The painter Francis Bacon on Crucifixion

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Introduction

Crucifixion is the subject that attests to the fragility, the futility, the horror and at the utter impossibility of life.

Live is an everyday miracle that we somehow take for granted.

The supreme depiction of Crucifixion as a “state” of being, is in Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece.

The Crucifixion Panel
Isenheim Altarpiece, The Crucifixion Panel

After Grunewald’s Crucifixion, come the depictions by Francis Bacon.

A self-professed atheist, he has painted over and over again the subject of Crucifixion, two of which I have already presented in Crucifixion II.

Today I extracted from his “Sylvester Interviews” (1) material relevant to the Crucifixion and present it dressed with relevant pictures.

Georgia O'Keefe, Black Cross, New Mexico, 1929, Oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago
Georgia O’Keefe, Black Cross, New Mexico, 1929, Oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago

Interview 2

David Sylvester (DS): Is it a part of your intention to try and create a tragic art?

Diptych with the Virgin and Child Enthroned and the Crucifixion, 1275/80, Art Institute of Chicago
Diptych with the Virgin and Child Enthroned and the Crucifixion, 1275/80, Art Institute of Chicago

Francis Bacon (FB): No. Of course, I think that, if one could find a valid myth today where there was the distance between grandeur and its fall of the tragedies of Aeschylus and Shakespeare, it would be tremendously helpful. But, when you’re outside a tradition, as every artist is today, one can only want to record one’s own feelings about certain situations as closely to one’s nervous system as one possibly can.

Francescuccio Ghissi, The Crucifixion, c. 1370, Tempera on panel
Francescuccio Ghissi, The Crucifixion, c. 1370, Tempera on panel, Art Institute of Chicago

DS: There is of course, one great traditional mythological and tragic subject you’ve painted very often, which is the Crucifixion.

Jacques de Baerze, Corpus of Christ from the Altarpiece of the Crucifixion, 1391–99, Walnut with traces of polychromy and gilding
Jacques de Baerze, Corpus of Christ from the Altarpiece of the Crucifixion, 1391–99, Walnut with traces of polychromy and gilding, Art Institute of Chicago

FB: Well, there have been so very many great pictures in European art of the Crucifixion that it’s a magnificent armature on which you can hang all types of feeling and sensation. You may say it’s a curious thing for a non-religious person to take the Crucifixion, but I don’t think that that has anything to do with it. The great Crucifixions that one knows of – one doesn’t know whether they were painted by men who had religious beliefs.

Lorenzo Monaco, The Crucifixion, 1390–1395, Tempera on panel, Art Institute of Chicago
Lorenzo Monaco, The Crucifixion, 1390–1395, Tempera on panel, Art Institute of Chicago

DS: But they were painted as part of Christian culture and they were made for believers.

German (Rhenish?), Triptych of the Crucifixion with Saints Anthony, Christopher, James and George, c. 1400, Tempera and oil (estimated) on panel, Art Institute of Chicago
German (Rhenish?), Triptych of the Crucifixion with Saints Anthony, Christopher, James and George, c. 1400, Tempera and oil (estimated) on panel, Art Institute of Chicago

FB: Yes, that is true. It may be unsatisfactory, but I haven’t found another subject so far that has been as helpful for covering certain areas of human feelings and behavior. Perhaps it is only because so many people have worked on this particular theme that it has created this armature – I can’t think of a better way of saying it – on which one can operate all types of level of feeling.

Taddeo di Bartolo, The Crucifixion, 1401/04, Tempera on panel, Art Institute of Chicago
Taddeo di Bartolo, The Crucifixion, 1401/04, Tempera on panel, Art Institute of Chicago

DS: Of course, a lot of modern artists in all the media faced with this problem have gone back to the Greek myths. You yourself, in the Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, didn’t paint the traditional Christian figures at the foot of the Cross, but the Eumenides. Are there other themes from Greek mythology that you’ve ever thought of using?

Austrian or Bavarian, The Crucifixion, 1494, Oil on panel, Art Institute of chicago
Austrian or Bavarian, The Crucifixion, 1494, Oil on panel, Art Institute of chicago

FB: Well, I think Greek mythology is even further from us than Christianity. 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.

Martin Schongauer, The Crucifixion with the Holy Women, St. John and Roman Soldiers, n.d, Engraving on paper, Art Institute of Chicago
Martin Schongauer, The Crucifixion with the Holy Women, St. John and Roman Soldiers, n.d, Engraving on paper, Art Institute of Chicago

DS: In painting a Crucifixion, do you find you approach the problem in a radically different way from when working on other paintings?

Albrech Durer, The Crucifixion, from The Large Passion, 1498, Woodcut on cream laid paper, Art Institute of  Chicago
Albrech Durer, The Crucifixion, from The Large Passion, 1498, Woodcut on cream laid paper, Art Institute of Chicago

FB: Well, of course, you’re working then about your own feelings and sensations, really. You might say it’s almost nearer to a self-portrait. You are working on all sorts of very private feelings about behavior and about the way life is.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Crucifixion, 1538, Oil on panel, Art Institute of Chicago
Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Crucifixion, 1538, Oil on panel, Art Institute of Chicago

DS: One very personal recurrent configuration in your work is the interlocking of Crucifixion imagery with that of the butcher’s shop. The connection with meat must mean a great deal to you.

Francisco de Zurbaran, The Crucifixion, 1627, Oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago
Francisco de Zurbaran, The Crucifixion, 1627, Oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago

FB: Well, it does. If you go to some of those great stores, where you just go through those great halls of death, you can see0 fish and meat and birds and everything else all lying dead there. And, of course, one has got to remember that there is this great  beauty of the color of meat.

Boetius Adams Bolswert, The Crucifixion, 1631, Engraving on ivory laid paper, Art Institute of Chicago
Boetius Adams Bolswert, The Crucifixion, 1631, Engraving on ivory laid paper, Art Institute of Chicago

DS: The conjunction of the meat with the Crucifixion seems to happen in two ways – through the presence on the scene of sides of meat and through the transformation of the crucified figure itself into a hanging carcass of meat.

Marc Chagall, White Crucifixion, 1938, Oil on Canvas, Art Institute of Chicago
Marc Chagall, White Crucifixion, 1938, Oil on Canvas, Art Institute of Chicago

FB: 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. But using the meat in that particular way is possibly like the way one might use the spine, because we are constantly seeing images of the human body through X-ray photographs and that obviously does alter the ways by which one can use the body.

Francis Bacon, Crucifixion, 1933, Tate Gallery, London
Francis Bacon, Crucifixion, 1933, Tate Gallery, London

Postscript 1

Bacon had spoken of how people come away from the Grünewald Isenheim altarpiece ‘as though purged into happiness, into a fuller reality of existence.’ Whether this was true for him too as he faced the last months of his life, we may never know. In the last triptych he painted in 1991, he steps off the earth into the darkness of one of his black rectangles, looking out from a reflective, haunted self-portrait. ‘You don’t know what it’s like to be eighty and alone at midnight,’ he said to his godson Francis Wishart. But it cannot be insignificant that, knowing he was critically ill, he chose to be admitted to a Catholic convent where he died with a crucifix hanging on the wall behind his bed. He was cremated to taped Gregorian chant, in a coffin with a metal cross on the lid. (2)

Francis Bacon, Crucifixion, 1965
Francis Bacon, Crucifixion, 1965

Postscript 2: Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion c. 1944

When this triptych was first exhibited at the end of the war in 1945, it secured Bacon’s reputation. The title relates these horrific beasts to the saints traditionally portrayed at the foot of the cross in religious painting. Bacon even suggested he had intended to paint a larger crucifixion beneath which these would appear. He later related these figures to the Eumenides – the vengeful furies of Greek myth, associating them within a broader mythological tradition. Typically, Bacon drew on a range of sources for these figures, including a photograph purporting to show the materialisation of ectoplasm and the work of Pablo Picasso. (4)

Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion c.1944, Tate Gallery, London
Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion c.1944, Tate Gallery, London

Second Version 1988

Part man, part beast, these howling creatures first appeared in Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, which Bacon painted during the Second World War. One critic described that picture as a reflection of ‘the atrocious world into which we have survived’. Bacon identified his distorted figures with the vengeful Greek Furies, while the title places them in the Christian context of the crucifixion. In this version, painted in 1988, Bacon changed the background colour from orange to blood red, and placed more space around the figures, plunging them into a deep void.

Francis Bacon, Second Version of Triptych 1944 1988
Francis Bacon, Second Version of Triptych 1944 1988

Postscript 3: Bacon’s Final Triptych, 1991

In Bacon’s final triptych, made at the end of his career, a composite figure steps in and out of stagelike spaces. Seemingly nailed to the canvas are closely cropped headshots of Bacon’s face, at right, and, at left, that of a Brazilian racecar driver, placed above muscular lower bodies. The triptych form is rooted in Christian religious painting; the center panel is traditionally reserved for the object of devotion. Here, an abject mass of flesh spills forth from the black niche. Bacon said his triptychs were “the thing I like doing most, and I think this may be related to the thought I’ve sometimes had of making a film. I like the juxtaposition of the images separated on three different canvases.” (3)

Francis Bacon, Triptych, 1991, Oil on canvas,  The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Francis Bacon, Triptych, 1991, Oil on canvas, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Postscript 4

For me the Crucifixion is the agony and ecstasy of life. I do not have much time for Resurrection. This is like the good ending of a Hollywood film. It is not the miracle that I do not buy in. It is the modern day interpretation that,  after all, there is a good ending in life, that there is life after death.

Sources

(1) David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, Thames and Hudson

(2) ‘A TERRIBLE BEAUTY’ Francis Bacon: disorder and reality – Ingrid Soren

(3) Triptych, MOMA

(4) Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, Tate Gallery

1 COMMENT

  1. Μόνο όποιος αληθινά μπορεί να επωμιστεί ένα φορτίο, είναι ελεύθερος.
    Martin Heidegger

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