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Loneliness and Alienation

Born in Dublin on 28 October 1909, Francis Bacon had no one location he could truly call home when he was growing up. His father planned on breeding horses in Ireland, but came to London to join the War Office in 1914. After the war, the family moved around several locations in Ireland in constant fear of being targeted by the Irish independence movement. The asthma that Bacon suffered from made him unable to hunt and engage in the kinds of physical pursuits his father admired. Worse still, in his father’s eyes, was the fact that he was gay, a reality that Bacon discovered and disclosed in his youth. All in all, Francis Bacon experienced a lonely childhood and the sense of social alienation never left him. The loneliness may have been intolerable if it weren’t for his maternal grandmother, who lived in Abbeyleix, Ireland, and provided the young man with some parental warmth and acceptance.

Detachment and Destruction

After spending two months in Berlin in 1927, 18-year-old Francis Bacon traveled to Paris where he was profoundly moved by a Picasso exhibition. From this point on, he was resolved to become an artist, but as a reflection of the general state of his social class – the disposed Anglo-Irish gentry – Bacon found himself drifting and rootless. Some initial success finding patrons and critical acclaim for his 1933 painting, Crucifixion was soon dissipated, and very little of the art he created between 1937 and 1943 survived, as he destroyed most of his work at the time. Yet, while the products of his work were lost, his technique, unique take on the human body, and artistic agenda were developing. His life and art were not a sterile void after all.

Agony and Tolerance

Francis Bacon made a breakthrough as an artist with his 1944 painting, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. Here, the major themes that made the rest of his career a success are present. The figures, vaguely human, seem agonized and violent. Francis Bacon often quoted Aeschylus’s phrase, “the reek of human blood smiles out at me”, in relation to this work, and the ambiguity here served him well. Was he exploring taboos of blood, saliva, flesh and bone in order to revel in them as someone with no moral care for the human species, a kind of visual psychopathy? If it was as simple as that these paintings would not be as disturbing and haunting as they are. They work because Francis Bacon embraced all that is human, including our taboos, and he did so unflinchingly.

Embracing Anger

In 1953, Bacon found a means of making his own pain universal. He painted his ‘Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X’. This was a subject to which he returned time and again, at least forty-five of his paintings addressed the same image, that of Innocent X in his pontifical chair. Francis Bacon himself playfully explained this fixation by saying that no other subject allowed him to paint such purple colors as did the pope’s clothes. But the viewer is inevitably struck by the crucial distortion that Bacon brings to the 1650 original. Bacon’s pope, whose face is often skeletal, is screaming in anguish, confined to his chair. This evokes a feeling far more profound than a critique of church authority. It causes the viewers to see themselves as mortal, constrained and howling in grief. It reveals the pain that lies under the surface of existence. We may relish our place in the world, but the furies are never far away. By daring to embrace the aspects of humanity that we normally shy away from Francis Bacon translated his own distress into the universal language of pain. His works can shock, even now, let alone in the context of mid-twentieth century art.




Andy Warhol was so dedicated to being an artist that he overcame major physical and emotional challenges. Warhol was born in 1929 to poor parents who had emigrated to America from modern day Slovakia. He grew up in Pittsburgh, where he had a difficult childhood, due to his suffering from a medical disorder called Sydenham’s chorea. This serious condition, which causes loss of motor control over limbs and involuntary facial twitches, was a terrible blow to young Warhol’s ambitions. Not only were there physical challenges he had to face, but having to spend weeks at a time in bed, he was also socially cut off from his peers. Nonetheless, he overcame the disease if not the sense of isolation, to study commercial art at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, graduating with a BA in Fine Art in 1949.

Being at the Right Place at the Right Time

Andy Warhol had a profound grasp of the revolution of the 1960s. Having moved to New York to work in advertising and illustration for magazines, Warhol was perfectly placed to witness both the explosion of mass production and marketing and the rise of a counter-culture that apposed the crassness of modern advertising. Warhol’s art embraced both developments. His work began to be displayed in galleries in the late 1950s and early 1960s. From this ‘Pop Art’ period comes his famous, repeated images of quintessential American people and objects: Marilyn Monroe, Mohamed Ali, Elvis Presley, Campbell’s Soup Cans, electric chairs, dollar bills, Coca-Cola bottles, etc.

Profound Humor

Satire and subversion can have a powerful impact. Some early critics misunderstood Warhol and thought that he was embracing US capitalism, that his paintings were merely ads. But when you take an advertising idea or image and exaggerate it, draw attention to it, repeat it and place it in a gallery it changes its meaning. The artwork becomes both a mirror on the world and an iconic artifact in its own right. The mockery in Andy Warhol’s approach to art often makes the impact of his prints and paintings deeply subversive. At times, his work even evokes anger at the distasteful use of matters like the death chair or fatal car accidents as commercial promotion tools and topics.


Andy Warhol made himself a celebrity as well as an artist. He is the one who said we each have our ‘fifteen minutes of fame’. He had a knack for advertising, he knew how to be accurately provocative and get the right kind of attention. Warhol founded ‘the Factory’, his New York studio, where he surrounded himself with ‘art-workers’ who helped him produce silk screens and films in an atmosphere of permissiveness, parties and amphetamines. The fact that he was at the center of a larger network of artists meant that even when the momentum behind the appeal of his own works faltered, interest in him would be revived by the success of someone he had mentored.

Andy Warhol died in 1987 and his works have gone on to be extraordinarily collectible. In 2013, ‘Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)’ sold at auction for $105.4m.


Even before the profound rupture of the Great War and the political revolutions that followed, a revolution in culture had taken in the first decade of the twentieth century. And in the visual arts, almost no one was so transformed by that revolution as Wassily Kandinsky. He was born in Moscow in 1866 and studied art in Odessa at the Grekov Art School. He then moved on to study law and economics and only returned to art in his 30s. Kandinsky’s early works are beautiful in the warmth of their colors, but conventional. As he began to think about the challenges of modernism in music as well as art, Wassily Kandinsky gradually became even more daring. The outlines of structures in his paintings began to melt. From 1911 onward, he filled entire canvasses with colored abstractions, and was among the first to produce purely abstract art.

From the Concrete to the Conceptual

The challenge faced by all artists in an era where a camera could reproduce scenes more accurately than a painting was to think again about the purpose of their art. For Kandinsky, the solution to the crisis of traditional art was to understand that art functions on two levels simultaneously, it influences both the senses and the mind. Once he had decided to investigate the effects of abstract painting on the mind, he opened the door to a revolution. Spending hours and hours experimenting with the impact of shape on color on his inner being, Wassily Kandinsky came to realize that even apparently simple geometric shapes could carry a powerful aesthetic impact to the viewer.

Wassily Kandinsky and the Bauhaus

The Bauhaus was an avant-garde art school that strove to unite arts, crafts and architecture in a revolutionary and modern fashion. Kandinsky was invited to join the school and there (1922 – 1933) he perfected his technique. His paintings from this period are stunning, in that they use carefully chosen blocks of color to evoke an emotional response in the viewer and selected shapes to challenge the human desire to make sense of patterns. Wassily Kandinsky was among the practitioners persecuted by the Nazis, who included his work in the list of ‘degenerate art’. He was forced to flee and moved to France, where he lived and worked until 1944.

“My Six-Year-Old Can Paint Like That…”

The case against Wassily Kandinsky, as against many other modern artists, is that anyone can paint in his style, even children. Yet contemplation of Kandinsky’s works evokes such strong responses that there must be more to them than the superficially playful interaction of color and shape. And there is. Wassily Kandinsky himself explained the issue in his 1926 book, Point and Line to Plane. The subjective effect upon the inner mind of the viewer even of points and lines can be profound. The manner in which a line is placed, the angle it makes, is enough to create meaning. A horizontal line evokes the ground on which a person moves, while a curved line suggests powerful forces are at work. Only someone who spends decades mastering color and contemplating on the spiritual and unconscious associations of geometric shapes can produce such masterful paintings as those of Wassily Kandinsky.



Who Was Marcel Duchamp?

Marcel Duchamp was born in 1887. He attended school in Rouen and developed an interest in art from an early age. This was an easy path for him to take, as his whole family was immersed in the arts: painting, engraving, sculpture and printing. Although arts were significant to his upbringing, the love of chess also played a central part: Marcel Duchamp’s engagement with art was essentially cerebral rather than visceral. This perhaps explains why it was Duchamp, more than any other modern artist, who revolutionized thinking about art.

The Early Work of Marcel Duchampmarcel-duchamp-mona-liza

Seeing as Duchamp became famous for creating art works that, at a certain level, could have been produced by anyone at all, it’s important to appreciate that Marcel Duchamp was a masterful artist in the traditional sense. His 1912, Nude Descending a Staircase No.2 is an oil on canvass that demonstrates the artist’s complete mastery of palette and line. It is also a profoundly revolutionary painting.

Art in an Age of Motion

In our current times, it is hard to appreciate how disturbing the early 20th century world Marcel Duchamp lived in was. Everything was in flux: heavy engines and massive factories everywhere, constantly producing shocking sounds; changing perspectives and new ways of thinking with the collapse of Newton’s static model of the universe; and amazing visual developments in film and photography. In the context of this chaos, the key question Duchamp asked himself was how to capture the energy of motion in a static display of paint on canvass. Nude Descending was a brilliant response to this challenge. His solution was to fragment a scene and present the viewer with images of several moments juxtaposed in the same painting. In this respect, Marcel Duchamp can be considered an early Cubist (Cubism was an approach to painting that had also been embraced by his older brothers). But Marcel Duchamp’s modernity disturbed even the Cubists, as he subverted all the traditions of painting in his attempt to grasp the nature of his time.

Marcel Duchamp’s New Forms of Art rouebicyclette

Duchamp abandoned the purely visual in art and strove to find a way to address aesthetics via an interplay between the object and the effect of looking at it. Although it meant giving up the usual path of the artist in his day and ignoring demands for portraits and landscapes, Duchamp continued to explore alternative artistic activity while taking a position as a librarian. At this time, he famously said of a design for an airplane (then the height of modern technical achievement) “Painting is washed up. Who will ever do anything better than that propeller?” It took him ten years, but in 1934, Duchamp demonstrated that he had found a entirely new approach to art and showcased one of his great masterpieces – The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even.

Chance in Artfountain by marcel duchamp

Marcel Duchamp’s incorporation of chance into art now seems conventional, but in 1934 it was shocking. Bride, a work of painting and sculpture between two large glass panels, uses everyday materials such as wire and a chocolate grinder. Marcel Duchamp also allowed dust to accumulate in places and incorporated it into the final artwork (evoking a sense of the passing of time).

Marcel Duchamp’s Urinal

Almost certainly Marcel Duchamp’s most controversial artwork was his Fountain, 1917, which was a urinal, signed R. Mutt. Shortsightedly, the Society of Independent Artists rejected the piece for their New York exhibition. This found and ‘ready-made’ object certainly was art and had a significant aesthetic impact as became evident in the heated debates that followed. The value of art had previously been thought to derive from the skill of the artist. But Fountain was not a work that required any technical expertise. It did, however, require a profound and revolutionary appreciation that the responses art triggers in the mind of the viewer are sometimes more powerfully evoked by the presentation of everyday objects than by traditional paintings.


Who is ‘Banksy’?

As a fan of his art and his attitude, I’ve no desire to add to the commentators who like to ‘out’ Banksy and intrude on his privacy. Moreover, the mystery of who he is becomes part of the excitement of his art. Where will this anonymous radical wielder of spray paint strike next? The fact that Banksy masks his identity and uses humor to subvert authority allows us to conjure up figures like the character ‘V’, in Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta. There is no need to rein in our imagination by focusing on his real name.

Banksy’s Background

It is relevant to Banksy’s art that we understand his background. As a young man, he grew up in Bristol in the UK in the 1980s. Bristol is a city of massive contradictions; once a major imperial port and center of the slave trade, it now combines buildings embodying its ostentatious past with communities experiencing severe poverty. While not from a particularly deprived background himself, Banksy lived on the borders of this contradiction, entering the rougher areas of the town to practice his art and become friends with those whose values were steeped in alienation from, and contempt for, the political and cultural elite in the UK. keep reading