David Lynch has always maintained that he is not just a filmmaker. Even though he is considered to be one of the greatest pioneers of surrealist cinema, Lynch has actively ventured into other areas of artistic expression such as music and painting. In fact, a major part of Lynch’s cinematic vision has been deeply influenced by his formative training as a painter.
During his college years, Lynch decided that he was going to pursue a career in painting and had even travelled to Europe in order to learn from the famous expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka but it never ended up happening. Upon returning to America, Lynch found a different kind of liberation in making short films after being moved by the grotesque surrealism of Philadelphia.
In many interviews, Lynch has stated that he conceptualises the artistic process as something very similar to fishing. According to the legendary director, one has to bait ideas as if they were elusive fishes. “If you catch an idea that you love, it is a beautiful, beautiful day,” he declared. Adding to his comments, Lynch explained: “In the other room, the puzzle is all together but they keep flipping it one piece at a time.”
These conceptualisations are very familiar to those who have seen Lynch’s work, especially incomprehensibly alluring projects such as Eraserhead and Twin Peaks. While Lynch drew from the contributions of other directors like Werner Herzog, he was also motivated by masters of painting. Specifically, Lynch named the enigmatic painter Francis Bacon as a chief source of inspiration.
Lynch’s films have been described as paintings themselves by many people, including Jeremy Irons who compared Lynch’s works to Rothko paintings. However, the influence of Bacon throughout the filmography of the director is pretty apparent. Lynch discovered the works of Bacon early on in his life, being moved by them for the first time at a gallery in 1966.
According to a popular myth, Lynch’s interest in filmmaking was generated when he asked himself “How would I do a moving painting?” after one of his paintings was moved by the wind. The unsettling art of Francis Bacon played a major role in showing Lynch how visual images can have emotional momentum and can even project movement.
Looking back on the experience of discovering Bacon, Lynch described it as “a beautiful storm” and “thrilling”. Later on, he would use Bacon’s paintings like Portrait of a Man and Two Figures at a Window for visual inspiration in Twin Peaks. While the iconic Red Room of Twin Peaks was also directly influenced by Bacon, Lynch based the look of the protagonist of his 1980 masterpiece The Elephant Man on Bacon’s Self-Portrait 1969.