Francis Bacon: The Dynamic Reality of The Crucifixion

Francis Bacon's (1909-1992) clear intention in the artistic treatment of the Crucifixion always aims at a formal study of the figure on the cross. Due to much misunderstanding amounting to an interpretation of these works in terms of their contents, the painter consequently withdrew from this subject more and more, although the theme continued to hold an attraction for him. For this reason, in addition to the motif of the Crucifixion, over the course of the development of his works, we increasingly find other motifs that made it easier for him to realize his very personal understanding of art in a more neutral way. These include the round steel railing, the bed, and the portrait, for example. And yet, the Crucifixion remains a central principle of the conception and order in the pictures, be it directly or indirectly.

In many conversations, Bacon repeatedly spoke of his art and his personal understanding of the theme of the Crucifixion. To the English art historian David Sylvester [i] he explained in 1966:

I haven't found another subject so far that has been as helpful for covering certain areas of human feeling and behavior. Perhaps it is only because so many people have worked on this particular theme that it has created his armature - I can't think of a better way of saying it - on which one can operate all types of level of feeling. [ii]

In portraying a Crucifixion Bacon recognized a very particular picture circumstance, the sketching of a figure that would trigger a certain impression in the viewer, and this despite all the traditions that reverberate in the background of this picture.  To disregard precisely this knowledge, and immerse oneself directly into the picture as a picture can cause the viewer to be immediately shaken by its artistic creation. This is a quality the cross has gained over the course of its history for various reasons.

By the way Bacon has developed the portrayal of the cross, not only religious contents are dealt with, but at the same time also man's conception of himself, his ideals, fears and hopes. The cross was not only an image man made of his God, but also always that of man himself as well. Bacon was aware of these picture qualities and therefore, he also saw the chances that this type of portrayal, this armature, presents for an artist concerned with probing the depths of life in his art; he was fascinated by this theme - although he was never religious at any point in his life. This fact did not pose a contradiction for him, since in his opinion, the Modern Era had dissolved the original unity of religion and art, making it possible to separate form from content in art, and to discuss questions of form and treat them as such.  For Bacon, the cross had become an abstract theme par excellence. Independent of any religious feeling, the cross shows man in a brutal manner, how man first debases man, only to then raise and kill him.  This is why, as he once said, when painting a Crucifixion, one always works through one's own primal feelings and impressions.

You might say it's almost nearer to a self-portrait. You are working on all sorts of very private feelings about behaviour and about the way of life in it. [iii]

In addition to the artistic fascination with a picture idea that does not tell any unfamiliar stories, but rather directly addresses and shapes the viewer's own life stories, the Crucifixion has an existential significance for Bacon. Like a myth, it indicates life expressed creatively. Before all religious connotations it articulates subjective sensations such as disappointment, pain, suffering; loneliness, helplessness, fear of death; despair as doubt per se, of mankind, of God. To quote Bacon here:

One of the things about the Crucifixion is the very fact that the central figure of Christ is raised into a very pronounced and isolated position, which gives it, from a formal point of view, greater possibilities than having all the different figures placed on the same level. The alteration of level is, from my point of view, very important. [iv]

Bacon's works display two phases in the treatment of this motif. The first begins with three studies of the cross in 1933 and comes to a certain close with the first Triptych in 1944; the second extends from 1946 to 1988, apparently reaching its zenith with the Crucifixion of 1962.

I.

The first Crucifixion [v] was done in the year 1933. Upon a black ground and sketched in only a few strokes, there is a white, and therefore, light-filled, figure. The arms form two curved lines that seem to rise to become a circle.  The legs have been sketched out in stilts-like strokes. The head is like a broken-off match head.  It is just as small as the hands. Thus, three points of equal size come about on a slightly curved line. Below, the figure stands on lozenge-shaped feet, the kind that provides stability to figures of wood or wire.  In this way, there is an indication of space, heightened by the three lines of perspective in the lower part of the painting.

A white shadow creates the impression of a vaguely-defined further figure appearing before the standing one. It could even be a figure that is not particularly stable in the way it stands, leaning against the other's chest, bearing or catching another indefinable form in its right hand.  Moreover, we notice an angle, extending downward from the standing figure, and breaking off to the left. Is this a possible indication of a bent leg? As always: To the right at the height of the leg and knee, three parallel diagonals correspond to the sharp bend, which seem like fish bones or like ribs of an x-rayed chest.

The outstretched arms might be interpreted as a Crucifixion. Otherwise this painting shows nothing other than a figure, or two, in an abstract space, in addition to further elements that add to the picture's mystery. While intentionally leaving the meaning open, this study represents an attempt to use various stylistic means for shaping forms and to add a second person to the first one, without the former relinquishing his dominance. The statics and dynamics are linked to each other in this manner.

The second Crucifixion came about a short time later. It is a gouache, where three figures have been outlined in two dimensions standing next to each other behind 13 bars drawn in pairs. The left figure is white and stands slightly higher upon the support of a beam, which allows for the assumption of a cross, but which may not be seen otherwise. The arms are indicated as being stretched out very far. This is also the case with the middle figure, which appears to be dancing.

The third, right-hand figure is only half as large as the two others. Instead of the head, two straight lines protrude from the trunk, like antennae. The figure is rendered in white. Its arms are also spread out, though its left one stretches out oversized into the chest zone of the left figure, enabling us to associate it with traditional iconography (such as Longinus with the lance and Stephaton with the sponge). Overall this drawing reveals a heavy stylistic influence by Picasso. This applies to the sketching of the figures in general as well as in detail, for example, on the hands and feet. This work also bears the title Crucifixion [vi], though at best it shows a very alienated treatment of a traditional theme. Apparently, new possibilities of its portrayal are being probed here rather than searching for a deepened expression of it.

The beginnings of a third work on the same theme, Crucifixion with Skull [vii] already existed when Michael Sadler approached Bacon with an x-ray of a skull, asking him to make a portrait out of it. Bacon does not appear to have been especially fond of the idea, but then suddenly placed the skull beneath the painting that already existed.  [viii] The Crucifixion that resulted from this shows its relationship to the theme at best in the raised arms and their angular position. These as well as the feet extend beyond the edge of the picture, so that neither the hands nor the feet, and thus their stigmata as well, are  not to be recognized.  Likewise the wound to the side is also missing in the block-like, athletic figure. The head, jerked forwards, sticks out like strutting poultry, heavily schematized with respect to its form. The figure seems as if it had been fitted together vertically in the middle from its right and left halves; the background, on the other hand, is horizontal beneath the middle axis, divided into a black area below and a golden area above.  By means of these abstract markings, indirectly a cross is revealed in the composition. At the left, beneath the figure, the skull protrudes from the black field into the gold.

In turn, as unusual as this work is, it does not show an interest in the theme, but rather in its composition, the construction of the body, the anchoring of the figure in space, or in Bacon's own words in reference to these early studies:

I'm fascinated by the body raised from the ground, it's more formal and abstract being elevated. [ix]

In a later conversation with John Russell, he still remembered with a certain pride as well as regret that he had also destroyed a Wound for a Crucifixion at the time, 1933. This painting had showed the corridor of a hospital hallway as its background. One half of its wall was dark green and above this, it was painted a cream color, and in between was a long, narrow line. On a sculptor's stand, there had been a big piece of human flesh: an exemplary wound, a "wonderful wound", Bacon recalled. [x]

The early phase in Francis Bacon's artistic endeavors is interspersed with many a new start and change, but it is also accompanied by an inner insecurity, disappointment and even depression. However, in general, he was preparing what would later come to light as his unmistakable trademark work: interior space, figure, movement, the psychological fathoming of depths, an uncompromising art.

This period of his early works culminates in a piece that was shown in a 1944 exhibition at the London Lefevre Gallery, Three Studies of Figures at the Base of Crucifixion, 1944. [xi] In the left part of the painting composed in the style of a triptych, the figure of a woman, reduced to a torso and head and wrapped in a cloth, squats on a steel table structure like a bouquet of flowers. On her shoulders we recognize reductions of wings, like a plucked chicken. She stretches her head downwards. A triangle opens at the side in the direction of the viewer. It seems like the beak of a bird, or who knows, perhaps of a hungry young animal or a snarling aggressor.

With the view cast downwards, this being bears human contours in profile. Its gaze falls on a point in the center of the painting in the direction of an armature of wood with a tiny top piece attachment. In the same place, one of the two stilt-legs of a bird begins that stretches across the structure. The curves of wings are in its oval trunk, its long neck strains towards the viewer, its gaping human mouth baring its teeth. Around its threatening head, a cloth is bound over his eyes and nose, its edges, torn and frayed hanging down in pointed shreds like ears on the head.

From the right, towards the central panel, the mouth of a human being stretches, gaping even further open. This figure protrudes with its trunk into the picture from the right edge of the panel and supports himself with one arm in the middle of the picture like a pillar upon a hint of grass surface. His mouth is open, as though expressing a mixture of pain and a feeling of revenge, open far enough that like with a flat predatory fish, all other parts of the face disappear from view.

All three panels share the same the same kind of red background. Perspective lines indicate an abstract notion of space, connect the three pictures in terms of composition, and clearly focus them on the middle. The way the figures have been placed in space is redolent of Bacon's first Crucifixions, the open mouth and the frayed scarf remind us of Grünewald's Lamentation of the Magdalen, after 1511, [xii] or of others of his works, or the distorted figures and the gaping mouth on the right of Picasso's Guernica, 1937. With regard to the mysterious figures in the painting Bacon explained himself in a conversation with David Sylvester, thus providing a key to their understanding at the same time:

I thought of them as the Eumenides, and at the time I saw the whole Crucifixion in which these would be there instead of the usual figures at the base of the cross, which itself was going to be raised, and the image of the cross was to be in the centre with these things arranged around it. But I never did that; I just left these as attempts. [xiii]

All of Bacon's ambivalence concerning the cross is revealed in this early work. It bears the traditional indication in its title and thus lays claim to be a study to a "basic painting", but at the same time it eludes any direct traditional allusion. In the ambiguity that thus unfolds, Bacon charges his painting with a number of subjective feelings and disconcerting form creations, which are directly passed on to the viewer. In the title he points the viewer in the direction of a possible understanding, but in the picture's execution, he pulls the rug out from under the viewer's feet again regarding any sort of expressionist interpretation of the classical theme.  Consternation is the only thing that remains.

Before the backdrop of a stylistic influence by Picasso he repeatedly admitted to, in this triptych Bacon demonstrated something he knew how to skillfully employ and fully develop in his later works: the creation of strange organic forms that refer to the image of man and the cultural factors influencing him - and this without copying them or illustrating contents.  The forms persist in the condition of their distortion and aim to confuse the viewer. This panel painting is therefore, also no Christian creation. It has nothing to do with Christian religion, at most with experiences and traditions of an art that has undertaken to depict the issues of mankind.

II.

In 1950, an even more direct, more terrifying painting appeared in the same thematic context, the Fragment of a Crucifixion. [xiv] It poses a further step, to rid the sacred element from the Crucifixion and make it more about this world.  On a dark-blue T-form cutting into the picture at a slight angle, a screaming being hangs, half animal, half man, which is hounded by a wolf-like beast with a hidden human face. It has jumped over the cross from behind, and hunts the Crucified figure, showing no mercy. The latter seems to try to flee the cross, which opens spatially in two ways by means of perspective indications in the lower part: to the back, as if into a narrow corridor, to the front to the viewer, through the construction of an armature of white lines.  This causes the drama of an awful, even brutal, struggle to unfold, which a being full of fear and horror has been thrown into. This impression is heightened by the view to a background, upon which - impartial, uninterested, and self-engrossed - figures parade along the beach of a seaside resort.

In terms of color, the painting has been extremely reduced to dark blue, to black and white. More than half of the surface shows the bare, untreated canvas. Thus, all of our attention is concentrated on the figure in agony on the cross, or more precisely: on the mouth, gaping and distorted in its cry. Any religious connotation has disappeared. There is not even a lament of being forsaken by God. A god does not emerge for the figure jerking in mortal anguish in the painting. The only perspective that yet remains for him is the delusion of fleeing the moment. In his imagination, the figure raises his arms like wings, like the twitchings of muscles in animals that have just been slaughtered or shot.

Again, Bacon displays his very specific interest in the Crucifixion: it is not about updating a historic or religious event, but about the use of a picture form with a particular quality of reception, which directly confronts the viewer with the painting.  In the title and in the formal indications, Bacon keeps to the theme. The way he has created it is so direct that the viewer with his emotions has the feeling of being directly involved in what is going on.  This produces a tension, relentlessly confronting the viewer with the entire reality of man, besetting him, so that the shudder of being threatened oneself arises inside. Bacon repeatedly defined this as the goal of his, as he understands it, "non-illustrative painting".  He aims to bring to the canvas an image as lifelike and at the same time as suggestive as possible in order to get to deeper-lying levels of sensation in the viewer. Instead of introducing an object, he reveals forgotten and suppressed things through his "picture attack". [xv] In this respect, he is no longer concerned with creating a picture motif, but with its permanent new creation in the viewing process, since - as he explains in an interview at the beginning of the 1950s:

Everybody has his own interpretation of a painting he sees. I don't mind if people have different interpretations of what I have painted. .... A picture should be a re-creation of an event rather than an illustration of an object; but there is no tension in the picture unless there is the struggle with the object.  [xvi]

However, increasingly in the development of the artist's work, the tension is built up from the painting itself, not from the motif and also not from the theme.

It was to be another twelve years before Bacon took up and created the "Crucifixion" once again. In 1962 he did the Three Studies for a Crucifixion. [xvii]  First he worked on the paintings one after another, then, going back and forth between them, he worked on all three at the same time.

It was a thing that I did in about a fortnight, when I was in a bad mood of drinking, and I did it under tremendous hangovers and drink; I sometimes hardly knew what I was doing. And it's one of the only pictures that I've been able to do under drink. I think perhaps the drink helped me to be a bit freer. [xviii]

It is not only the title of the painting that draws our attention to the panel on the right. There we find the transformation of the Crucifixion, which Bacon now reached after having pushed toward it for nearly 30 years. On an upright board, which has been attached at the back to a pedestal, a slaughtered animal cadaver hangs, ripped open, the way you can see it anytime in the slaughterhouses.

If you go to some of those great stores, where you just go through those great halls of death, you can see meat and fish and birds and everything else all lying dead there. And, of course, one has got to remember as a painter that there is this great beauty of the colour of meat. <...> Well, of course, we are meat, we are potential carcasses. If I go into a butcher's shop I always think it's surprising that I wasn't there instead of the animal. [xix]

By visualizing the "reality" of the Crucifixion, Bacon has felt the dimension of the slaughter.  If we think of Cimabue's magnificent Crucifixion, the contorted position of the Crucified Christ has something lively about it, owing its form to the notion of a worm:

I always think of that as an image - as a worm, crawling down the cross. [xx]

This leads to the fact that from this being, so completely alien to the cross, a worm-like, round head inches out below.  It reveals anything but a traditional expression of humility, however, showing its mouth wide open in a bellow, the expression of a desperate aggression. The curving lines run into a circle of drainpipes winding behind the board. Like a puddle of leaks, a shadow figure emerges into the painting from below, which seems in a surreal way to reflect the dark forms in the interior space of the hanged person.

In its middle and left part, the work takes its energy from the violently intense technique of figural portrayal the artist acquired over the course of the years. Its form essentially comes from a painting of chance and immediate inspiration. This is based on spontaneous ideas and reactions triggered during the work process. In this way, an art arises from intensive inner eruptions. The impulses tied into them are able to unfold anew in the viewing process, triggering in the viewer a bewilderment that results from such violence. At first glance these paintings seem distorted and deformed. At second glance they make accessible to the viewer worlds of the unconscious, set free during the process of viewing.  What was earlier a by-product that came about above all in connection with Bacon's disconcerting treatment of the old theme of the Crucifixion, now becomes more and more an integral part of his painting. In Bacon's whole oeuvre this triptych is therefore a climax and a turning point at the same time. Once again it demonstrates how well he is versed in this topic. In the left part, the slaughterhouse meat is simply stored flat on the floor next to one another, but in the part on the right it raised above all abysses hidden inside. And the figures? Are they the henchmen?  Or the thieves on the cross? The next victims? Or are they simply the onlookers? The questions could go on and on - and yet they must remain unanswered.

There is something else remarkable on this painting. By the position of the Crucifixion on the side panel, it is "subordinated" in terms of form and content according to the old structural scheme of the triptych. The major accent belongs in the middle. At this classical location, Bacon has placed the bed, a different "armature", which allows him to be more unmistakable and direct in dealing with the things he concerns himself with in his painting. Here he increasingly shows man, by taking him down from the Cross and placing him on new ground. For Bacon, the theme of the Crucifixion is always man, his existence straightforwardly and without illusion. Man, alone or together in bed with another, this is a subject without end for him. [xxi]

The Crucifixion from 1962 displays the varied structure of a triptych. Although it is not determined by a unified space, nevertheless its differences are held together by the use of the same colors. The individual pictures each show the same type of room, a studio situation, by the way. Also, the paintings that are standing along or hanging on the walls have been made abstract in black in the same manner.

Bacon later explained his idea for this painting motif by putting it in a context with the triptych in an interview with Hugh Davies:

I often daydream and images drop in hundreds at a time, some link up with one another. I like the triptych format, layout, it breaks the series up and prevents it having a story - that's why the three panels are always framed separately. [xxii]

The separate hanging of the individual panels are, above all, supposed to break up any thread of a story a viewer might make up. Bacon wants to distance himself from the expectation of any message, express himself solely pictorially, convey no meanings, and have his art understood as an event. Corresponding interpretations do, however, increasingly emerge in the reception of the painting in connection with these Crucifixions. Therefore, Bacon sees the path to a mere pictorial understanding of his painting blocked as a result of these stories and rumors going around and all the confessions connected to this theme. This is why, from 1962 on - with one exception - he ceased dealing with the topic any further: Three years later he did a watered down version of this motif, the Crucifixion, 1965. [xxiii]  It shows the new old picture idea of 1962 in a new variation. The board of the cross placed upright is placed here in the middle of the three-panel painting. The space takes on a unity, even though it is artificially kept apart by the frame. But overall it is already obvious here that his creative interest in the theme has begun to slacken. A few years later he spoke in retrospect of what he probably knew for certain at the time, that he had already completely exhausted the possibilities of the Crucifixion:

I would never use it or could never use it again because it's become - it was always dried up for me - but it's become impractical even to use it. [xxiv]

We may excuse Bacon for the fact that he subsequently did not act as decisively as he spoke. Nevertheless in 1971 he made "as an exception", as he might say, the second version of his painting from 1946, Painting, [xxv] because there was a danger that this one could not be loaned out for his large retrospective show in Paris due to conservation reasons. It is the Second Version of ‘Painting' 1946. [xxvi] Above a figure beneath an umbrella there hangs a mighty animal cadaver, split open in the middle, and with human-like arms instead of forelegs. These extend beyond the painting's edges, stretched in the manner of a crucified person.

At the age of 80, to the surprise of many, Bacon took recourse in 1988 to his seminal work of 1944: the Second Version of ‘Triptych 1944', done in1988. [xxvii]  In the way it was set up and carried out, the work seems like a distanced retrospective view to a theme that had long become foreign to him. It is the painting itself that interests him, and which he now "raises up" to the format his art has achieved, both in terms of conception and dimension.

The theme of the Crucifixion has gone through a development with Bacon. From the first attempts with figures and their attitudes and movements in space, it culminates in what in all seriousness he wants to achieve with his art and what drives him to art. It is the moving statement of a man who strives to show what the fact of existence means for a person without illusions. These are paintings that forcefully attest to a life feeling that does not avert death by suppressing it. They show it in its dimension of threatening all hopes and purpose. They deeply endanger human life, robbing it of all meaning and purpose. In doing this, he finds his way to a pragmatic and sober humanism, but one barring any illusions. In the face of such existential horror and out of his experience of life, the paintings attest to the fact that violence as he experienced it in a radicalized Irish partisan movement and in two world wars as well as in his personal life circumstances, is a basic constant in life. He hardly sees changes, except for the fact that the horror has become an everyday occurrence today, which we have come to accept as completely normal. It is the confession of an existentialist senselessness, which consists of art and those few little chances to experience moments we get through happily. [xxviii]

English translation: Elizabeth Volk)

 

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Notes



[i] David Sylvester, Francis Bacon. Interviews by David Sylvester, New York (Pantheon Books) 1975.

[ii] Ibid. p. 44.

[iii] Sylvester, Interviews, p. 46.

[iv]  Ibid. p. 46.

[v] Oil on canvas, 62 x 48.5 cm, private collection, London

[vi] Chalk, gouache, and pencil on paper, 64 x 48 cm, private collection

[vii] Oil on canvas, 112 x 86.3 cm, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.

[viii] Hugh Davis and Sally Yard, Francis Bacon, New York (Abbeville Press, Inc.) 1986, p. 21 f.

[ix] Francis Bacon in an interview by Hugh Davies, March 17, 1973, quoted in: Davis/Yard, Bacon, p. 12.

[x] John Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1971, extended new edition London (Thames and Hudson) 1979, p. 17.

[xi] Triptych, oil and pastel on fiberboard, each 94 x 74 cm, The Tate Gallery, London.

[xii] The painting has only come down to us as a copy of the original. It was commissioned by Abbot Chullot from St. Blasius in 1648. Christoph Krafft made the panel painting. We see a broad-shouldered Christ, as muscular as He is gaunt. Before Him kneels Mary Magdalene, her face frozen and distorted in pain, her gaze looking up with a sort of veil cap on her head, whose sides hang down. Fürstlich Fürstenbergische Gemäldegalerie, Donaueschingen.

[xiii] Sylvester, Interviews, p. 112.

[xiv] Oil and cotton on canvas, 140 x 108.cm, Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven.

[xv] Sylvester, Interviews, p. 58.

[xvi] Quoted from an unpublished Time Interview, 1952, in Davies/Yard, Bacon, p. 109.

[xvii] Triptych, oil with sand on canvas, each 198 x 145 cm, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

[xviii] Sylvester, Interviews, p. 13.

[xix] Sylvester, Interviews, p. 46.

[xx] Sylvester, Interviews, p. 14.

[xxi] See for example. the following Paintings and Triptychs: Triptych Inspired by T.S. Eliot's Poem ‘Sweeney Agonistes', 1967; Two Figures Lying on a Bed with Attendants, 1968; Lying Figure, 1969; Studies from the Human Body (1970) Triptych, August 1972, 1972, Three Studies of Figures on Beds, 1972; Sleeping Figure, 1974; Triptych - Studies of the Human Body, 1979, and many more. See also: I've used the figures lying on beds with a hypodermic syringe as a form of nailing the image more strongly into reality or appearance. I don't put the syringe because of the drug that's being injected but because it's less stupid than putting a nail through the arm, which would be even more melodramatic. I put the syringe because I want a nailing of the flesh onto the bed. (Silvester, Interviews, p. 78)

[xxii] In a conversation of April 3, 1973, in Davies / Yard, Bacon, p. 114.

[xxiii] Triptych, oil on canvas, each 198 x 147.5 cm, Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich.

[xxiv] In a conversation with Davies on August 13, 1973, in: Davies / Yard, Bacon, p. 45.

[xxv] Oil and tempera on canvas, 198 x 132 cm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

[xxvi] Oil on canvas, 198 x 147.5 cm, Museum Ludwig, Cologne.

[xxvii] Oil on canvas, each 198 x 147.5 cm, The Tate Gallery London.

[xxviii] Francis Bacon, Interview with Jean Clair, quoted from Le Pathos et la Mort, August 3rd, 1991, in: catalogue Corps crucifiés, Paris (Musée Picasso) 1992, pp. 132-144, p. 143.