In 1951 and again in 1952 Bacon sailed out to South Africa where his mother had moved after his father’s death. His sisters Ianthe and Winnie had settled in neighbouring Southern Rhodesia (modern Zimbabwe). During both visits, the artist was struck by the sight of wild animals moving through the long grass, a sensation he conjured up in several canvases of 1952, notably Study of a Figure in a Landscape, 1952. On his first voyage back in 1951, he stopped off for a couple of days in Cairo. Bacon held ancient Egyptian art in enormous admiration and later asserted that its achievement had been unsurpassed. From 1953 to 1954, he painted four works based on the great Sphinx.
In those same two years Bacon depicted men in suits within dark, suggested surroundings. The series of seven paintings, Man in Blue I-VII, 1954, was his most reductive treatment of the subject and was inspired, in part, by a man who had modeled for the artist in the Imperial Hotel, Henley-on-Thames.
Bacon had also had begun to tackle the nude in a more forthright manner. He painted Two Figures, 1953, and in the following year Two Figures in the Grass, 1954. The coupled male nudes from both works are derived from Eadweard Muybridge’s, The Human Figure in Motion, 1901, a volume of sequential photographs of the body in action. The Human Figure in Motion became an indispensable visual dictionary for Bacon. Its companion volume, Animals in Motion, 1899 provided visual templates for his paintings of dogs, such as Dog, 1952.
In his paintings of Two Figures, the poses were based on Muybridge’s images of wrestlers, but manipulated to more personal and sexual ends. Bacon was aware of the ambiguity between the movements of wrestlers and lovers, acutely so, since his own love life had recently taken an obsessive and masochistic turn.
By 1950, Eric Hall was no longer living with Bacon, though he had left his wife and children, and later bought and donated Dog, 1952, to the Tate. Bacon left Cromwell Place after the death of Nanny Lightfoot on the 30th April 1951, an event that traumatised him. Over the next ten years he moved from studio to studio, most of them borrowed or strictly temporary. Among those friends who obliged with a room were Peter Pollock and Paul Danquah who lived in Battersea. Sometime before 1952, Bacon became involved with the former fighter and test pilot, Peter Lacy. Their relationship was a potent mixture of the compulsive and destructive, and Bacon remained in thrall to Lacy’s neurotic sadism for much of the decade.
When Lacy moved to Tangier in the mid-1950s, Bacon followed him. For the next few years he divided his time between Morocco and London, where his circle of friends ranged from Soho luminaries such as Muriel Belcher, John Deakin, John Minton, Michael Andrews and Frank Auerbach to the literary salons of Ann Fleming and Sonia Orwell. He got on well with Robert and Lisa Sainsbury, who became exceptionally loyal patrons. In Tangier he struck up friendships with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, but predictably accomplished little while actually there.
His international reputation, however, continued to grow. In 1954 he exhibited with Ben Nicholson and Lucian Freud in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. When in Rome (he failed to attend the Venice Biennale), he deliberately avoided seeing Velázquez’s Pope Innocent X in the flesh. He had his first one-man show in New York at Durlacher Brothers in 1953 and his first in Paris, at the Galerie Rive Droite in 1957.
By 1957 Bacon’s painting was undergoing a transformation in handling and colour, that much became dazzlingly apparent at his exhibition at the Hanover Gallery in March that year. There he presented six paintings inspired by Van Gogh’s The Painter on the Road to Tarascon, 1888 (destroyed during the Second World War), including one painted the year before. The next three works were made in a tremendous hurry to meet the show’s deadline and the remaining two added sometime later. Necessity accelerated a process already in train; Bacon’s application of paint became coarser, his impasto thick and ridged, and his colours far more strident in range and hue. Van Gogh was one stimulus, the Céret works of Chaim Soutine and the fierce light of Morocco were two others. It was a decisive break with the ghostly forms and sombre backgrounds of the first half of the 1950s, and a permanent one.
What followed was a period of transition. He signed a contract in October 1958 with Marlborough Fine Art after its directors had offered to take on the considerable debt of £1,242 he then owed to the Hanover Gallery. Bacon respected the eye of Marlborough’s co-founder Frank Lloyd, and his day-to-day affairs were handled by the gallery’s Valerie Beston.