Bacon memorably described the gaunt figure in Vincent Van Gogh’s The Painter on the Road to Tarascon, 1888, as a ‘phantom of the road’. Two journeys to South Africa, but especially The Painter on the Road to Tarascon, triggered fundamental changes in Bacon’s work in the 1950s.
In the early 1950s, the proximity to lens-based imagery and its aesthetics is palpable in the candid camera poses and the sombre colour schemes of Bacon’s paintings. They evoke the tonality of contemporary newspaper printing and, in works such as Three Studies from the Human Head, 1953, black and white photography. He feverishly experimented with new subjects and styles, and in 1957 stunned the art world with an explosion of colour, applying vivid shades of red, green, yellow and blue in his variations on Van Gogh’s masterpiece. The free, gestural brushwork in these paintings echoed Bacon’s admiration for both Van Gogh and Chaïm Soutine.
In 1951 Bacon created his first portrait of an identified sitter, Portrait of Lucian Freud, although it was in fact based on a photograph of Franz Kafka that Bacon had found in a book. In 1956 he painted the earliest surviving Self-Portrait. Bacon explored a wide range of subjects from exotic animals such as elephants, polar bears and monkeys to dogs and owls. Suited businessmen featured in his imagery as well as the eminent popes, crouching nudes and the death mask of William Blake; they were often painted in series or loosely related groups.
Drained by a deteriorating relationship with ‘the love of his life,’ Peter Lacy, Bacon began to radically rethink his practice in the late 1950s.