Bacon’s Hidden History

X-rays of Francis Bacon’s paintings have revealed Nazi figures — and further research establishes him as a “latter-day history painter”

Art Counterpoints
Streicher made visible: X-Ray of "Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion" (c. 1944)

“You can’t be more horrific than life itself,” Francis Bacon would often say, though his art suggests he liked proving otherwise. Bacon grappled with the timeless horrors of the human condition—Margaret Thatcher famously referred to him as “that man who paints those dreadful paintings”—but his work bears the distinct scars of the 1930s and ’40s.

In his new book Francis Bacon and Nazi Propaganda (Tate Publishing, £19.99), Professor Martin Hammer, lecturer in the History and Philosophy of Art at the University of Kent, attempts to measure the influence of Nazi imagery on the artist’s formative work. Thematically, Nazism is usually taken as more of an undercurrent to than an underpinning of Bacon’s art. Hammer has clearly appreciated the difficulty in proving intention, especially with such an enigmatic personality. 

Because Bacon was not conscripted or recruited as a war artist, he observed the war from the bombed streets around his Chelsea home. This might account not only for his work’s more visceral tone but its similarities with readily available photographs. Man Standing (1942) is dark and eerily reminiscent of Hitler overlooking Prague, captured in a popular press photograph of 1938, and even the geometric composition of Dog (1952) reflects the sprawling Nuremberg rallies.

After the revelations about the Holocaust at the Eichmann trial in 1961, the figures in Bacon’s paintings began to adopt unnatural forms. Fascism took on the image of an animalised carcass and the Crucifixion became an analogue for Nazism’s spectacle of cruelty. To Hammer, these pairings open another dimension to Bacon’s work and turn him into a “latter-day history painter”. 

Although he was clearly affected by the war and had a reputation of working from photographic sources, Bacon never unambiguously acknowledged a direct line between his paintings and German propaganda. Hammer notes that Bacon preferred that his work “seep through” the viewer organically and without formal explanation, but he highlights paintings such as Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962), where Bacon had admitted to using images of Hitler and Eichmann only subsequently to disavow his words. Bacon also dismissed the inclusion of a red armband in Crucifixion (1965) as a solely aesthetic choice, but Hammer uncovered a clipping from the Sunday Times Magazine tucked away in his studio, showing the streets of Nazi Berlin draped in crimson flags.

Later in his career, Bacon attempted to destroy all the canvases he created before his seminal work, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (c. 1944). Even the triptych played a role in the cover-up, as X-ray imaging of the right panel (above) revealed a figure closely resembling the Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher hidden beneath thick layers of burnt orange paint. Hammer’s Bacon is a purposefully elusive man keen on hiding his tracks.