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Homage to van Gogh
  • Artist Francis Bacon (British, 1909 - 1992)
  • TitleHomage to van Gogh
  • Dating 1960
  • Technique/MaterialOil on canvas
  • Dimensions86,5 x 86,5 cm
    90 x 90 x 6 cm
  • AcquisitionPurchase, 1963
  • CategoryOil painting
  • Inventory NumberGKM 1705
  • Rights and ReproductionThe Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. BUS 2015/©
  • Display StatusNot shown in the museum
Signatures etc.
In Bacon’s portrait of Van Gogh in the Gothenburg Museum of Art, we meet a man at his most existentially vulnerable. Vincent van Gogh is shown with a disfigured face and a pipe in his mouth. He is wearing a strange cocked hat and a heavy coat. Around his head and neck he has a white bandage covering the wound left when he severed his ear—evidence of the dramatic events of Van Gogh’s mental breakdown in Arles on 23 December 1888. After an argument with Paul Gauguin, during which Van Gogh threatened his friend with a razor blade, he fled to a local brothel. There Van Gogh cut off his left ear, wrapped it in newspaper, and handed it to a prostitute.

The painting is done in the complementary colours of red and green, with white and a touch of blue about the hat. Bacon has used his bare, unprepared canvas’s absorbency to create smooth, matt fields. Van Gogh’s face, meanwhile, has been painted with a violent, pastose brushwork, and appears for all the world like a deformed piece of meat. It appears to be in motion, as if a blurry photograph. As the Cubists would have done, the face has been deconstructed. The disfigurement seems both shocking and comical, as in a nightmare. The background, split into an upper, darker area and a lower, brighter part, frames the figure as a picture within the picture, which is offset down to the painting’s lower right-hand corner. This device gives the portrait the flavour of a self-portrait, painted by looking in a mirror.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Bacon painted a series of tributes to Van Gogh. Based on Van Gogh’s The Painter on the Road to Tarascon (1888), which shows him carrying his paraphernalia and a walking stick, and Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear from January 1889, in which Van Gogh also has a blue fur hat and a pipe in his mouth, Bacon has reinterpreted the motif so as to highlight an underlying existential angst.

Bacon identified with Van Gogh. They shared a sense of exclusion and an obsession with painting, as well as an uncompromising approach to their own artistry. The portrait is as much a self-portrait of Bacon himself as a painting of Van Gogh, but perhaps above all a testimony to human life in general. Misunderstood, suffering, Van Gogh becomes a symbol of humankind’s existential vulnerability.

Kristoffer Arvidsson from The Collection Gothenburg Museum of Art, Gothenburg 2014