Francis Bacon
Composition c.1957–61

Artwork details

Francis Bacon 1909–1992
Date c.1957–61
Medium Oil paint on paper
Dimensions Support: 340 x 270 mm
Acquisition Purchased with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund and a group of anonymous donors in memory of Mario Tazzoli 1998
Not on display

Catalogue entry


Oil on white wove paper
340 x 270 (13 3/8 x 10 5/8)
Purchased from Paul Danquah and Peter Pollock with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, the National Art Collections Fund and a group of anonymous donors in memory of Mario Tazzoli, 1998

Acquired from the artist (by 1961)

Francis Bacon: Working on Paper, Tate Gallery, London, Feb.-April 1999 (30, repr. in col.)

Matthew Gale, ‘Points of Departure’, in Francis Bacon: Working on Paper, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1999, p.30

Composition rather stands apart from the rest of Bacon’s spiral bound sketchbook, both in the sequence and in the complexity of the image. It is painted in alizarin red over grey on the verso of a sheet of paper, with the perforations to the right where there is also creasing and marking from the original spiral binder. This suggests that it was the last page in the sketchbook (or served as such for some time). A large blob of green paint in the upper left corner is the cause of staining on three earlier sheets, although the progression of the stain suggests that at least one immediately preceding page may be missing. There are no notable marks on the recto.

The image is far more complex than almost all those on the related sketchbook sheets. It has a ground plane which is similar to that in the painting Man Carrying a Child, 1956 (private collection).[1] The platform seen there, which may be described as an octagon seen in perspective with a slight step in the converging sides of the further half, seems to be echoed in the drawing. It may also be compared with the spatial device in Study of a Dog, 1952 (Tate Gallery N06131) and related works.[2] However, the introduction of the heavy horizontal lines in the sketch makes it plausible that the space denoted is a boxing ring. This would associate it with a number of the images in the sketchbook which may be of boxers and which may be derived from sporting magazine photographs. Overridden by the horizontals are energetic lines which seem to indicate the engagement of the bout.

If this reading is correct, Composition would be the only sheet in the sketchbook to feature more than one figure. This is significant because Bacon, as he told David Sylvester in 1962,[3] was particularly wary of the narrative effect of the introduction of multiple figures into his compositions. The resolution that he reached at that time allowed disengaged figures to co-exist, often across the individually framed canvases of his triptychs. Although boxing furnished images of two figures in combat, it is notable that the other sketches concentrate on the single fallen boxer; they may thus be a gauge of Bacon’s roughly contemporary concern with interacting figures. In Composition the confused result is comparable to the painter’s earlier confrontation of this problem, when adapting the coupled wrestlers from Muybridge’s photographs - in such paintings as Two Figures, 1953 (private collection)[4] and Two Figures in the Grass, 1954 (private collection)[5] - by melding them together so as to become one.

As Joyce Carol Oates has observed of fighters: ‘To enter the ring near-naked and to risk one’s life is to make of one’s audience voyeurs of a kind: boxing is so intimate. It is to ease out of sanity’s consciousness and into another, difficult to name. It is to risk, and sometimes to realise, the agony of which agon (Greek, “contest”) is the root.’[6] Bacon’s interest in the sport may be seen on at least two related levels.[7] The bout and the reporter’s photographs provided a powerful combination of male muscle and aggression which clearly had an appeal to the painter, as is confirmed by his acknowledged use of wrestling and boxing photographs as sources.[8] At the same time, the setting of the spectacle itself had echoes of Bacon’s ‘space-frame’ device. David Chandler has described it in self-consciously artistic terms as ‘neatly framed, squared-off by the ring; it is a set piece, a scene to be deciphered, a tableau alive with coded messages that tests our powers of interpretation’.[9] To this may be added that the lighting of the ring also coincides with forms prevalent in the painter’s work as means for the isolation of the body. This in turn may be related to the existential notions of the isolated hero embodied in the sport. The observations of Chandler and Oates also point to the narrative aspect of boxing - the ‘highly condensed drama’[10] - which may have been a difficulty for the painter and explain why none of these sketches can be recognised as having been transferred to canvas. In this respect the ‘arm’s length’ physical engagement of boxing images might be contrasted with the fusion of bodies in wrestling images which he had already used in sexualised form.

This is one of twenty-six works on paper from the same spiral bound sketchbook; general issues relating to their creation and preservation are discussed in the entry on Two Owls, no.1 (Tate Gallery T07355).

Matthew Gale
February 1999

[1] Repr. Ronald Alley, Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné and Documentation, London 1964, [p.207], no.114
[2] E.g. Dog, 1952, Museum of Modern Art, New York, repr. ibid., [p.177], no.45, and Sphinx II, 1953, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, repr. ibid. [p.186], no.68

[3] David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, 1975, rev. ed. as The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, 1980, 3rd ed. 1990, 4th ed. as Interviews with Francis Bacon, 1993, p.22
[4] Repr. Alley 1964 p.81, no.75 (col.)
[5] Repr. ibid., p.85, no.80 (col.)

[6] Joyce Carol Oates, On Boxing, New Jersey 1994, extracted as ‘On Boxing’ in Boxer: An Anthology of Writings on Boxing and Visual Culture, David Chandler, John Gill, Tania Guha and Gilane Tawadros (eds.), London 1996, p.27
[7] See Matthew Gale, ‘Points of Departure’, in Francis Bacon: Working on Paper, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1999, pp.29-30
[8] Sylvester 1993, p.116
[9] David Chandler, ‘Introduction: the Pictures of Boxing’, in Chandler, Gill, Guha and Tawadros (eds.) 1996, p.13
[10] Oates 1996, p.27

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