This is the work that launched Francis Bacon as a serious artist, after some years working as an interior designer, and only an occasional painter.
It’s not thought that Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion has any specifically Christian reference, but instead was used by Bacon as an image of suffering – he identified the three figures as the Eumenides, the Furies of Greek legend who pursue wrongdoers to a vengeful death.
It was first exhibited in London in April 1945, the final month of the Second World War. In that same month the British public heard for the first time of the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps when, Richard Dimbleby broadcast his landmark report on the liberation of Belsen, on BBC Radio, and Bacon’s image has come to signify the full horror of the inhumanity of the 20th century. One report of its first exhibition recounts that ‘Visitors ... were brought up short by images so unrelievedly awful that the mind shut up with a snap at the sight of them’.
Francis Bacon spoke of this work in an interview in 1955:
‘I found an old book in Paris on diseases of the mouth. It must have been a nineteenth century book; I don’t really know quite what date it was. And they were hand-coloured plates of these different diseases of the mouth, and they always interested me and the colours were beautiful. As you know, people read things into everything; they always say that mouths have a strong sexual influence. Well, they probably do. And I have no religious feelings but at the same time I was [going to] do a crucifixion and put these figures around the base of it. And the only reason I ever used the crucifixion [was] because it was an armature on which I could hang certain sensations.’