Only a scant number of photographs of Vincent Van Gogh exist. Early in his adult life, he made a conscious decision to avoid the gaze of the camera, choosing rather to render his own likeness in paint. He believed photography was totally inadequate in truly capturing its sitter. Only the expressive qualities of paint, colour and the artist’s hand had a chance of revealing a person’s true self. Over his short life, he sat for himself a total of 38 times, all in an attempt to reveal a glimpse of who he really was. Francis Bacon also shared this revealing approach to portraiture. Bacon splayed his subjects open, spilling them all over the canvas in an attempt to scratch behind the surface. Photography doesn’t stand a chance in this regard at the feet of these two titans of painting. Both men handled paint in new and exciting ways that pushed technique to the forefront only to profoundly step aside to allow their subject’s voices be heard loud and clear. They both dealt with darkness and light in equal measures, translating their personal struggles into masterpieces but behind all the Sunflowers and Triptychs who is the greater artist?
Vincent Van Gogh taught himself how to paint through trial and error. During the roughly ten years he devoted to becoming an artist he produced an astounding number of works. Along the way his style evolved and blossomed. For an artist renown for his use of colour he started in the mud. In his early works, his palette consisted of umbers and blacks. Following in the tradition of Millet; an artist Van Gogh greatly admired he wanted to capture the dignity and culture of the humble working class. The paintings of this time are somber yet compelling but it’s in his drawings of this same era where the seeds of his true genius can be found. The expressive line that was still missing at the time in his paintings can be found in charcoal.
Bacon’s early work before his mature style was also dark and shadowy. Works like Study for a Running Dog and even his Popes function more as ghost like drawings on black and blue backgrounds than paintings. He uses a conservation of brushstrokes to knock in the details and accentuate the highlights. The blueprint for further explorations are evident but there is definitely a learning curve present. He has radically stripped away the colour and detail of the earlier successes of Painting and Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. Many elements are slowly being worked out to arrive at something genuinely new.
A short time after his journey began to become an artist Van Gogh discovered the Impressionists. It proved to be the perfect storm; his drawing could come to the forefront, as well he now had a licence to explore light and colour. At the end of the 19th century Paris was the center of the Art World and Vincent knew he wanted to be part of it. Van Gogh wanted Paris but Paris didn’t want Van Gogh. In the end, Vincent wanted to follow the sun anyway, and left for the south of France where his genius would grow along with his madness.
Bacon replaced his black voids with bright pinks and mauves, warm orange and yellow spaces that tricked the viewer into a false sense of safety and security. The palette had changed but the subject matter remained the same. The vivisections were now being performed in a children’s playroom. Two parts beauty plus two parts horror; Francis Bacon had come home. He had created genuine visual friction. He would explore this marriage for the rest of his career.
Van Gogh discovered colour with a vengeance. Yellow was transformed into pure light. The heat of the noonday sun still radiates from his canvases. Impressionism let him loose but Expressionism transformed him. The sky became a living thing, landscapes breathed and people spoke their minds. Van Gogh captured his own personal artistic awakenings and discoveries right onto the canvas. We get to share in these breakthroughs in what feels like real time. His paintings seem to be alive with expressive force.
Expressionism was a tag Bacon had no taste for. He didn’t like being labelled and delegated to specific corners of Art history. His style is truly his own and everyone who attempts what he accomplished will always be compared to him. Aside from fellow Brit Lucian Freud and a handful of others; Bacon had very little respect for the art of his own time. Even the art of the past held no special appeal for him with the exceptions of Velazquez and Van Gogh.
Bacon completed a series of paintings depicting the Dutch artist in 1957 based on Van Gogh’s work Painter on the Road to Tarascon 1888. He shows Van Gogh on his way to work melding with the landscape cast in shadow. The series was completed in a hurry to meet a gallery deadline. In this way Bacon is channeling Van Gogh’s working process in both subject and technique. Vincent liked to work fast, out in the open; instilling his paintings with both energy and emotion. Bacon struggles with this and is obviously more comfortable with the confines of the studio and utilizing photographic source material. In the end this reveals more about Van Gogh’s genius than Bacon’s.
Francis Bacon produced some of the most arresting images of the 20th century. He had a knack for making the ugly beautiful, but Van Gogh had that special gift of transcending beauty all together and capturing the sublime.
Winner: Van Gogh