Narrating Tragedy in Francis Bacon's "Turning Figure"

Narrating Tragedy in Francis Bacon's "Turning Figure"

Sotheby's upcoming Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 11 February features Francis Bacon's powerful work, Turning Figure.
Sotheby's upcoming Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 11 February features Francis Bacon's powerful work, Turning Figure.

P ainted in early 1963, Turning Figure by Francis Bacon illuminates the beginning of an extraordinary phase in the artist’s career, first signalled by the seminal 1962 triptych Three Studies for a Crucifixion (Collection of the Guggenheim Museum, New York).

Francis Bacon, Turning Figure. Estimate £6,000,000–8,000,000

This stage in Bacon’s oeuvre is marked both by personal tragedy and critical success; only six months prior to the execution of Turning Figure, Bacon’s first major institutional retrospective opened at the Tate Gallery, the preview of which coincided with the death of his first great – yet profoundly tumultuous – love and muse: Peter Lacy. Furthermore, Bacon’s relocation to 7 Reece Mews in 1961 – the house and studio he would retain for the rest of his life – helped end the widely cited ‘transitional’ period in Bacon’s work of the mid-late 1950s. Indeed, the paintings created at his South Kensington Mews house heralded the best work of Bacon’s career; from 1962 onwards, his pictures demonstrate greater assurance, resolution, and simplicity. This amplified level of invention is successfully illustrated in Turning Figure via a compositional matrix that imparts a sophisticated figure/ground relationship. As the final work in a loosely affiliated series that Bacon had begun in 1959, in which anonymous and contorted figures are depicted variously lying or standing, for example Two Figures of 1961 (The Estate of Francis Bacon Collection), the present work possesses an elevated degree of compositional ingenuity and deep pictorial allusion.

As with Francis Bacon’s great paintings, Turning Figure forces the viewer to confront the unadorned truth of the artist’s principal subject: the human animal. There is something sordid about the fleshy twist of this figure’s corporeality that demands the viewer acknowledge rather than repudiate the darker undercurrent of humanity and its fetid, abject nature. Turning inside-out, a corkscrew of androgynous limbs, muscle and bone pirouettes upon a single point and casts its shadow. A luminescent green outlines the figure; a vibrant contrast to the shocking pink of the figure’s fleshy passages that stands out against the abyssal black of the background. Indeed, sharply delineated against bands of black, cream and bare canvas, this figure seems to project away from the work’s surface, an effect no doubt enhanced by the collaged central form. Cut from another canvas and seamlessly applied – a method Bacon had previously employed for his 1961 painting Reclining Nude in the Tate’s collection – this form possesses a cleanness of line and stark definition that Bacon could not have achieved any other way.

This chromatic and compositional device here emphasises the deft simplicity of Bacon’s execution whilst also hinting at concurrent developments in contemporary art, particularly those of Abstract Expressionism and Colour Field painting. Created only one year prior, Bacon’s Study for P.L. strongly suggests the influence of Mark Rothko via bands of blue, green and golden-yellow that form the painting’s backdrop. Less explicit perhaps, yet notable is the background of Turning Figure which calls to mind Rothko’s striking Untitled (White, Blacks, Grays on Maroon), also painted in 1963, currently housed in the collection of the Kunsthaus Zürich. Though Bacon would undoubtedly deny this connection and repudiate any such reading of his work, the settings and backdrops of his paintings from 1962 onwards display a striking planarity and vibrancy evocative of contemporaneous developments in abstract art.

Isolated against this pitch-black ground within an anonymous interior/exterior street scene, this figure is joined by what appears to be scattered newspaper littering the pavement; a presence that seems to creep around the corner and inch along the gutter as though in pursuit of the central form. It is this perspectival arrangement and enigmatic setting which serves to both strengthen and underpin the psychological and haunting intensity in Turning Figure; a painting that prefigures and anticipates much of the artist's later output, especially the urban landscapes of the 1980s such as Sand Dune (1983). However, as outlined by art historian Martin Hammer, the genesis of Bacon’s setting for the present work can be traced back to a photograph of wartime Rotterdam from a June 1940 issue of Picture Post (Martin Hammer, Francis Bacon and Nazi Propaganda).

In this black and white image of a devastated street scene after a bombing raid, a man gazes upon the dead body of his daughter; her prone corpse appears foreshortened and almost indistinguishable from the rubble that surrounds her. In this respect, great importance has been assigned to the immense ‘archive’ of crumpled photographs, paint-splattered reproductions, and torn magazines that gathered in piles on the floor of Bacon’s studio. Following the artist’s death, the significance of these images – as the photo from the June 1940 issue of Picture Post attests – has been a revelatory tool in decoding some of the meaning behind and origin of Bacon’s extraordinary paintings. For an artist who detested working from life, the immense significance of this vast compendium of source material has since been widely unpacked and is particularly revealing when considering the impact of World War II on Bacon’s work.

Since the very beginning, as apparent in the 1944 masterpiece Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, Bacon’s work has been steeped in visual references to the Second World War. Indeed, Nazi Germany and the figure of Hitler can be conceived as one of the principle subjects of Bacon’s art, heavily influencing much of his 1950s output in both atmosphere and visual cues. Nonetheless, while Bacon had always been attuned to the great atrocities of the Second World War, the immediate postwar cultural climate had been one of systemic amnesia over the war and its criminals. By the late 1950s, however, this fog had begun to lift: following a wave of belated court cases against former Nazis in 1958, the prosecution and execution of high-ranking Nazi officials, most notoriously Adolf Eichmann who was subsequently executed in 1962, received international attention in the media; a collective awakening that firmly established what was thereafter known as the Holocaust, acknowledging it as a singular phenomenon within the Second World War’s theatre of violence. That this was clearly at the forefront of Bacon’s mind is apparent in the swastika-brandishing figure of the right panel in Bacon’s 1962 Crucifixion and the war-time source of the present work’s composition.

Using it as a springboard therefore, Bacon abstracted the forms and figures of the Picture Post image to deliver a painting of enigmatic allusion and complex metaphor. While maintaining the essential geometry and perspective of his source image, Bacon has nonetheless transfigured the girl’s body into the rubble and detritus that surrounds her; her form becoming one with the squalid fallout of an urban bombsite. Watched over by a twisting corporeal form that bears little resemblance to the watchful father in the black and white photo, Bacon’s twisted figure and the resounding atmosphere of post-war squalor calls to mind the strained and pulverized forms of Alberto Giacometti’s works of 1936 onwards. For example, the bedraggled loping form of Giacometti’s Le Chien (1951) looks equally at home next to Bacon’s painting as it does beside an evocation of the dismal streets of war-torn Paris.

Herein, the impact of Giacometti on Bacon’s work cannot be overestimated. Having moved beyond abstraction in a truly innovative way, Giacometti is often thought of as the principal influence on the School of London painters, and Bacon himself once described the Swiss master as “the greatest living influence on my work” (Francis Bacon cited in: Daniel Farson, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, London 1994, p. 167). David Sylvester, whose interviews with Bacon are of canonical importance, also wrote extensively on Giacometti, focussing on the sense of loss and transience of life evoked by his paintings and sculptures. These evocations also permeate Bacon’s work as well, with existential crises providing the drive and recurring themes for his career. The stark architecture, decontextualised street setting, and detritus which clusters in the gutter imbues Turning Figure with a palpable and weighty post-war atmosphere.

Hugely inspired by the grand melodrama and pathos of Aeschylus, Greek tragedy, and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, Bacon's figures are imbued with an intense Dionysian abandon countered by the Apollonian calm interiors and isolated stages upon which his tragic dramas unfold. This can be traced as far back as the three Eumenides of his seminal 1944 triptych and carries through to the mythical grandeur of Triptych, 1976, a work centred on a complex musing and conflation of the Promethean and Oresteian myths. For Bacon, ancient myth presented the imaginative 'armature' upon which all kinds of sensations and feelings attuned to the violence of contemporary existence could be hung.

Tortured and isolated, the subject of Turning Figure reflects the existential crises that peppered Bacon’s career while the mulch of unidentifiable paper and trash mirrors the solace from those crises that he found in literature. The influence of Giacometti is also undeniable given the weighty post-war atmosphere and distorted manipulation of the human form; a body distorted by the impact of war. As with all of Bacon’s paintings, what we are primarily confronted with here is a body that does not perform as we expect it to. As Brenda Marshall describes, this is “a body that oozes, shifts frantically, a body that has muscles distended into grotesque animality, a body that knows about the smears of slippery substances that swill over and around it, a body that is made of water and blood and excrescences from unfathomable interiors” (Brenda Marshall, ‘Francis Bacon, Trash and Complicity’ in: Martin Harrison, Ed., Francis Bacon: New Studies). The urgent immediacy and primal drive of Bacon’s work is in full evidence here. Unapologetic and strident in its representation and recapitulation of the human form and more broadly the human condition, Turning Figure represents a milestone in Bacon’s oeuvre, both for its position in his canon and for the quality of its execution.

Contemporary Art

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