As people who take time to see works of art in art museums, we often look at works such as this one and wonder what the artist can possibly have intended. What does it all mean?
This article is based on a talk I gave at Tate Britain museum in London on 13 April 2023, in the gallery where this work was displayed, having been newly located following a general rehang.
Francis Bacon was an Anglo-Irish painter born in Dublin in 1909, spending most of his life working in London. He died in Madrid 1992 after a brief but catastrophic respiratory illness.
This work is known as “Triptych August 1972”. Painted in 1972, shortly after the death of Bacon’s lover George Dyer, the work shows Dyer in the panel on the left, Bacon on the right.
George Dyer, who was an East End petty gangland crook and younger man, died from an apparently deliberate overdose in 1971, two days before a Bacon retrospective opened in Paris. The relationship was said to have been stormy and dysfunctional. It is also worth remembering that, in 1972, expression of affection between gay men was suppressed and criminalised. It was not commonplace to be openly gay, as Bacon was, although it was probably considered less shocking given that he was an artist.
This basic information gives us some useful clues as to what is going on in this troubling painting, which is not altogether easy to look at.
The work comprises three panels: A triptych. So called after the three-panel alter pieces sometimes seen in churches and this suggests an element of reverence in the subject matter.
Each panel depicts a series of geometric patterns, square and angular, with seated, near naked male figures in the outside two, and what appears to be two figures writhing on the floor in the central panel.
Both men appear to have parts of their body missing and below each of them is a pool and that might be their bodies or part of their beings dissolving into shadow, perhaps wasting away.
Each is against a background of black. Not just any black but a black so dark it is invisible and seems to be a void lurking behind them, ready to engulf them.
If we now look at the central panel, we can see that this is dominated by what appears to be two figures entwined and perhaps wrestling, or otherwise struggling. We can’t tell from the painting who these figures are but they must be the two in the other panels. Who else could they be?
This image almost certainly derives from action photographs of two naked wrestlers by Eadweard Muybridge taken in the 1880s and we can perhaps see wrestling as a metaphor with multiple interpretations.
The connection between wresting and homoeroticism is even more explicit in Bacon's painting Two Figures (1953) which is also clearly inspired by the Muyerbridge photographs.
Nude male wrestling is a classical image taken from the games of ancient Greece, where participants competed naked and there were no women present. So you could see the message as being one of masculine exclusivity, male power, conflict and of course the imagery is homoerotic.
In this way, the connection is drawn between Bacon and his lover. These two male figures are not static. The movement in Muybridge’s photography is reflected here in the way the figures appear to be rotating against each other.
Now, are they wrestling, are they fighting for real, or are they engaged in the act of love? Perhaps all three. The image could be taken literally as two men, Bacon and Dyer, grappling in the height of passion or it could be taken figuratively, representing their fraught emotional relationship. What do you think? Perhaps a bit of both?
The use of the classical imagery must be deliberate and perhaps is intended to indicate the higher level that Bacon may have held his emotional relationships in. I don’t think this is intended to reflect the kind of sordid sexual encounter that the public in the 1970s might have expected from homosexuality.
Yet there is much more to this scenario than that. Take a look again at the two seated figures. They both appear to be speaking - look at the lines around their faces which suggest movement, animation.
Movement is important in a lot of Bacon’s work. Dog (1952) for instance, shows a dog whirling around, perhaps chasing its tail.
The movement in the painting shown above is depicted by swirling circular lines. A similar approach is taken with these talking figures.
Strangely perhaps, the eyes of the speakers in Triptych are closed and they appear to be speaking to nobody in particular. Could this be Bacon’s way of saying that during their relationship they were not speaking to each other? Or perhaps just not hearing each other or not aware of each other’s existence. Or perhaps it is a commentary on the invisibility of a profound love between two men.
Think of the 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral. It is only at the funeral of the character Gareth, that the friends recognise the ‘marriage’ of Gareth and his grieving partner Matthew.
Going back to the figures themselves, Why are these two men dissolving? What does it mean? Is it a reflection of the dissolution of the relationship or is it a reflection on grief? The grief that comes from losing a lover in such tragic circumstances. Or does it go further than this?
Look again at the central panel and consider how it differs from the other two. Look at the position of the two entwined figures? They have moved over to the edge of the black void. They are poised on the edge of the abyss. Look again at the darkness, the blackness. We are not looking at a wall painted black. We are looking at the gateway to a big nothing, a huge void, a bottomless pit, oblivion and desolation.
Looking at that vision of a couple poised on the edge of oblivion is quite frightening when seen in the context of death, grief, isolation, separation and alienation.
How does contemplating this work make you feel?
It is difficult to imagine the impact that this work can have just from looking at an image on a web page. To see the original paintings is the only way to really feel what is going on in the work.
A truly complex and disturbing work of art.
More art reviews here: Perspective on Art
About the Creator
Author based in Kent, England. A writer of fictional short stories in a wide range of genres, he has been a non-fiction writer since the 1980s. Non-fiction subjects include art, history, technology, business, law, and the human condition.