Disturbing, raw and graphic – so was Francis Bacon inspired by the Nazis?

Evidence of fascist imagery in artist's most important paintings has been ignored

Francis Bacon appropriated Nazi propaganda for some of his most important paintings to explore "man's capacity for savage violence", a leading art historian claims.

Critics have long ignored the depth of inspiration the painter drew from fascist imagery despite "compelling" visual evidence, Martin Hammer says. Several of Bacon's most violent works, which are generally interpreted as sexual and autobiographical, actually contain "submerged" attempts to deal with the horrors of Hitler's regime, he argues in his book, Francis Bacon and Nazi Propaganda.

It aims to shed new light on one of the greatest British artists of the 20th century. Hammer, professor of history and philosophy of art at the University of Kent, said: "The use of Nazi imagery in Bacon's work was an important aspect of his creativity; it is present in many works. It was something that hadn't been addressed."

Where contemporaries sought to bury wartime memories, Bacon appropriated and transformed Nazi photography, using the imagery as a springboard for works painted over 20 years. The professor says it is remarkable that Bacon's Nazi aesthetics have not been scrutinised before: "The visual evidence is compelling, but it's hard to know what to make of it. It's open to interpretation."

Bacon was born in 1909. He experienced the Blitz in London, but unlike many of his contemporaries he did not participate in the Second World War or become a war artist. Professor Hammer said: "Bacon started working with this imagery, looking at the true nature of the regime that had emerged. He used it to explore the instinctive, savage, bestial nature that was dominating everyone's lives."

The influences came from photographs and posters, often by Heinrich Hoffmann, a photographer close to Hitler. Many of the German images were recycled in books and magazines in the UK, Professor Hammer said.

"There was a horrified fascination with the image of Hitler and the Nazi leadership." The book refers to a painting of a "screaming orator-like figure with a military helmet, it clearly sets up the Nazi leadership as these grotesque creatures. You get a sense of his horrified reaction to this culture."

The professor added: "His earliest pictures using Nazi imagery were pretty obvious, which is why he abandoned them. Increasingly these references were submerged."

In his book, published next month by the Tate, Professor Hammer addresses the question of how and why Bacon appropriated the Fascist imagery. The trigger for the book, was the major Bacon exhibition at the Tate Britain in 2008.

"It started a purely visual observation. I noted the parallels between one or two of the paintings and certain Nazi images I was aware of," he said. That started a process of research that accumulated a whole series of other images. "It got to the point where I felt this was a consistent feature of Bacon's work from the 50s and 60s."

Bacon never referred to the Nazis, "largely because he wasn't asked about it. Interviewers either didn't recognise it or thought it shouldn't be talked about," Professor Hammer said.

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama

TV

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before