barber institute of fine arts
university of birmingham


One of the finest paintings in any UK public collection by Francis Bacon – one of the most important British painters of the 20th century – goes on display in the galleries at the Barber on Friday.

Anglo-Irish artist Bacon (1909-1992) is celebrated as one of the greatest iconoclastic modernists of the last century and one of the most significant painters ever to have worked in Britain. 

Two Figures in a Room, 1959, has been lent to the Barber by the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia. It is the first time the Barber has ever displayed a work by Bacon, and this is only the second time this painting has been shown publicly in the UK outside the Sainsbury Centre since 1962. 

A disquieting image from Bacon’s middle years, Two Figures in a Room is one of a series of similar compositions. At one level, these faceless figures may be read as two lovers, apparently both men – a daring and provocative image to paint at a time when homosexual acts were still illegal in the UK.

There have been numerous suggestions about the sources for these two figures: works featuring bathers by Matisse and Degas, and even a Michelangelo sculpture, Crouching Boy, in the Hermitage in St Petersburg.

Two Figures in a Room will be hung in the Barber’s Red Gallery, among the old masters of our permanent collection. Here it will join Frank Auerbach’s Primrose Hill – Winter (1981/2) – the only painting in the collection by a living artist – reflecting both artists’ crucial debt to the art of the past.

Robert Wenley, the Barber’s Deputy Director, said: ‘Both juxtapositions emphasise the continuity of the European painting tradition and the continuing relevance of historic art to modern and contemporary artists.’

A range of events and activities for all ages have been organised to accompany the loan and display of the Two Figures in a Room, including a free evening lecture on Monday 27 February (Dr Greg Salter, University of Birmingham: Francis Bacon and the Spaces of Queer Intimacy); a free evening including a film-screening and short talks in conjunction with the Barber Association on Tuesday 7 March; plus writing and painting workshops and gallery talks and tours. Click here for more information.

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