Francis Bacon

Three Figures and Portrait


Not on display

Francis Bacon 1909–1992
Oil paint and pastel on canvas
Support: 1981 × 1473 mm
frame: 2175 × 1668 × 98 mm
Purchased 1977

Display caption

Two dynamic figures and bird-like creature are placed within a claustrophobic setting. The three figures are watched over by a portrait. This work is usually seen as an image of suffering. One - and possibly both - of the twisting human figures have been identified as George Dyer, Bacon’s companion, lover and muse. Dyer killed himself in 1971, but Bacon continued to portray him after his death. The bird-like form in the foreground, with its snarling human mouth, has been linked to the Furies, goddesses of vengeance in Greek mythology.

Gallery label, June 2021

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Catalogue entry

Francis Bacon 1909-1992

Three Figures and Portrait 1975


Oil and pastel on canvas. Each canvas 1981 x 1473 (78 x 58)
Inscribed on back of canvas in blue felt-tipped marker ‘3 Figures and Portrait | 1975 Francis Bacon | oil and pastel’ top left

Purchased from Galerie Claude Bernard (Grant-in-Aid), 1977

Purchased from the artist by Marlborough Fine Art, London by whom sold to Galerie Claude Bernard, Paris

Francis Bacon: oeuvres récentes, Musée Cantini, Marseilles, July-Sept. 1976 (13, repr. in col.)
Francis Bacon: oeuvres récentes, Galerie Claude Bernard, Paris, Jan.-Mar. 1977 (7, repr. in col.)
The Hard Won Image: Traditional Method and Subject in Recent British Art, Tate Gallery, London, July-Sept. 1984 (17, repr. in col. p.17, reversed)
Francis Bacon, Tate Gallery, London, May-Aug. 1985, Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, Oct. 1985-Jan 1986, Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Feb-Mar.1986 (94, repr. in col.)
A School of London: Six Figurative Painters, British Council tour, Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo, May-June 1987, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humelbaek, June-Aug., Museo d’arte moderna, Ca’ Pesaro, Venice, Sept.-Oct., Kunstmuseum, Düsseldorf, Nov. 1987-Jan. 1988 (28, repr. p.49)
Long term loan, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, Feb.1988 - June 1989
Francis Bacon: Paintings Since 1944, Tate Gallery Liverpool, Feb. 1990-Jan. 1991 (no number, repr. in col. p.21)
Home and Away, Tate Gallery Liverpool, 24 Nov. 1995 - 20 April 1997 (no number)

Carter S. Wiseman, Edward Behr, Patricia W. Mooney, ‘Agony and the Artist’, Newsweek, 24 Jan. 1977, p.47, repr. (col.)
Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1976-8, London 1978, pp.30-1, repr.
Malcolm Quantril, ‘From London: Some Anglo-Saxon Intentions and Responses’, Art International, vol.22, no.2, Feb. 1978, p.86, repr.
The Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion to the National Collection of British and Modern Foreign Art, London 1979, p.129, repr. in col.
Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: logique de la sensation, Paris 1981, p.20, pl.40
Dawn Ades, ‘Web of Images’ in Dawn Ades and Andrew Forge, Francis Bacon,, Tate Gallery, London 1985, p.16-17
John W. Nixon, ‘Francis Bacon: Paintings 1959-1979; Opposites and Structural Rationalism’, unpublished Ph.D thesis, University of Ulster, Belfast 1986, pp.240-50, 275, 358, 620-1 (no.341), pl.VII, figs.29a-j
Ann Stevenson, Poems After Francis Bacon in Pat Adams (ed.), With a Poet’s Eye: A Tate Gallery Anthology, London 1986, pp.124-7, repr. p.125 (col.)
Gilles Deleuze, ‘Interpretations of the Body: A New Power of Laughter for the Living’, Art International, no.8, autumn 1989, p.35, repr. p.40 (col.)
Rory Snookes, ‘Relative Presences: A Roomful of Bacons at the Tate’, Apollo, vol.134, no.357, Nov. 1991, p.351
Wendy Beckett, ‘Spiritual Insight’, Antiques Collector, vol.63, no.1, Dec. 1991-Jan. 1992, pp.78-8, repr. p.79 (col.)
Philippe Dagen, Francis Bacon, Paris 1996, pp.7,10,11, repr. p.6, pl.1 (col.)
Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, ‘Notes sur Francis Bacon’, Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1996, p.46

‘Londres: Un nouveau Bacon a la Tate Gallery’, L’Oeil, July-Aug. 1977, p.562
Tate Gallery Report and Acquisitions 1976-8, London 1978, p.45 (col.)
Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon, face et profil, Paris, Munich and Milan 1983, trans. John Weightman as Francis Bacon: Full Face and in Profile, Oxford 1983, pl.101 (col.)
H. Platschek, ‘Francis Bacon: Alle Kunst ist Instinkt’, Art: Das Kunstmagazin, no.10, Oct. 1984, p.34 (col.)
Wieland Schmied, Francis Bacon: Vier Studien zu einem Porträt, Berlin 1985, p.127, pl.170
Friedhelm Mennekes, ‘Francis Bacon: Distanzierung vom Augenschein - Transformation des Mythischen’, Kunst und Kirche, no.1, 1986, p.36
Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon, London 1988, pl.94 (col.)
Wieland Schmied, Francis Bacon: Commitment and Conflict, Munich and New York 1996, [p.131], pl.38 (col.)

Into a typically restricted pictorial space Bacon brought together the four protagonists listed in the painting’s title: Three Figures and Portrait. The warmth of the buff and orange setting is enlivened by the tumbling forms of the two figures – one conspicuously turning into the centre, the other swivelling out to the side. Both are reminiscent of Michelangelo’s ignudi (male nudes) on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and it is notable that Bacon acknowledged his admiration for the Italian’s rendering of voluptuous male flesh in a contemporary interview with David Sylvester.[1] The two remaining elements are quieter. The foreground ‘figure’ is bird-like and threatening in its display of teeth. The blurred portrait is melancholic in appearance, but its dark rectangle provides a formal point of stability for the whole composition.

The title of Three Figures and Portrait, like the majority of those attached to Bacon’s works, serves as a dispassionate foil to the energies expended both in the process of painting and, seemingly, by those depicted. That the contrast is deliberate is confirmed by the artist’s consistent discussion of his work in formal and procedural terms from which narrative was excluded. Wary of the easy and restrictive interpretations arising from multi-figure compositions, he had revealed in 1966 his ‘hope to be able to make a great number of figures without a narrative’.[2] One solution had been the resumption of the triptych format in the 1960s which allowed the presentation of separately framed individuals. Around 1967-8, in complex portraits such as Two Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer, 1968 (Sara Hildén Art Museum, Tampere, Finland),[3] Bacon brought together on one canvas multiple but contrasting images of a single friend. The subject portrayed is accompanied within the picture space by a further ‘portrait’, signalled as two-dimensional by being illusionistically pinned to a wall. This conceit may be assumed as deliberately reminiscent of the nails that cast shadows within Cubist still-lifes. The result is what Ernst van Alphen has characterised as a ‘tangle of ontological dimensions’.[4]

In the early 1970s such explorations of pictorial conventions were overtaken by the more tragic mood of works such as Triptych – August 1972 (Tate Gallery T03073). However, both sets of concerns may be seen to combine around 1975-6. Like the complex portraits of the 1960s, the figures were juxtaposed in Three Figures and Portrait with a framed and pinned representation. It has been argued, both by John Nixon and in an earlier Tate catalogue,[5] that the two main nudes ‘can both be identified as George Dyer’,[6] the artist’s lover who continued to be portrayed even after his suicide in 1971. Certainly that on the left bears his features. If the ‘portrait’ were to have the same identity – and it is so difficult to ascertain that the writer Michel Leiris has been suggested as an alternative[7] – then this painting would continue the ontological play seen in the earlier paintings. Bacon had paired figures with framed ‘portraits’ in the highly charged Three Portraits - Posthumous Portrait of George Dyer, Self-Portrait, Portrait of Lucian Freud, 1973 (Marlborough Fine Art)[8] made not long after Dyer’s death. A more complex role is served by mirrors, notably that in Figure Writing Reflected in a Mirror, 1976 (private collection),[9] a painting contemporary with Three Figures and Portrait and which is closely comparable in the treatment of the nude male back. In re-presenting an alternative aspect of the subject, Bacon used the mirrors to disrupt appearance even more than was the case with the additional framed ‘portraits’; in his discussion of Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror, 1967-8 (Fundación Collección Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid)[10] the philosopher Andrew Benjamin has interpreted the mirror’s function as framing an ‘ineliminable heterogeneity’.[11]

The pictorial language of Three Figures and Portrait, resuming forms from the previous decade, was qualified by a less exuberant mood. This is not so much evident in the colouring, which is distinguished by the acid yellow of the focal rail, as by the distortions of the bodies and the foreground detail of a bird-like creature. The twisting nudes have been remarked upon by several commentators, who have linked the detail of the projecting spine of the left hand figure with Bacon’s admiration for a Degas pastel, After the Bath, 1903 in the National Gallery.[12] In 1966, he noted how ‘the spine almost comes out of the skin altogether. And this gives it such a grip and a twist that you’re more conscious of the vulnerability of the rest of the body than if he had drawn the spine naturally up to the neck.’[13] This disruption is taken up in Three Figures and Portrait. Gilles Deleuze has seen the ‘tension between flesh and bone’ as crucial to the painting, and has postulated: ‘Meat is the bodily state in which flesh and bone are in confrontation instead of forming a structural whole.’[14] The spine and the lowered head have also been discussed by Dawn Ades in relation to Freudian theories, in which lower parts of the body are understood to be repressively disguised by transposition onto higher parts. Thus, the figure in the Tate painting is comparable to that with the similarly exposed spine in the later Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus, 1981 (Astrup Fearnley Museet for Moderne Kunst, Oslo),[15] where the mouth is located in front of the genitals resulting in ‘a condensation there of sexual energy’.[16] Although the body in Three Figures and Portrait is inverted in the same way, there is no such explicit alignment.

It is likely that the rings which encircle the heads of both major figures in the painting relate to Bacon’s expressed interest in K.C. Clark’s Positioning in Radiography (London 1939),[17] a textbook in which focal areas were indicated in a similar diagrammatic way.[18] Beyond this association, Ades has pointed to the painting’s paradoxes: how the ground in the left-hand circle ‘darkens and changes texture, as though suddenly magnified’ but the head is neither enlarged nor x-rayed, and how the body is formally dressed within the circle but naked - with the spine revealed – beyond, ‘as though the x-ray is operating perversely in the area outside the circle’.[19] It is notable that the figure undergoes a simultaneous reversal – presenting his back outside, but his front inside the circle.[20] As the ‘disrespectful’ spurt of white paint across this border acts as a tie for the figure, the microcosm of the circle might be seen to encapsulate the conventional façade of the man. Such a speculation seems apposite in view of the clear portrayal of Dyer, the petty criminal and homosexual lover.

A sense of the tragic has been perceived in Three Figures and Portrait by various critics and in differing degrees. The contemplative nun Wendy Beckett has written of the painting as an expression of human suffering, while Rory Snookes has referred to it as ‘historionic theatre’.[21] Stemming from the writhing of the nudes, this mood appears to be condensed in the foreground creature. The hybrid nature of this prominent animal is disturbing; its indistinctly formed body may derive from photographs of owls by Eric Hosking,[22] which Bacon used for related creatures like that in Fragment of a Crucifixion, 1950 (Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven).[23] In both cases, the horrific quality is achieved by the superimposition of a leering or screaming human mouth. Such a conflation of forms has led to the creature being convincingly linked to the figures of the Eumenides, or classical Greek furies, the vengeful characters to which Bacon compared his Three Studies for Figures at a Base of a Crucifixion, 1943-4 (Tate Gallery N06171).[24] In Three Figures and Portrait it establishes an air of ‘disaster’ for the painting, even if the increased use of such figures in the 1970s became more melodramatic.[25]

The elaboration of earlier concerns that these observations reveal seems to be in line with the making of the painting itself. The differences in handling are particularly marked, even for Bacon’s work. Thus, the left-hand figure is thinly painted in pinks and whites which allow the colour of the raw canvas to show through, while the right-hand figure is heavily worked (especially in the area of the shoulders). This difference is exaggerated by the unusually heavy treatment of the background planes. The first of these was the orange which survives as the wall behind the ‘portrait’, but probably covered the whole surface as it may be glimpsed along the bottom edge of the canvas. The sandy colour, which is close to that of the raw canvas itself, was painted over the orange and was thickened with sand or some other form of grit.[26] Irregular but distinctly shaped areas in the lower right of the canvas lack sand and, given their location, may have been shadows from the figures.

Bacon placed great stress on the use of chance in his paintings but subsequent analysis has suggested a more carefully considered approach. The circles in Three Figures and Portrait may have been made by drawing around the dustbin lid which he apparently kept for the purpose, but Nixon has submitted the canvas to very thoroughgoing scrutiny in order to reveal a complex geometrical construction. Although his reading of the shading within the circles as indicative of spheres seems questionable,[27] he identifies a number of interesting devices including the presence of tangents projecting from the circles and the formation of the yellow rail by a series of catenary curves (i.e. taking the form of a chain suspended between two points). Evidence of more complex construction - beyond that of a simple bilateral symmetry - is presented. Thus, an arc determined by the length of the right side of the canvas coincides with the point where the white rail touches the left side and establishes a diagonal which ‘quite accurately delineates where the left-hand figure’s foot disappears’.[28] Similarly, the nudes are enclosed in the area located within the Golden Sections of the painting’s height, and it is notable that the eye of the left-hand figure lies on the intersection between the lower of these lines and the Golden Section of the width.[29] Summarising his exhaustive analysis, Nixon noted that ‘exposition of the “virtual” structure, by geometrical projection, revealed an orderly cohesiveness of composition - extending also to the biomorphic forms - quite disproportionate to the “real” structure.’[30] He concluded that the artist had deliberately obscured this geometrical structure.

Nixon’s findings suggest that Bacon was substantially more careful in his compositional methods than has ever been suspected. While it is possible that some of the geometries are coincidental it is difficult to dismiss all of the evidence on this basis. Indeed, it may have been in preparation for the complexity of such canvases as Three Figures and Portrait that the T-square, which is so often seen in photographs of his studio, was kept to hand.[31] Such a view of compositional calculation and preparation underlying Bacon’s evident spontaneity also fits with the evidence accrued of his preparatory work on paper.[32]

Matthew Gale
February 1999

[1] Interview 1974, 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.114
[2] Ibid., p.63
[3] Repr. Francis Bacon, exh. cat. Tate Gallery, London 1985, [p.94], pl.57 (col.)
[4] Ernst van Alphen, Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self, London 1992, p.152
[5] John W. Nixon, ‘Francis Bacon: Paintings 1959-1979; Opposites and Structural Rationalism’, unpublished Ph.D thesis, University of Ulster, Belfast 1986, p.242

[6] Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1976-8, London 1978, p.30

[7] Nixon 1986, p.244
[8] Repr. Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1985, pl.82 (col.)
[9] Repr. ibid., pl.99 (col.)
[10] Repr. Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1996, p.169, no 55 (col.)
[11] Andrew Benjamin, ‘Interpreting Reflections: Painting Mirrors’, Art, Mimesis and the Avant-Garde, London and New York 1991, p.34
[12] E.g. Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1976-8, London 1978, p.31; Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, ‘Notes sur Francis Bacon’, Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1996, p.46
[13] Sylvester 1993, pp.46-7
[14] Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: logique de la sensation, Paris, 1981, p.20, translated in ‘Interpretations of the Body: A New Power of Laughter for the Living’, Art International, no.8, autumn 1989, p.35
[15] Repr. Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Centre George Pompidou, Paris 1996, p.200, pl.74 (col.)

[16] Dawn Ades, ‘Web of Images’ in Dawn Ades and Andrew Forge, Francis Bacon,, Tate Gallery 1985, p.16-17
[17] Interview 1962, Sylvester 1993, p.32

[18] Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1976-8, London 1978, p.31
[19] Ades 1985, p.17
[20] Nixon 1986, p.242

[21] Wendy Beckett, ‘Spiritual Insight’, Antiques Collector, vol.63, no.1, Dec. 1991-Jan. 1992, pp.78-8, repr. p.79 (col.); Rory Snookes, ‘Relative Presences: A Roomful of Bacons at the Tate’, Apollo, vol.134, no.357, Nov. 1991, p.351

[22] Eric J. Hosking and Cyril W. Newberry, Birds of the Night, London 1945
[23] Repr. Ronald Alley, Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné and Documentation, London 1964, p.49, no.28 (col.)
[24] Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1976-8, London 1978, p.30
[25] Snookes 1991, p.351; Nixon 1986, p.355
[26] Nixon 1986, p.241; Tate Gallery conservation files
[27] Nixon 1986, p.244
[28] Nixon 1986, pp.246-7
[29] Nixon 1986, p.248
[30] Nixon 1986, p.249
[31] E.g. John Deakin, photograph of George Dyer in the studio, 1964, in Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1996, p.27
[32] Matthew Gale, ‘Points of Departure’ in Francis Bacon: Working on Paper, display cat., Tate Gallery, London 1999

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