Illustrated companion

Francis Bacon made some early reputation as an interior designer and painter in London in the period 1929-34 but then, unable to find a direction, painted only sporadically through the next ten years. Finally, in 1944 he completed 'Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion', with which, he said later, 'I began'.

It was exhibited in April 1945 at the Lefevre Gallery in London and in his book on Bacon published in 1964 the critic John Russell recalled: 'Visitors ... were brought up short by images so unrelievedly awful that the mind shut up with a snap at the sight of them ... They caused total consternation.'

The importance of the Crucifixion to Bacon is not as a Christian image particularly, but as a focus for a particular view of humanity. In one of a series of interviews with the critic David Sylvester, Bacon said: 'it was just an act of man's behaviour, a way of behaviour to another.'

In choosing the Crucifixion image and the triptych format as a vehicle for his vision of man Bacon is drawing on one of the central and most important traditions in Western painting of the portrayal of human suffering. But there are other touchstone expressions of suffering in Western culture and in a letter to the Tate Gallery Bacon said that these figures were 'sketches for the Eumenides'. The Eumenides or, more correctly, Erinyes, are the Greek Furies, the instruments of vengeance of the Greek gods, and Bacon's reference is to the trilogy of plays, the Oresteia of Aeschylus, one of the most unrelentingly blood-soaked and savage of the works of ancient Greek drama. The painting thus potently blends both classical and Christian frames of reference, as well as absolutely modern ones: Bacon has acknowledged the influence at this time of Picasso's paintings of the early 1930s of strange and savage pink and grey creatures on beaches. He is also already using here the photographic sources which were to become fundamental to his art. Bacon is particularly fascinated by high-speed photographs which capture human beings in attitudes invisible to the eye. One of his best-known sources, relevant to this work, is a still from the Russian Revolutionary film by Sergei Eisenstein, Battleship Potemkin (1925), showing in close-up the face of a screaming woman who has just been shot.

Both the screaming mouths in 'Three Studies' relate to this photograph, although Bacon has other points of reference for the image of the scream or cry which was a central theme of his art in the 1940s and 1950s and has recurred often since. Among them are the screaming woman in Poussin's 'Massacre of the Innocents' in the Mus?e Cond?, Chantilly, and, Bacon has also said, a secondhand book bought as a young man in Paris 'which had beautiful hand-coloured plates of diseases of the mouth ... and they fascinated me and I was obsessed by them.' The art historian Dawn Ades has also convincingly associated Bacon's use of the cry with photographs by the ex-Surrealist J-A Boiffard together with a text, The Mouth, by another ex-Surrealist Georges Bataille, published in Bataille's journal Documents in 1930. Bataille wrote 'On great occasions human life is concentrated bestially in the mouth, anger makes one clench one's teeth, terror and atrocious suffering make the mouth the organ of tearing cries.' Bataille also notes 'the stricken individual ... stretching out his neck' which particularly corresponds to the treatment of the figures here. It seems from Bacon's own comments on his painting of the cry that he finds himself striking a balance between the expression of horror and the creation of a beautifully painted image: in conversation with David Sylvester in 1966 he said 'You could say that a scream is a horrific image; in fact I wanted to paint the scream more than the horror. I think, if I had really thought about what causes somebody to scream, it would have made the scream that I tried to paint more successful. In fact they were too abstract.' A little later, however, he remarked 'I've always hoped in a sense to be able to paint a mouth like Monet painted a sunset.'

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.200