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Triptych, 1976, is without question one of the most important works in Bacon's oeuvre and a landmark of the 20th century canon. Of the precious few large triptychs remaining in private hands, it is critically regarded as one of the best. Michael Peppiatt concludes that "Triptych, 1976 surely ranks among the greatest of Bacon's paintings" (Exh. Cat., Lugano, Museo d'Arte Moderna, Francis Bacon, 1993, p. 106). Arguably Bacon's most ambitious and most enigmatic triptych, many of the motifs that appeared separately in his work combine into a layered masterpiece of new allegorical complexity. At the zenith of his career, Bacon revisited the same classical text that inspired Three Studies for Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion, 1944, which announced his debut on the world stage and is now in the Tate Collection, London. A parallel to that early triumph, Triptych, 1976 reveals in a single work the entire range of Bacon's iconography developed over three decades of painting. A masterpiece of the first order, Triptych, 1976 provokes a range of interpretations, matching the tragic grandeur of the Greek playwright Aeschylus in a 20th century setting. Most poignantly, the role of Prometheus, the tormented figure punished for bringing fire to mankind, is an echo of Bacon's confrontations with his inner demons.
A Majestic Triptych
Bacon created this monumental work as the centrepiece for his show at the Galerie Claude Bernard in Paris in 1977, a presentation of twenty new paintings which was the key exhibition of new work in his later career. One of only three full size triptychs in the show, Triptych, 1976 was illustrated on the cover of the catalogue and symbolized a watershed moment in the evolution of Bacon's style. It was the highlight of the exhibition, as Peppiatt recalls, "The picture and the show caused an immediate sensation" (Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, New York 1996, p. 276).
In part, this was a result of the sheer density of the imagery and the vigour of the paint-handling, unlike anything previous in Bacon's output. In the central panel, a headless body is savaged by a swirling bird of prey whose wingspan spirals downwards. This Prometheus figure is reminiscent of the headless, armless goddess identified as Leto or Hestia of the 5th Century B.C., among the Elgin marbles in the British Museum. Bacon admired the disrepair of ancient Greek sculpture caused by centuries of ruin. In Bacon's interpretation, the time-worn marble form is flayed beyond recognition, appearing more as meat than human flesh, reminiscent of Chaim Soutine's depictions of sides of beef in slaughterhouses. The base of the spinal column is scrutinised in detail, as in the diagrammatic illustrations of vertebra in one of Bacon's sources, K. C. Clarke's manual, Positioning in Radiography (1939). The microscopic detail of an exposed and twisted spine appeared in Three Figures and a Portrait (1975) which also included elements of a perched bird and an ominous head that gain prominence as brooding components of Triptych, 1976.
As Peppiatt remarks, "The birds that alight on the headless, eviscerated body in the central panel suggest a whole flock of scavengers descending with wings aflail – a fine example of the kind of 'continuous accident' of image making that Bacon prized above all" (Op Cit. Lugano, 1993, p. 108). The tornado of birds is derived by Bacon from magazine photographs of pelicans diving, Eadweard Muybridge's photographs of animals in motion, and the blur of early sports photography. In the left foreground, a second wingless creature clasps a rail with its talons and to the right, a third avian makes off with its prey. This triumvirate represents the Three Furies or Eumenides described in Aeschylus' Oresteia, a text that Bacon knew well and referenced liberally. Like the three composite beasts in Three Studies for Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion, 1944, the birds symbolize both the restless mind of the artist and the existential anxieties of civilisation. The atmosphere of pagan sacrifice is augmented by an overflowing chalice of blood, symbolising a Christian Sacrament and recalling the story of Orestes who purified himself in pig's blood.
The iconography and composition of the central panel was already in place thirty years prior in Bacon's early masterpieces, Painting, 1946 which was bought by Alfred J. Barr in the late 1940s for the recently inaugurated Museum of Modern Art in New York. The central figure in the guise of a crucifixion, the avian beasts perched on a rail and the torrent of blood in Painting, 1946 find their corollary here, their significance amplified by the triptych format. Pendant to this drama, two faces loom large, implicated by their proximity to such violence. Like altarpiece patrons, they survey the scene: perpetrators or judges, their menacing presence heightens the tension. The face is based on an image of Sir Austen Chamberlain, seen in a distorting mirror, published in Amedee Ozenfant's Foundations of Modern Art, 1939, found among Bacon's studio effects. The British wartime Chancellor has a foreboding aspect, his monocle distorted into a white elliptical form. The same figure to the right is in a state of undress emphasized by the exposed raw canvas. Each is mounted on converging rails, establishing a machine-made counterpoint to the organic human body. Mounted on blocks, they are new forms for Bacon and their rigidity enhances the inescapable surveillance of authority in these omnipotent Orwellian Big Brothers.
Each oversees an imbroglio of human flesh, among the best painting of the human form to be found in Bacon's oeuvre. In the foreground of the left panel, a half-clothed figure bleeds down from the portrait, a muscular forearm discernible in the organic mound of flesh. Crouched on a stool, he stoops over an open case filled with paper evocative of the torn ticket stubs of shattered dreams, crumpled newsprint created with Letraset at his feet. The bag is an echo of Triptych Inspired by T. S. Eliot's Poem "Sweeney Agonistes" from 1967. Its zipper is as evocative of a primal scream as the open mouth – caught between pleasure and pain – in the right panel. Here, two contorted nudes are locked in physical embrace. Whether they are fighting or copulating, or manifestations of a psyche in conflict, is deliberately unclear, much like in the Sweeney Agonistes picture. All that can be discerned is a clenched haunch and the open mouth replete with teeth, a motif that looks back to Bacon's series of Heads and screaming Popes from the late 1940s and 1950s. Bacon scumbles the paint, draws it across the canvas, exploiting the nearly dry elasticity of the pigment to create chance effects. Daubing ridges of oil with corduroy, he takes lessons from photographs of rare skin disorders to communicate the physicality of flesh. Bacon's use of colour is here dramatic: set against a glacial mint green, an entirely new colour for Bacon, his palette is heightened to a new intensity, with oranges, blues, purples and reds vying for supremacy against his more habitual and subdued hues.
Offering insight into this complex painting, Peppiatt says "The picture surely treats of sexual love – that 'crime' as Baudelaire put it, in which one is fated to have an accomplice – and the suffering it frequently sets in motion...The themes of crime, guilt and punishment are all strongly represented in this magnificent work." (Op. Cit., Michael Peppiatt, 1996, p. 276). Over five years had passed since George Dyer – Bacon's lover – had died on the eve of the opening of Bacon's retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris. Feelings of loss and guilt inhabited the artist still. Bacon moved to Paris in 1974, in part because of the high acclaim he received there, but also to be close to the memory of Dyer which, by tormenting him, produced some of his most breathtaking paintings. Unlike the so-called 'Black Triptychs' of the early 1970s which directly dealt with the feelings of loss, Triptych, 1976 transmuted his personal experience into a sophisticated painterly discourse on the universal theme of the human drama. This triptych maintains the pathos of Bacon's personal story while elevating it to universal significance through the exclusive reserve of high art.
In elevating his subject to epic existential proportions, Bacon referenced the earliest stories recorded by mankind, Greek and Christian mythology. In Triptych, 1976, Bacon used the foundations of Greek and Christian myth as an 'armature' on which to 'hang' his own sensations and feelings, communicating fundamental human concerns. As Peppiatt remarks: "As if impelled by the force of his emotions, Bacon the atheist ransacked the central rituals of both the Greek and the Christian faith: only there, he was convinced, could he find a structure to convey the extent and the implications of his own drama" (Op. Cit. Michael Peppiatt, 1996, p. 276).
In particular, he drew on two stories by the 5th century B.C. tragedian Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound and the Oresteia, that have inspired masters of history painting from Peter Paul Rubens in the 16th century to William-Adolphe Bouguereau in the 19th century. The titan Prometheus is chained to a rock where his perpetually regenerating liver is daily pecked by an eagle as punishment for stealing fire from Zeus and giving it to mortals. Like Rubens' painting of the subject, Bacon's central eviscerated form is subjugated to the black wrathful creature descending from above. In Rubens' picture, every muscle in Prometheus' body is tensed, including his clenched toes which are echoed by Bacon in his figure's right foot.
Bacon's theme of divine punishment is also found in Aeschylus' most famous trilogy, the Oresteia, in which Clytemnestra murders her husband Agamemnon in revenge for the sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia. When the son Orestes finds out, he kills his mother to avenge his father's death, provoking the avenging Furies, also called the Eumenides (which ironically means 'the benevolent ones'), who determine to drive Orestes insane as punishment. They are foul, terrifying creatures: "Black they are..... Their heavy, rasping breathing makes me cringe...., and what they wear – to flaunt that at the gods, the idols, sacrilege!". In Bouguereau's masterwork, the act of Orestes' murder is still present in the figure of his dying mother, but this tragedy recedes in the face of the swooping Furies, hectoring Orestes as he attempts to flee from their passionate vengeance.
Bacon received a copy of William Bedell Stanford's Aeschylus and his Style: a Study in Language and Personality soon after it was published in 1942 and Aeschylus' imagery provided Bacon a vehicle for expressing "something very powerful and very fundamental about existence" (the artist in Miriam Goss, 'Bringing Home Bacon', The Observer Review, London, 30 Nov 1980, p. 31). From Aeschylus' imagery, Bacon compiled motifs that struck a chord with his own experience and filtered into his art. As he explains, "I'll tell you what I really read: things which bring up images for me. And I find that this happens very much with the translations of Aeschylus... they open up the valves of sensation for me" (David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, 2000, p. 236). For the same reason, he admired the poet T. S. Eliot, who adapted the Aeschylean tragedy in his play The Family Reunion which Bacon saw more than once. Like Eliot's poetry, Bacon's art is one of compression and fragmentation, a visual analogue to Eliot's assemblage style, with its fragmentary memories, myths and idioms.
Bacon used literary references to jolt his own imagination, having no interest in the lofty goals of narrative history painting. David Sylvester questions whether Bacon read the text in its entirety, "I imagine that in his passion for Aeschylus in translation he did not read the whole plays... so much as reread or recall the quotations so wonderfully translated in Stanford's Aeschylus and his Style" (Op. Cit., David Sylvester, 2000, p. 192). By paraphrasing and mixing aspects of Greek tragedy, Bacon's images achieved a deeper content by tapping into the ancient and vital myths that course through successive centuries and civilisations. As Peppiatt observes, ``It seems clear that having worked through the possibilities of creating a modern godless myth out of Christian symbols, Bacon was drawn in later life to absorb and reinvent the stark grandeur of Aeschylean tragedy'' (Op Cit. Lugano, 1993, p. 106).
In choosing the Greek theme of nemesis on an epic scale, Bacon confronted his seminal opus Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. In this work's ostensible Christian subject-matter, the pagan creatures of the underworld were interpreted as symbols of mankind's degradation in the aftermath of war; in this latter version, it is his private artistic demons that are the modern version of the Furies, tormenting the artist's soul. The harpies of Triptych, 1976 are the metaphorical manifestation of Bacon's existential anxieties and self-doubt. Bacon confessed, "We are always hounding ourselves. We've been made aware of this side of ourselves by Freud" (Exh. Cat., Washington D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Francis Bacon, 1990, p. 33).
Thus, Prometheus, the Eumenides and Orestes' guilt are a framework for Bacon's own emotion. The goal of Greek tragedy was to incite catharsis in the viewer and in appropriating its iconography Bacon exorcised something in himself. However, Bacon's triptych is not sequential and has no progression or resolution of plot, thereby precluding the catharsis of Greek tragedy. As Peppiatt explains, "From this stasis no outcome is possible, no purging of the turbulent passions, almost as if, in his deep seated masochism, the artist had chosen constant pain over catharsis" (Op. Cit., Michael Peppiatt, 1996, p. 276). This unparalleled potency is Bacon's exclusive domain in twentieth-century art. The enduring appeal of his work is its power to endlessly provoke the most fundamental of human emotions. His unknowable narratives tap into our basic impulses which are as valid today as they were for Aeschylus thousands of years ago. Matching the epic grandeur of the progenitor of tragedy, in Triptych, 1976 Bacon recorded something primal about the 20th century and in so doing created a masterpiece of the modern age.
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