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Art & artists

Francis Bacon: exploring the horrors of Nazi imagery

— December 2013

Article read level: Academic

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Cover of Francis Bacon and Nazi Propaganda

Did the ‘power, violence and tragedy’ embodied in Nazi propaganda inspire Bacon’s art?

Francis Bacon and Nazi Propaganda by Martin Hammer

In a 2009 article, Martin Hammer and Christopher Stephens proposed that Francis Bacon used Nazi propaganda images as ‘points of reference and departure for many pictures from the early 1940s to the mid-1950s and beyond’. They analysed certain early abandoned or overpainted works particularly effectively. The overpainted Figure Getting Out of a Car (c.1945–6) is related loosely to images of Hitler greeting crowds with handshakes. Its car is based on a specific photograph of Hitler saluting in his car at a Nuremburg rally. The Nuremburg colonnade at the top of that photo was cut out and copied in a strange early landscape with disruptive gestural marks that came on the art market in 2008.

Hammer and Stephens proposed that the overpainted Study for Man with Microphones (1946) was based on images of haranguing Nazi orators, and that the architectural lines of the Tate’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) ‘conceivably’ came from Nazi architectural sources. The setting and swags of MOMA’s Painting (1946) were seen as alluding to similar overwheening Nazi imagery. Hammer and Stephens pursue Matthew Gale’s suggestion that the striated patterns of Bacon’s post-1949 settings derive from the vertical patterns of searchlights exploited at the Nuremburg rallies for grandiose effect. The references to Nazi imagery are found to be still there in the use of a Nazi armband in Munich Modern Art Gallery’s triptych Crucifixion (1965).


Essentially this research is the guts of Martin Hammer’s own new book Francis Bacon and Nazi Propaganda, expanded with Christopher Stephens’ approval and support to introduce much more loose comparative imagery, to study the sorts of magazines and tomes that Bacon may have seen, and to explore Bacon’s more general use of photographs and creative processes. Hammer somewhat qualifies the centrality of Nazi references by noting that the power, violence and tragedy evoked were more ‘backdrop’ for his themes of vulnerability and loneliness, for Bacon’s ‘desperate search for existential meaning in human relations and intimate couplings’. The young ambitious Bacon was minded to make reference to recent politics, but these were the very works that he soon refused to value or literally destroyed. Making a case for a specific content around Nazism in Bacon’s 1950s work is actually quite problematic.

One core issue of this specific example of iconographical art history is that, by traditional criteria, many of the proposed ‘sources’ are not close enough to stand up as proven, such as the claim with which the book opens that Eindhoven’s Fragment from a Crucifixion (1950) is based upon photographs of Hitler leaning and shaking hands from a train. The central issue elsewhere is a conflation and confusion of origination with final meaning. It is all very well to study a painting’s origins), but the final structured painted image (expressive meaning) is a different matter.

For example, the argument that Bacon’s Popes refer specifically to Nazism depends on our accepting that Bacon’s favoured striated settings mean Nuremburg’s ‘Cathedral of Light’ or that screaming mouths refer only to the secret terror of Nazi leaders. Figure Getting Out of a Car (c.1945-6) became not a triumphant Hitler but a grotesque monster before its jibe at Nazism was simply overpainted. With Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), it is difficult to accept, even if the architectural lines were drawn from Nazi architecture, that they specifically signify that meaning in their final form. Hammer is aware of such transformations but often wants to imply a buried vestigial significance in the new image.

The book is overlong, and there are methodological questions to be asked, but Hammer is always interesting on Bacon’s outlook and procedures. Those studying this period will want this book for its focused discussion of Bacon’s immersion in mass vernacular photography and of Bacon’s creative devices and processes. In fact, anyone interested in how cultural figures in the post-war period reacted to the revelations of Nazism’s horrors, in the aestheticisation that accompanied Nazi visual culture, and in Bacon’s own exploration of cruelty, animality, angst and anomie will surely want to own this book.

Francis Bacon and Nazi Propaganda by Martin Hammer is published by Tate Publishing, London, 2012. 224pp, 137 illus, mono illus, £19-99 ISBN 9781-84976-073-7


Adrian Lewis
Art historian and artist

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