie is based on the true events surrounding the mutiny of a Russian warship’s crew on the Black Sea in 1905. In relation to the film, which he may have seen as early as 1929, Bacon remarked that ‘of course, during the silent era, the image had tremendous force. The images of silent film were sometimes very powerful, very beautiful.’Bacon absorbed that force in his own painted variations of one of Battleship Potemkin’s most poignant shots; the famous Odessa step scene, in which Imperial soldiers and Cossacks conduct a brutal massacre on the city’s population, concluding with a close-up of the face of a wounded woman with pince-nez, who is screaming in agony and terror. From 1949 on, Bacon frequently referenced this image, which he said had ‘deeply impressed’ him, in his own screaming figures. Her gaping mouth distinctively informed Head VI of the same year; together with the dangling pince-nez it echoes in Pope III, 1951 and Study for the Head of a Screaming Pope, 1952; and the motif is developed in a full-length nude, in Study for the Nurse in the Film Battleship Potemkin in 1957.
Michel Archimbaud, Francis Bacon In Conversation with Michel Archimbaud, London: Phaidon, 1993, p.16.
Cf. Mark Joyce, 'The Soviet Montage Cinema of the 1920s', in: An Introduction to Film Studies, ed. Jill Nelmes, London/New York: Routledge, 1996, p.395.
Archimbaud, 1993, p.16.
Archimbaud, 1993, p.16; Martin Harrison, In Camera Francis Bacon: Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, London: Thames & Hudson, 2005, p.26.
David Sylvester, Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, London: Thames & Hudson, 1987, p.34.