Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion were painted over the course of two weeks in 1944 in the ground floor flat at 7 Cromwell Place, South Kensington, which had once been the studio of the artist John Everett Millais. During the day the converted billiard room served as Bacon’s studio, and at night as an illicit casino.
Bacon recalled that at the time he was drinking heavily and that he painted the studies in an alcoholic haze. Later he was to admit that he hardly knew what he was doing, though he believed that alcohol had loosened his style. Yet, despite this unpromising genesis, the triptych of three writhing, anthropomorphic figures, with their featureless, scarcely human faces contorted into what might be either pain or exquisite ecstasy, set against a background of visceral oranges, reds and blacks, marks a watershed in British painting.
Bacon had been painting the Crucifixion since 1933, commissioned by his then patron, Eric Hall, but he considered the works unsuccessful and destroyed them, and, for a while, abandoned painting. When he did return to the subject of the Crucifixion 11 years later he was influenced by his reading of Aeschylus’s savage drama The Oresteia (itself a trilogy) which tells the tale of the curse of the House of Atreus and the pursuit, by the avenging Furies (or Eumenides), of those responsible for murder. Generally considered to be his first masterwork, Bacon was at some pains to suppress the showing of any paintings that pre-dated the Three Studies.
Executed in oil and pastel and, for economy, on light Sundeala boards rather than canvas, Bacon’s Eumenides are barely recognisable as human figures, for they have no eyes but only gaping, silently screaming mouths. The creature on the left, seated on a table of sorts, is the most recognisably human. Partially draped in a length of cloth, this bent form, with its hunched white shoulders, its stumpy, malformed arms and bowed head topped with a mop of dark hair, might be a mourner at some unnamed wake, while that in the central panel, with its grimacing mouth set directly into its elongated neck, is blindfolded by a white cloth – a motif taken, perhaps, from Matthias Grnewald’s Mocking of Christ – and resembles some large, flightless bird. The figure on the right appears to have most of its upper face missing. Its head is thrown back, its mouth stretched open to reveal its teeth, as if in the grips of some bestial orgasmic spasm.
The heads of all three figures point downwards, following a series of converging lines that radiate out from the central plinth and imply a room or an enclosed space. The mood is one of bleak isolation and violent angst. This work is to painting what Sartre’s Huis Clos is to literature; a paean to existential despair.
This is also a Crucifixion with a difference, for there is no evidence, not even a shadow, of the actual event. No trace of Christ or his cross, though Bacon did say in a letter in 1959 that Three Studies were, “intended to [be] use[d] at the base of a large Crucifixion which I may still do”. Yet how genuine this remark was is hard to gauge from the bleakly nihilistic non-believer who once said, “I think of life as meaningless; but we give it meaning during our own existence …” “we are born and we die, but in between we give this purposeless existence a meaning by our drives.”
Distortion and fragmentation are the tools that Bacon used to explore these elemental states, for he was at enormous pains to eradicate what he saw as any figurative illustration. What he wanted to convey was something visceral, a presence beyond mere likeness; of beings controlled by chthonic urges and base instincts, the Dionysian Calibans of human existence rather than the Apollonian Ariel’s; his territory was what Freud would have called the id.
The sense of futility that Bacon was trying to capture is not surprising, given that it was 1944, and that rumours of the Nazi death-camps had begun to leak out. Such nihilism is also present in much of the work of TS Eliot. Bacon had come to know Aeschylus through Eliot’s 1939 play, The Family Reunion, in which the central character, Harry, is haunted by “the sleepless hunters/ that will not let me sleep.” Here the Furies embody the guilt and remorse felt by Harry, who harbours a dark secret.
Like many other artists and writers of the early 20th century, Bacon had read Nietzsche, and shared something of his hypothesis of “a strong pessimism”. He had been particularly attracted to The Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche’s passionate rejection of Christianity, and his passion for life resonated with Bacon, who said: “… you can be optimistic and totally without hope. One’s basic nature is totally without hope, and yet one’s nervous system is made out of optimistic stuff.”
The American critic, Donald Kuspit, thought Bacon’s figures were “sick with death – not necessarily literal death but rather the feeling of being nothing.” Their loneliness, he suggested, depicted a “general sense of oblivion.”
Bacon had always been fascinated with images of the mouth, in particular diseased mouths, after he found a second-hand book in which these were illustrated in a series of coloured plates. He spoke of “the glitter and colour that comes from the mouth”, and said that he “always hoped in a sense to be able to paint the mouth like Monet painted a sunset.” He was also taken with a photograph by the Surrealist J-A Boiffard in the radical magazine, Documents, in which the editor, the French writer and philosopher of the abject, Georges Bataille, had written a short text on La Bouche. Bataille rejected traditional literature and considered that the ultimate aim of all intellectual, artistic or religious activity should be the annihilation of the rational individual in a violent, transcendental act of communion.
For Bacon, as for Bataille, the open, gaping, screaming wound of the mouth expressed something of our most intense emotional experiences and brought us close to our bestial selves. The linking of the noble and the base, of man and beast so as to blur the distinction between them, was part of Bataille’s attack on the “idealist deception” that man practices upon himself. The open mouth of Bacon’s right-hand figure ends in a savage, snarling, snout of teeth. For the promiscuously gay and sadomasochistically inclined Bacon the mouth had obvious sexual connotations. He was also, almost certainly, thinking of the scene in Battleship Potemkin where the wounded nursemaid stands screaming on the Odessa steps; in addition to making a reference to the despairing mother in Poussin’s Massacre of the Innocents.
First shown at the Lefevre Gallery in 1945, the triptych caused a sensation. The critic John Russell was shocked by “images so unrelievedly awful that the mind shut with a snap at the sight of them. Their anatomy was half-human, half- animal…” Yet by 1971 he was able to write, “there was painting in England before the Three Studies, and painting after them, and no one… can confuse the two.” More than 60 years later it has still not lost any of its power.
About the Artist
Francis Bacon was born in Dublin in 1909 of English parents, the second of five children. He was asthmatic and had no conventional schooling. In 1925 his father threw him out for wearing his mother’s clothes. In London he worked as a decorator and began to paint. In 1936 he submitted work to the International Surrealist exhibition but was rejected as “not sufficiently surreal”. Between 1941-4 he destroyed all his work, and was pronounced unfit for military service. In 1945 he resumed painting. In 1953 Three Studies was acquired by the Tate. In 1955 he had his first retrospective at the ICA. In 1960 he had his first exhibition at Marlborough Fine Art, London. In the early 1960s he and George Dyer became lovers and he painted Three Figures in a Room.
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2007
Image © Estate of Francis Bacon. Courtesy of the Tate
Published in The Independent