Francis Bacon

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion


Francis Bacon 1909–1992
Oil paint on 3 boards
Support, each: 940 × 737 mm
frame, each: 1162 × 960 × 80 mm
Presented by Eric Hall 1953

Display caption

The title of this work refers to figures that are often featured in Christian paintings of the death of Jesus. Bacon said the figures in his work represented the Furies, ancient Greek goddesses. They punished human wrongdoing. The work was first shown publicly in April 1945. The Second World War was in its final months, after six years of conflict. The first photographs and film footage of Nazi concentration camps were being released. For some, Bacon’s painting reflected the horror of the Holocaust, in which six million Jewish people were murdered. It was also seen to reflect the fear caused by the development of nuclear weapons.

Gallery label, July 2020

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Catalogue entry

Francis Bacon 1909-1992

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, c.1943-4


Oil and pastel on board
Left panel 940 x 737 (37 x 29), centre panel 940 x 738 (37 x 29), right panel 940 x 734 (37 x 28 7/8)
Left panel inscribed on back in orange oil paint ‘LEFT’ top centre, (?in another hand) in chalk ‘BACON’ middle centre; strip of masking tape inscribed in black waxy crayon ‘NO 1’ removed from back
Central panel inscribed on back in orange oil paint ‘CENTER’ [sic] top centre, in chalk ‘No2’ centre upside down; strip of masking tape inscribed in black waxy crayon ‘NO 2’ removed from back
Right panel inscribed on back in orange oil paint ‘RIGHT’ top centre, in black crayon ‘F. BACOn | PETERSFIEL[D]’ up left side to top of board; printed Lefevre Gallery label with typed inscription: ‘STUDY FOR CRUCIFIXION | by | FRANCIS BACON’ removed from back of right panel

Presented by Eric Hall 1953

Purchased from the artist by Eric Hall, 1945

Recent Paintings by Francis Bacon, Frances Hodgkins, Henry Moore, Matthew Smith, Graham Sutherland, Lefevre Gallery, London, April 1945 (2, as ‘Three Studies for Figures, at the Base of a Crucifixion’)
Seventh Exhibition: Adler, Bacon, Colquhoun, Hubert, MacBryde, Trevelyan, Anglo-French Art Centre, London, Nov.-Dec. 1946 (6-8, as ‘Studies for figures at the base of a crucifix’)
Francis Bacon: Paintings; Robin Ironside: Coloured Drawings, Hanover Gallery, London, Nov.-Dec. 1949 (1-3, as Study I, Study II and Study III)
Nicholson, Bacon, Freud, XXVII Venice Biennale, June-Oct. 1954 (British pavilion 54-6, as ‘Three Studies for a Larger Composition’)
V Bienal do Museu de Arte de São Paulo, São Paulo, Sept.-Dec. 1959 (Bacon 2)
Francis Bacon, Tate Gallery, London, May-June 1962 (5, repr.), Kunsthalle, Mannheim, July-Aug. (5, repr.), Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna, Turin, Sept.-Oct. (5, repr.), Kunsthaus, Zurich, Oct.-Nov. (5, centre panel repr. pl.2), Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Jan.-Feb. 1963 (5, outer panels repr.)
Francis Bacon, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, Oct. 1971-Jan. 1972, Kunsthalle, Dusseldorf, March-May 1972 (1, repr. in col. p.5)
Henry Moore to Gilbert and George: Modern British Art from the Tate Gallery, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels, Sept.-Nov. 1973, as part of Europalia 73 Great Britain (72, repr. p.90)
Bilder vom Menschen in der Kunst des Abendlandes, Nationalgalerie, Berlin, July-Sept. 1980 (24, repr.)
Suffering Through Tyranny 1933-1953, Tate Gallery, London, display, Dec.1984-May 1985 (no number)
Francis Bacon, Tate Gallery, London, May-Aug. 1985, Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, Oct. 1985-Jan 1986, Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Feb-Mar.1986 (1, repr. in col.)
A Paradise Lost: The Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain 1935-55, Barbican Art Gallery, London, May-July 1987 (22, right hand panel repr. p.76, pl.84)
Francis Bacon: Paintings Since 1944, Tate Gallery Liverpool, Feb. 1990-Jan. 1991 (no number, repr. in col. pp.14-15, details pp.8-9)
Corps crucifiés, Musée Picasso, Paris, Nov. 1992-March 1993 (3, repr. in col. pp.48-50, detail of centre panel repr. p.96, fig.28)
Francis Bacon, Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, June-Oct. 1996, Haus der Kunst, Munich, Nov. 1996 - Jan. 1997 (4, repr. in col. pp.84-5)

Michael Ayrton, ‘Art’, Spectator, vol.174, no.6094, 13 April 1945, p.335
Raymond Mortimer, ‘At the Lefevre’, New Statesman and Nation, vol.29, no.738, 14 April 1945, p.239
“Perspex” [Herbert Furst], ‘Current Shows and Comments: On the Significance of a Word’, Apollo, vol.41, no.231, May 1945, p.108
Robin Ironside, Painting Since 1939, London 1947, p.37, republished in Arnold Haskell, Dilys Powell, Rollo Myers and Robin Ironside, Since 1939: Ballet, Films, Music, Painting, London 1948, p.183
Sam Hunter, ‘Francis Bacon: The Anatomy of Horror’, Magazine of Art, New York, vol.95, no.1, Jan. 1952, pp.13-14, centre panel repr. p.13
David Sylvester, ‘Francis Bacon’, Britain Today, no.214, Feb. 1954, pp.24-5
David Sylvester, ‘At the Tate Gallery’, Encounter, no.7, Sept. 1956, p.67
Luigi Carluccio, ‘Bacon: il potere e la gloria’, Bacon,, Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna, Turin 1962, p.13
John Rothenstein, ‘Introduction’, Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1962, [p.4]
John Rothenstein, ‘Introduction’, Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Kunsthaus, Zurich 1962, pp.7-8
Stephen Spender, ‘Francis Bacon’, Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Kunsthaus, Zurich 1962, p.13
David Sylvester, ‘Francis Bacon’, New Statesman, vol.53, no.1632, 22 June 1962, p.916
Ronald Alley, ‘Francis Bacon’, Cimaise (Special Issue: Art Today in Great Britain), vol.10, no.1, Jan.-Feb. 1963, p.12, repr. pp.16-7
John Russell, ‘Peer of the Macabre: Francis Bacon’, Art in America, vol.51, no.5, Oct. 1963, p.101
Lawrence Alloway, ‘Introduction’, Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Solomon R.Guggenheim, New York 1963, pp.13, 22-3
Ronald Alley, Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné and Documentation, London 1964, pp.11, 12, 33-5, repr. in col. pp.34-5, no.15
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculptures, I, London 1964, p.22-3
Michael Peppiatt, ‘From a Conversation with Francis Bacon’ in Cambridge Opinion (Special Issue: Modern Art in Britain), no.37, Jan. 1964, p.48
John Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1964, [pp.4-6], centre panel repr. [p.9]
Robert Melville, ‘Francis Bacon’, Studio, vol.168, no.855, July 1964, p.12, centre panel repr. p.12, fig.2
R.C. Kenedy, ‘Francis Bacon’, Art International, vol.10, no.10, Dec. 1966, p.29, repr.
Richard Morphet, British Painting 1910-45, London 1967, [p.18], pl.32
David Sylvester, Francis Bacon: Recent Paintings, exh. cat., Marlborough Fine Art, London 1967, p.34
Enrico Crispolti, L’Informale: Storia e poetica I: Origine e primi, Assisi and Rome, 1971, p.398
John Russell, Francis Bacon, London, Paris and Berlin 1971, 2nd ed. London and New York 1979, 3rd ed. 1993, pp.9-11, 23-4, repr. pp.8-9, pl.2
Alexander Duckers, Francis Bacon: “Painting 1946”, Stuttgart 1971, p.3, central panel repr. between pp.16 and 17, pl.2b
John Russell, ‘Francis Bacon: A Retrospective and a Preview’, Horizon, New York, vol.13, no.4, autumn 1971, pp.81, 83, repr. pp.80-1 (col.)
Michel Ragon, ‘Francis Bacon: il selvaggio’, Le Arti, Milan, vol.22, no.1, Jan.-Feb. 1971, pp.3-4, repr. in col. pp.6-7
John Berger, ‘The Worst is Not Yet’, New Society, vol.19, no.484, 6 Jan. 1972, p.23, revised as ‘Francis Bacon and Walt Disney’ in John Berger, About Looking, London 1980 (as ‘Crucifixion, 1944’)
Andrew Causey, ‘Francis Bacon’s European Retrospective’, Illustrated London News, vol.260, no.6883, Feb. 1972, p.62
William Feaver, ‘Shock Treatment’, London Magazine, vol.11, no.6, Feb.-March 1972, p.124
John Rothenstein, Modern English Painters III: Wood to Hockney, London 1974, pp.162-3
David W. Boxer, ‘The Early Work of Francis Bacon’, unpublished Ph.D thesis, John Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland 1975, pp.3, 6, 11, 14-67, 70, 76, 79, 85, 88, 111, 132, 177, 202, repr. fig.1
Edward Lucie-Smith, ‘Bacon for Export’, Illustrated London News, vol.263, no.6921, April 1975, p.76
David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1975, revised as The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, 1980, 3rd ed. 1990, 4th ed. as Interviews with Francis Bacon, 1993, pp.8, 45-6, 112, 118, repr. pp.8-9, pls.3 and 4
Lorenza Trucchi, Francis Bacon, Milan 1975, trans. John Shepley, London and New York 1976, p.13, repr. in col. pl.1
Robert Hewison, Under Siege: Literary Life in London 1939-45, London 1977, p.154
Michael Newman, ‘Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud’, Arts Review, vol.29, no.21, 14 Oct. 1977, p.626
Hugh M. Davies, Francis Bacon: The Early and Middle Years, 1928-1958 (Ph.D thesis, Princeton University, 1975), New York and London 1978, pp.12, 15-6, 26-7, 29, 33-5, 44-57, 64, 68, 83, 168-9, repr. pls 36A, 36B, 36C
Michael Wishart, High Diver: An Autobiography, London 1978, pp.61-2
‘Francis Bacon: Three Figures and Portrait’, Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1976-8, London 1978, pp.30-1
Alice Ann Calhoun, Suspended Projections: Religious Roles and Adaptable Myths in John Hawkes’s Novels, Francis Bacon’s Paintings and Ingmar Bergman’s Films (Ph.D thesis, University of South Carolina, 1979), Ann Arbor, Mich. 1979, pp.112-3, 139, 141-2, 145, repr. p.171, fig.11
Carol Hogben, Thirties: British Art and Design Before the War, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London 1979, p.284
Simon Wilson, British Art: From Holbein to the Present Day, London 1979, pp.159-60, repr. p.160
Miriam Gross, ‘Bringing Home Bacon’, Observer Review, 30 Nov. 1980, p.29
Joachim Heusinger von Waldegg, Francis Bacon: Schreiender Papst, 1951, Mannheim, 1980, p.50, centre panel repr. p.55
Ian Jeffrey, ‘British Art 1940-80: Four Phases’, exh. broadsheet, Hayward Gallery, London 1980, p.1
Stephen Waetzoldt, Bilder vom Menschen in der Kunst des Abendlandes, exh. cat., Nationalgalerie, Berlin 1980, p.316
Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: logique de la sensation, Paris 1981, pp.52, 53, 94, repr. pl.80 (col.)
Peter Selz, Art in Our Time: A Pictorial History 1890-1980, New York 1981, p.359, repr. pl.962
Horst Schwebel, ‘“Geschundenes fleisch” und Pantokrator: zum Christus bild bei Bacon und Sutherland’, Kunst unf Kirche, no.3, 1982, pp.134-5, repr. p.135
Lawrence Gowing, ‘Francis Bacon’ in Francis Bacon: Paintings 1945-1982, exh. cat., National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo 1983, p.104
Rolf Laessoe, ‘Francis Bacon and T.S. Eliot’, Hafnia: Copenhagen Papers in the History of Art, no.9, 1983, p.113, repr. p.114, fig.1
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, pp.42, 46, repr. in col. pl.1
Peter Fuller, ‘The Sleep of Reason’, New Society, vol.66, no.1090, 6 Oct. 1983, p.17, repr. (incorrectly arranged)
Peter Fuller, ‘Francis Bacon: Ludic Hope’, Vanguard, Vancouver Art Gallery, vol.13, no.3, April 1984, p.10, repr. pp.10-11
Shusha Guppy, ‘The Images of a Monster’, Sunday Telegraph Magazine, no.419, 4 Nov. 1984, p.12, left hand panel repr. p.14 (col.)
Suffering Through Tyranny 1933-1953, Tate Gallery display leaflet, London 1984 [p.1] repr. [p.2]
Dawn Ades, ‘Web of Images’ in Dawn Ades and Andrew Forge, Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1985, pp.13, 18
Trewin Copplestone, Modern Art, New York 1985, p.159, centre panel repr. in col.
Michael Peppiatt, ‘Francis Bacon’, Kunst og Kultur, Oslo, vol.68, no.1, 1985, p.53, repr. pp.48-9, fig.2
Grey Gowrie, ‘Francis Bacon: Artist of Endgame’, Sunday Telegraph Magazine, 19 May 1985, pp.50-3
Jane Withers and Anthony Fawcett, ‘Carcasses and Crucifixes’, Times, 20 May 1985, p.10
Robert Melville, ‘Projections of Intransigence’, Times Literary Supplement, 7 June 1985, p.638
B.A. Farrell, ‘Psychoanalysis and Francis Bacon’, New Society, 2 Aug. 1985, p.158
R. Stringham, ‘Francis Bacon: The Fifties’, Arts Magazine, vol.60, no.2, Oct. 1985, p.84, repr.
Emmanuel Cooper, The Sexual Perspective: Homosexuality and Art in the Last 100 Years in the West, London and New York 1986, 2nd ed. 1994, p.228
Hugh Davies and Sally Yard, Francis Bacon, New York 1986, pp.8, 12, 14-16, repr. pp.14-15 (col.)
Helen Lessore, A Partial Testament: Essays on Some Moderns in the Great Tradition, London 1986, p.81
John W. Nixon, ‘Francis Bacon: Paintings 1959-1979; Opposites and Structural Rationalism’, unpublished Ph.D thesis, University of Ulster, Belfast 1986, pp.22-3, 30, 33-4, 57, 77, 80, 87, 89-97, 115, 172, 276, 346-7, 354, 361, 362, 396, 423, 475n, 478n, 503n, 505n, 520n, 525n, 550-1 (no.15), 552, 760
Frances Spalding, British Art Since 1900, London 1986, pp.145-7, repr. pp.144-5, pl.121
Jörg Zimmermann, Francis Bacon Kreuzigung: Versuch, eine gewalttatige Wirklichkeit neu zu sehen, Frankfurt 1986, pp.14-15, repr.
Rolf Laessoe, ‘Francis Bacon’s Crucifixions and Related Themes’, Hafnia: Copenhagen Papers in the History of Art, no.11, 1987, pp.7-11, repr. pp.8-9, fig.1
Andrew Causey, ‘Formalism and the Figurative Tradition in British Painting’, British Art in the 20th Century, exh. cat. Royal Academy, London 1987, p.24, fig.8
Dawn Ades, ‘The School of London’, British Art in the 20th Century, exh. cat. Royal Academy, London 1987, p.308
David Mellor, ‘The Body and the Land: Neo-Romantic Art and Culture’ in David Mellor (ed.), A Paradise Lost: The Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain 1935-55, exh. cat., Barbican Art Gallery, London 1987, p.75, right hand panel repr. p.76, pl.84
Peter Fuller, ‘The Visual Arts’ in Boris Ford (ed.), Cambridge Guide to the Arts in Britain, vol. 9: Since the Second War, Cambridge, New York and Melbourne 1988, pp.121-3, repr. p.123
Grey Gowrie, Francis Bacon: Paintings, exh. cat., Tsentral’ny Dom Khudozhnika, Moscow, 1988, pp.14, 19, repr. p.13
John McEwen, Francis Bacon Paintings, exh. cat., Marlborough Gallery, Tokyo 1988, p.10
Malcolm Yorke, The Spirit of Place: Nine Neo-Romantic Artists and their Times, London 1988, pp.132, 322, 327
Peter Fuller, ‘Nature and Raw Flesh’, Modern Painters, vol.1, no.1, spring 1988, pp.22-4, repr. p.23
Grey Gowrie, ‘Bacon in Moscow: A Small Gloss on Glasnost’, Modern Painters, vol.1, no.4, winter 1988-9, p.37
Bryan Appleyard, The Pleasures of Peace: Art and Imagination in Post-War Britain, London 1989, pp.63-4
Lawrence Gowing, ‘Francis Bacon: The Human Presence’ in Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institute, Washington D.C. 1989, pp.13,20
Alastair Hicks, The School of London: The Resurgence of Contemporary Painting, Oxford 1989, p.21, repr. pp.24-5, pl.10
Sam Hunter, ‘Metamorphosis and Meaning’, Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institute, Washington D.C. 1989-90, p.33, repr.
Richard Dorment, ‘Bacon’s Changing Monsters’, Daily Telegraph, 3 Feb. 1989, p.14
Michael Kimmelman, ‘The Art of Ordered Chaos’, Times Review, 2 Sept. 1989, p.1, repr. p.2 (col.)
Michael Kimmelman, ‘Francis Bacon: Master of the Macabre’, New York Times, 26 Oct. 1989, reprinted International Herald Tribune, 31 Oct. 1989
Alan G. Artner, ‘The World According to Francis Bacon’, Chicago Tribune, 29 Oct. 1989
John Richardson, ‘A Slice of Bacon’, Vanity Fair, Nov. 1989, p.223, repr. pp.222-3 (col.)
Paul Moorhouse, ‘“A Magnificent Armature”: The Crucifixion in Francis Bacon’s Work’, Art International, no.8, autumn 1989, pp.25-6, repr. p.24 (col.)
Ronald Paulson, Figure and Abstraction in Contemporary Painting, New Brunswick and London 1990 pp.187-191, repr. pp.180-1
Max Rabino, ‘I sei ermeti della scuola di Londra’, Arte, Milan, no.208, June 1990, p.70, repr. pp.70-1 (col.)
Jean Clair, ‘Visages des dieux: visage de l’homme à propos des Crucifixions de Francis Bacon’, Artstudio, Paris, no.17, summer 1990, p.22, repr. pp.26-9 (col.)
Laura L. Down, ‘Recuperating the Postwar Moment: Green’s Back and Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’, Mosaic, vol.23, no.3, summer 1990, pp.113-124, repr. p.115
Stuart Sillars, British Romantic Art and the Second World War, London 1991, pp.161-2
Michel Archimbaud, Francis Bacon: In conversation with Michel Archimbaud, Paris 1992 and London 1993, pp.25, 166, repr. pp.50-1, pl.4 (col.), detail of right hand panel p.49 (col.)
Krzysztof Z. Cieszkowski, ‘Francis Bacon: Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’, in Colin Naylor (ed.), Contemporary Masterworks, London 1992, p.17, repr. p.16
Richard Cork, ‘Interview with Francis Bacon’ in Francis Bacon: Paintings 1981-91, exh. cat., Galerià Marlborough, Madrid and Marlborough Inc., New York 1992, p.14, repr.
Bruce Bernard, ‘Francis Bacon’, Independent, 29 April 1992, p.19
Terry Grimley, obituary, Birmingham Post, 29 April 1992, p.19
Richard Cork, ‘Face to Face with the Dogs of War’, Life and Times, 8 May 1992, p.3
William Feaver, ‘Francis Bacon: An Old Master of the Elusive’, Art News, vol.91, summer 1992, p.50
Thierry Chabanne, ‘Le calvaire de Picasso’, Beaux-Arts, no.106, Nov. 1992, p.87, repr. in col.
Daniel Farson, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, London 1993, pp.33, 42-3, 82, repr. between pp.136 and 137 (col.)
Ziva Amishai-Maissels, Depiction and Interpretation: The Influence of the Holocaust on the Visual Arts, Oxford, New York, Seoul and Tokyo 1993, pp.189-90,225-6,229, 354,440-1, pl.44 (col.)
Andrew Sinclair, Francis Bacon: His Life and Violent Times, London 1993, pp.75, 93-6, repr. between pp.170 and 171, pl.29 (col.)
Ronald Alley, ‘Francis Bacon’s Place in Twentieth Century Art’ in Rudy Chiappini (ed.), Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Museo d’Arte Moderna, Lugano 1993, pp.20, 28
Michael Peppiatt, ‘A Vision Fulfilled’ in Chiappini (ed.), Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Museo d’Arte Moderna, Lugano 1993 p.94
David Mellor, ‘Francis Bacon: Affinities, Contexts and the British Visual Tradition’ in Achille Bonito Oliva (ed.), Francis Bacon: Figurabile, exh. cat., Museo Correr, Venice 1993, pp.97, 99
David Sylvester, ‘Bacon’s Course’ in Oliva (ed.), Francis Bacon: Figurabile, exh. cat., Museo Correr, Venice 1993, pp.20-4, repr. p.21, in col. pp.22-3
Lorenza Trucchi, ‘The Delirium of the Body’ in Oliva (ed.), Francis Bacon: Figurabile, exh. cat., Museo Correr, Venice 1993, p.118
John Russell Taylor, ‘Greatest Story Ever Told’, Times, 16 Feb. 1993
David Sylvester, ‘Bacon’s Course’, Modern Painters, vol.6, no.2, summer 1993, pp.14-15
Krzysztof Cieszkowski, ‘Kilka Uwag o Zyciu Posmiertnym Francisca Bacona’, Obieg, no.61-2, May-June 1994, p.29, repr. pp.30-1
Heather Johnson, Roy De Maistre: The English Years 1930-1968, Roseville East, New South Wales, Australia 1995, p.22-3, 102
Frank Whitford, ‘Painters of Despair Driven to Distortion’, Sunday Times, 8 Jan. 1995, p.10, repr. p.14 (col.)
Philippe Dagen, Francis Bacon, Paris 1996, pp.12,24,42, repr. pp.8-9, pl.2 (col.)
Edward Lucie-Smith, The Visual Arts in the Twentieth Century, London 1996, pp.198-200, repr. p.199, pl.6.19 (col.)
Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London 1996, pp.66, 76, 85-92, 108-9, 134, 237, repr. between pp.238 and 239
Wieland Schmied, Francis Bacon: Commitment and Conflict, Munich and New York 1996, p.71, repr. [pp.34-5], pl.2 (col.)
David Sylvester, ‘Un Parcours’ in Francis Bacon,, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1996, pp.14-15,17,23
Hervé Vanel, ‘L’imagination technique’ in Francis Bacon,, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1996, p.66
Christophe Domino, Francis Bacon: ‘Taking Reality by Surprise’, Paris 1996, trans. Ruth Sherman, London 1997, pp.26-7, 68, repr. p.27 (col.)
Margaret Garlake, New Art New World: British Art in Postwar Society, New Haven and London 1998, pp.5, 180-1, 192, 194, repr. P.181, pl.79 (col.)
Steingrim Laursen, ‘Introduction’, Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Louisiana Museum for Moderne Kunst, Humlebaek 1998, p.9 (English text)
Carter Ratcliff, ‘Francis Bacon – An Exhibition’, Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Louisiana Museum for Moderne Kunst, Humlebaek 1998, p.17 (English text), repr. pp.18-19 (col.)
Tony Shafrazi, ‘Introduction’, Francis Bacon: Important Paintings from the Estate, exh. cat. Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York, 1998, pp.11-12, 13, repr. pp.11, 85 (col.)
Sam Hunter, ‘Francis Bacon’s Endgame: Humanism Revisited’, Francis Bacon: Important Paintings from the Estate, exh. cat. Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York, 1998, p.15

Robert Melville, ‘Francis Bacon’, Horizon, vol.20, nos.120-1, Dec. 1949-Jan. 1950, between pp.418 and 419 (as ‘1945’)
Illustrated London News, vol.223, 24 Oct. 1953, p.662 (right hand panel only)
Architectural Review, vol.114, Nov. 1953, p.330 (centre panel only)
Kunst, vol.2, no.5, Feb. 1955, p.147 (right hand panel only)
Herbert Read, A Concise History of Modern Painting, 1959, p.309, pl.128 (left hand panel)
John Russell, ‘Titian Crossed with Tussaud’, Sunday Times, 27 May 1962 (centre panel only)
Andrew Forge, ‘Bacon: The Paint of Screams’, Art News, vol.62, no.6, Oct. 1963, p.38 (right hand panel only as ‘Study’)
Francis Bacon: Recent Paintings, exh. cat., Marlborough Fine Art, London, March-April 1967, p.33
The Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion to the National Collection of British and Modern Foreign Art, London 1979, p.127
Francis Bacon: Paintings 1945-1982,, National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo 1983, p.18
Michael Peppiatt, ‘Francis Bacon: The Anatomy of Enigma’, Art International, vol.27, no.4, Sept.-Nov. 1984, p.4
Wieland Schmied, Francis Bacon: Vier Studien zu einem Porträt, Berlin 1985, p.60, pl.83
Brian Morton, ‘Humane Interiors’, Times Higher Education Supplement, 7 June 1985, p.19
Diez I. Alvarez, ‘Francis Bacon: contradicciones sublimadas’, Goya, no.189, Nov.-Dec. 1985, p.157
Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon, London 1988, pl.94 (col.)
Grey Gowrie, ‘Francis Bacon’ in Francis Bacon: Loan Exhibition in Celebration of his 80th Birthday, exh. cat., Marlborough Gallery, London 1989, p.5
Mark-Anthony Turnage, ‘Picture Choice: A Direct Hit on the Nerves’, Independent, 2 Oct. 1990 (centre panel only)
Francis Bacon: Paintings 1981-1991, Galeria Marlborough, Madrid, Oct.-Nov. 1992 and Marlborough Gallery, New York, April 1993, p.14
José Maria Faerna, Bacon, trans. Wayne Finke, New York, 1994, pp.10-11, pl.2 (col.)

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion occupies a unique position in Francis Bacon’s work. Its three pale figures with distended necks, each isolated against a hot orange background, constitute the preferred point of departure for consideration of his mature career. Research has thrown light upon the earlier years, but most critics have followed the artist’s lead in discussing the paintings of the 1930s as part of a pre-history sloughed off in the extraordinary production of this triptych. As well as reflecting Bacon’s influence on the perception of his own work, this view embraces the remembered impact of Three Studies when it was first shown in London in April 1945. John Russell, who privileged it as the first and earliest work reproduced within his text, has gone as far as to claim that ‘there was painting in England before the Three Studies, and painting after them, and no one ... can confuse the two’.[1] By identifying this watershed in personal, professional and national terms, the painting is invested with a power quite distinct, if inseparable, from the image itself.

In discussing a work of such repute and familiarity, a suitable point of departure is the material of the painting itself. The technique is not especially complex. All three panels are a lightweight ‘Sundeala’ board, which, like hardboard, was also used by Bacon’s friends Roy de Maistre and Graham Sutherland as a cheap alternative to canvas.[2] Bacon’s boards were not in pristine condition: there were shallow bruises on the right hand panel before the paint was applied.[3] It is not clear if the dimensions (just over three feet by just under two and a half) were the manufacturer’s standard, but the abandoned painting, Man in a Cap, c.1941-2 (private collection),[4] is one of the works on the same size board. The diagonal cut rising from the base of the right hand panel into the area of the grass may have been made in the process of trimming with a knife,[5] and the edge of the left side (opposite the mouth) has a visible deviation which betrays considerable undercutting. Two holes at the top of the left hand panel indicate that it was nailed up during the course of painting. The central board shows signs of water damage on the reverse, and there are spots of predominantly orange oil paint on the back of all three panels. The boards have become slightly more brittle and powdery with time and have required consolidation, especially at the corners.[6]

No priming was applied but a thin preliminary grey wash across most areas must have helped to reduce the absorbency of the support. The orange is not uniform in appearance because of the lean oil paint (having little medium in relation to the pigment)[7] and its varied absorption by the board, and because the colour is achieved by the overlaying of closely related but distinct hues applied with vigorous brushstrokes. Although certain planes are dominated by certain colours of orange, the space is suggested more by the delineation in black than as a result of any tonal treatment. On the figures, the pallid flesh tones have a crusty quality apparently achieved by rubbing back layers of greys and whites. Between these extremes are the colours of the figures’ props: the white, purple and orange drapery of the left hand figure, the yellow and black of the pedestal at the centre, and the similarly coloured dashes of the bristling grass of their companion.

The left hand panel is occupied by the most human of the figures. Its nose and ear emerge from a mop of hair, and its neck is elongated from heavily rounded shoulders. It perches on a table-like structure, limblessly contained in drapery which flows off to one side. The delineation of the background space carries the focus to the right, and thus into the triptych. The body is carefully modelled by the deep shadow under the neck and this contrasts with the flatness of the background. This panel is the most thickly painted and cracking indicates the application of lean oil paint on top of a ‘fatter’ layer that was still drying; large areas of the orange appear to have darkened to brown over time. The composition goes up to a black border ridge on all sides which - taken with the weight of paint and the surface quality - makes it likely that another image was painted over. Preliminary infra red investigation[8] has only revealed a narrow horizontal band to the left of the figure and three verticals to the right of the head, but both are in areas of dense paintwork. Most evident in this panel is the use of chalk pastel (brown, orange and yellow) for the strands of the figure’s chestnut hair; this is especially delicate as no fixative was applied. Whether this reflected Bacon’s lack of technical training is not certain but it is notable that in 1946 he wrote to Graham Sutherland from Monte Carlo about the subsequent Painting 1946 (Museum of Modern Art, New York)[9]: ‘thank you so much for spraying the picture, I know all the magenta except the hands wants doing.’[10] The painting was in oil and about to appear in the UNESCO Exposition internationale d’art moderne, at the Musée d’art moderne in Paris in November;[11] unfortunately the fixative has lifted away the paint surface.[12]

Appropriately, the central panel of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion contains the most centralised image which is reinforced by the converging space. The body stands in an ambiguous relationship to its pedestal but turns its open glossy-lipped mouth and wrapped neck towards the viewer. A margin of board (visible when unframed) remains uncovered around all edges where there are a number of measuring marks which suggest a carefully conceived composition. Along the top edge, a green mark at exactly 10 inches (254 mm) from the right hand corner corresponds to the right side of the back wall in the image; the left side of the same area is the same distance from the left edge. By contrast to the roughly worked figure, the white paint around the neck has been thickly applied on top of the dry surface. Inspection under infra red[13] showed that it followed lines laid out on an earlier level, but the white is now fragile and cleaving from the layer beneath.

The image has been subject to considerable revisions. Most appreciable are the forms in the unpainted areas to the lower right quarter which extend towards the figure in a series of linked, but indecipherable, curves. In the area constituting the receding wall on the right, a layer of white (either oil paint or heavily applied pastel) underneath the orange was set around some of these forms which become the legs of the pedestal. Immediately around the figure are small horse-shoe shapes with traces of magenta which continue across the top of the figure’s legs. Under preliminary infra red inspection these are revealed as flowers similar to those found in Bacon’s contemporary paintings, although their place within the composition is uncertain. They do not seem to be obviously linked to the further underpainting in the lower left quarter just below the head. There, under another surface covering of white and orange, infra red has exposed an area painted with swift curved brushstrokes which clearly constitute a wooded landscape (seen at a distance) and may include a small-scale reclining figure. This does not easily co-ordinate with the other underpainting and any continuity is further disguised by the intervening area (immediately below the pedestal) which has a heavy application of black beneath the orange.

The figure in the right hand panel leans on an isolated patch of grass, and opens its mouth into a toothed yawn. The orange of its surroundings is brighter than on the other panels, and it is worked around the black perspectival lines. Like those of the left hand panel, the black lines reinforce the concentration on the centre of the triptych without establishing a continuous space. The paint is quite thick and brittle in places, and a long horizontal crack has formed above the shoulder. Like its companions, the body has dry layers of white and grey, but a rich green is introduced into the inner recesses of the mouth. Orange is visible through the thin black of the shadowed underbelly, while the grass is skilfully gestural: flashes of black, yellow and white rise from a zone previously defined by finer horizontal strokes of black.

In sum, investigation of the panels indicates protracted work on each. The right panel was the least altered, but even there the paint surface is heavy. Its companions betray signs of revision to achieve the present image on top of earlier versions of the same or perhaps different compositions which have previously passed unsuspected. Furthermore, the inscription on the reverse of the right hand panel is critical to the dating of the triptych. Bacon seems to have moved to Petersfield in 1942 and continued to work there until early 1943; the inscription would tend to enlarge the period in which this panel - and probably the whole triptych - was painted to 1942-4.

If the technique seems to betray the idiosyncratic methods that the artist developed in the 1930s - perhaps with the advice of Roy de Maistre[14] - the imagery of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion was also achieved through a long process of maturation. Each of the figures has an ancestry in Bacon’s work which remains traceable to some degree despite the fluctuations in his output and his well-known propensity for destroying unsatisfactory paintings. These sequences were first outlined by Ronald Alley and explored in greater depth by Hugh Davies and David Boxer.

As both Alley and Davies have contended,[15] the image of the central figure may be traced to two destroyed works of c.1936 included in Young British Painters, the exhibition that Bacon and de Maistre organised at Agnew and Sons in January 1937. One review was accompanied by photographs of Abstraction and Abstraction from the Human Form (both destroyed)[16] which show that Bacon’s imagined organisms were already developed. Although a contemporary critic dismissed the second painting as ‘the representation of a set of false teeth on a tripod’,[17] Alley has asserted that it ‘was the first idea for the central panel’ of Three Studies[18] and went as far as to ask Bacon whether it lay underneath that painting (to which he received the answer ‘no’).[19] Against a strip of foliage it shows a two-legged structure with a circular platform on which appears a disembodied mouth; a form extends above and there are two silhouettes to the right. Alley’s observation might equally be made of Abstraction, where the two legs support an organic bird-like form between converging walls. In combination with the leering mouth of Abstraction from the Human Form - which Davies has colourfully called this ‘coagulation of elements’[20] - these two works establish a prototype for the central panel of Three Studies.

The flattened stylisation of the 1936 paintings was in contrast to the diaphanous forms of such works as Crucifixion, 1933 (private collection)[21] with which Bacon had come to public attention. This is the earliest surviving work in which he tackled the theme, which became a major preoccupation, filtering in to the gestures of apparently unrelated compositions such as Studio Interior, c.1934 (private collection).[22] A destroyed work of that period, Wound for a Crucifixion, appeared to bring together these strands. In the description recounted by Russell it was ‘set in hospital ward or corridor ... On a sculptor’s armature was a large section of human flesh: a specimen wound, and a “very beautiful wound” according to Bacon’s recollection’.[23] The armature would suggest that this implausibly macabre image was close to Abstraction from the Human Form.

At the time of these works associated with the Crucifixion, Bacon was close to de Maistre. The latter’s sophisticated sub-Cubist Figure by Bath, c.1937 (private collection)[24] reflects their shared interest in organic figurative forms. It has been described by Heather Johnson as showing ‘a “dinosaur” figure similar to those used by Bacon’ in Three Studies,[25] and it relates in particular to the central panel. Furthermore, it has also been reported that the two painters ‘kept a stuffed figure, from which the paintings were taken’[26] which would provide a (somewhat prosaic) source for these works. More significant is the fact that the acceptance of such a transmogrification reflects both artists’ interest in the work of Picasso in the 1920s.

Other works by Bacon which are closer in time to Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion may be cited as stages in the development of the image in the central panel. A complex composition known as Figure Getting out of a Car (private collection)[27] was later reworked and then abandoned. In its first stage - known only from a photograph - it showed a bulging organic figure leaning out of a open-topped car. At Bacon’s instigation Alley dated this stage to c.1939-40. While deferring to this dating, Davies would have placed it after the triptych[28] but Boxer simply re-dated it to 1945, noting that ‘Bacon now insists (reversing the statement quoted by Alley) that this was done after the Three Studies’.[29] This contradiction casts doubt over the artist’s evidence while, more generally, his tendency to distil an image from complex beginnings lends support to Alley’s dating. In any case, the two paintings were close in time and share the organic figure. In Figure Getting out of a Car, it cranes a collared neck and mouth towards a rank of microphones and flowers, suggesting that it is a public speaker. The artist volunteered that the ‘composition was partly suggested by a photograph of Hitler getting out of a car at one of the Nazis’ Nuremberg rallies’, an observation to which Alley added: ‘though, as Bacon says, he copied the car and not much else’.[30] An appropriate photograph of 1939 has been found,[31] but what is most revealing about this innocuous report is the glimpse it affords of the controversial imagery underlying these paintings. This has been discussed perceptively in relation to Three Studies by Ziva Amishai-Maissels,[32] who has remarked on the confusion between perpetrator and victim in this imagery as a reflection of Bacon’s own ambivalence ‘towards manifestations of violence and power, both of which attracted and repulsed him simultaneously’.[33]

The black uniformed protagonist of the abandoned Man in a Cap also displays similarly warm coloured lips open in speech. Davies[34] has plausibly suggested that the figure results from an elision of the mouth of Goebbels and the uniform of Himmler seen in a pair of photographs in Picture Post which Bacon kept in his studio and which were in turn photographed by Sam Hunter in 1950[35] as evidence of the artist’s source material. Amishai-Maissels has extended this interpretation of the sources to Three Studies. She has proposed a reading of the panels from left to right as victim, victimised or blind figure, and aggressor, and – following Davies’s work - identified the central figure as Hitler and the right hand one as a ‘braying Goering-like monster’.[36] In the detail of the craning neck, the latter is suggestively comparable to the anti-Nazi photomontage of John Heartfield: Goering, Butcher of the Third Reich, 1933 (John Heartfield-Archiv, Akademie der Künste zu Berlin).[37]

Although the ochre and orange colouring of Man with Cap[38] is close to Three Studies, its dating has also been debated. Influenced by the inscription which locates Bacon at Petersfield (where he stayed in 1942-3), Alley placed it in c.1941-2;[39] however, Boxer suggested that this related to an earlier image and saw the ‘more direct approach to the figure’ as justifying a revision to 1945.[40] The inscription remains the critical evidence, as it is the same as that - hitherto unnoted - on the reverse of the right panel of Three Studies; taken in conjunction with the coincidence of the type and size of board, it tends to reinforce the proximity of the two paintings.

Because of its importance in Bacon’s later works the mouth has become a study in itself. In 1966, the artist spoke of the admiration he had had since the 1920s for the screams of the wounded nurse in Serge Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin (1925) and of the mother in Poussin’s Massacre of the Innocents, 1630-1 (Musée Condé, Chantilly).[41] He professed: ‘I did hope one day to make the best painting of the human cry.’[42] He is known to have had an operation on the roof of his mouth,[43] but he traced his interest in the imagery to a medical treatise with coloured illustrations, La Maladie de la bouche which he acquired around 1935; it appears that one of its plates served as the model for the central panel of Three Studies.[44] Although such ambitions and associations were explored in retrospect and frequently in relation to later works - notably the paintings of Popes derived from Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X - the artist may also have seen something in common between the outburst of both oppressor and innocent. In 1974, he told David Boxer of his interest in ‘the visual scream ... this image where you see the gums, the teeth, the saliva, the lips, the flesh outside’, and he added: ‘The scream can be the scream of the aggressor or ... the victim.’[45] The persistence of the open mouth as a locus of pain in Bacon’s work, together with the complex of images of beauty with which he would associate it - the wish, in 1966, ‘to be able to paint the mouth like Monet painted a sunset’[46] - reinforces the tone in Three Studies; there it is simultaneously expressive and bestial, luscious and aggressive while screaming or biting. Furthermore, these concerns may be seen partially to circumscribe the use of photographs of Nazi leaders as source material.

Both of the side panels of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion relate to near contemporary paintings. The secretive figure of the left panel is closely comparable to that in Study for a Figure, c.1944 (private collection), a larger and proportionally slightly wider painting on canvas.[47] There are several significant differences. The colouring of the canvas is dominated by grey-blue, although around the body there are signs that this was painted over orange. The background has the vertical ‘shuttering’ effect which, like the colouring, is more closely associated with the works of the 1950s and reinforces the possibility that it was reworked. Dating it to 1945 Boxer noted: ‘Bacon himself insists that this was an attempt to re-paint the left-hand panel of Three Studies, and was not a first idea for the Tate triptych.’[48] The final difference from Three Studies - the bunch of pink flowers towards which the figure leans - tends, nevertheless, to link it to the early stages now revealed within the triptych. On the one hand, the position of the flowers complies with three verticals in the underpainting of the left hand panel and suggests a conjunction with microphones found elsewhere; on the other hand, the flowers are comparable to those around the figure of the central panel.

There is similar evidence for the right hand panel of Three Studies. The peculiarity of the figure’s stance may be tentatively related (though in reverse) to Bacon’s Man Standing, c.1941-2 (private collection)[49] another work on composition board. Davies has convincingly traced this to the photograph of Hitler seen looking out of a window,[50] another of those images seen in Sam Hunter’s photographs of the artist’s studio.[51] A more significant comparison may be made to a painting which re-emerged in 1997; it has been exhibited as Untitled, ‘1943 or 1944’ (private collection).[52] It is on Sundeala board of the same dimensions as Three Studies, and it repeats the composition of the right hand panel in many particulars: the same figure leans its front limb in a swivel of grass with its rigid neck ending in a gaping mouth. The body is leaner, the shoulders more hunched, and the mouth (here with prominent incisors) and ear are slightly different in detail; the exploratory nature of these form suggests that this painting was completed before the right hand panel of the triptych. The most obvious differences in Untitled are the independent hind leg and the bunch of three flowers. As the head rests amongst these flowers, it transforms the image from expression to greed - the consumption of visual beauty through the mouth. Taken with the evidence of Study for a Figure and the underpainting of the central triptych panel, Untitled tends to confirm that far from being an isolated phenomenon, Three Studies was typical - and may have been the culmination - of a series in which crouching bestial figures at one time plunged into floral bouquets. When this conjunction is seen in the light of related works - such as Figure Getting out of a Car and Study for Man with Microphones, 1946-48 (private collection)[53] - it confirms a connection between bouquets and microphones in association with the speech-makers.

Although the evolution of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion is informed in this way by preceding and contemporary works, and this helps to dissolve some of its isolation, it must be underlined that the painting itself does not signal this thematic history overtly. It does not betray that Bacon was looking at photographs of Nazis. It is not even evident that the craning necks and open mouths may have been associated by him with their giving of speeches or receiving of flowers. Three Studies does not alert its audience to such specific points of reference, but it may be said to distil the qualities drawn from these sources into images of aggression, enclosure and organic distortion.

In this respect, Bacon’s adoption of contemporary pictorial languages resulted in greater ambiguity than his sources. His distortions of the figure have been compared to those of Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí,[54] but the context of Surrealism linked their images to dreams and the unconscious. Bacon was careful in retrospect to place a distance between himself and Surrealism, as well as between his work and such interpretable meanings. Rejecting narrative and illustration, in 1955 he proposed: ‘A picture should be a re-creation of an event rather than an illustration of an object; but there is no tension in the picture unless there is the struggle with the object.’[55]

The artist whose own attempts at the ‘re-creation of an event’ most closely foreshadow Bacon’s was Picasso, and in falling under this influence Bacon was in good company in inter-war London. In 1962 at the opening of his first interview with Sylvester, Bacon himself said that Three Studies ‘were influenced by the Picasso things which were done at the end of the twenties’ and which opened up as yet unexplored possibilities ‘of organic form that relates to the human image but in a complete distortion of it’.[56] The works to which Bacon referred were the Picassos of biomorphic figures on the beach and the related bone-like project for a Monument of 1927-9. It is possible that Bacon saw some of these at the Galerie Paul Rosenberg in Paris in 1927, but it is also likely that he relied upon published sources such as Cahiers d’Art.[57] As Davies has shown,[58] Picasso’s transformation of the body anticipates that made by Bacon in the 1940s; Boxer has also related a perceived sexuality in Bacon’s work to Picasso’s Boisgeloup sculptures of the 1930s and Brassai’s photographs of nudes,[59] which were both published in the Surrealist orientated periodical Minotaure.[60] More specific images of suffering have been seen as sources for Three Studies; most notable of these are Picasso’s Crucifixion, 1930 (Musée Picasso, Paris)[61] - which has also been seen as a source[62] - and the studies made two years later after Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, c.1512-16 (Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar) published in the same issue of Minotaure.[63] It is particularly the bone-like structures in the latter which have been compared to Bacon’s figures although the ‘savage mood and violent theme undoubtedly reflect the influence of less humane surrealists’.[64]

In the later 1930s, the production of Guernica, 1937 (Prado, Madrid) showed Picasso putting fragmentation to overtly political effect in response to the Spanish Civil War. Bacon is extremely likely to have seen the huge mural when it was exhibited in London in 1938,[65] and the right hand panel of Three Studies has been compared to one of the accompanying preparatory sketches.[66] Commenting on Guernica the critic Herbert Read wrote at the time: ‘The only logical monument would be some sort of negative monument. A monument to disillusion, to despair, to destruction. It was inevitable that the greatest artist of our time should be driven to this conclusion.’[67] The search for the monumental in an age of destruction might be said to characterise much of the work that Bacon (with Sutherland, Moore and others) made over the following decade. However, it should be noted that he was subsequently dismissive of Guernica, at the end of his life describing it as ‘of considerable importance as an historical event, but I don’t think it’s one of Picasso’s best works’.[68]

As well as the Guernica display, two other London exhibitions in the summer of 1938 may have been of formative significance for Three Studies. Another monumental work, Pavel Tchelitchew’s Phenomena, 1935-7 (Tretiakov Museum, Moscow)[69] was shown in June together with supporting drawings and canvases. The catalogue described it as ‘an apotheosis ... of the violence of our epoch’, and this was conveyed through extreme perspectives and distortions of freakish bodies. Bacon may also have seen the significant Exhibition of 20th Century German Art in the following month,[70] not only because of his own interest in Germany but also because it was a well publicised defence of modernism in the face of Nazi suppressions. Interestingly, in Max Beckmann’s Versuchung Triptychon (Temptation Triptych), 1936-7 (Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst, Munich)[71] the format of Three Studies and the choice of a religious theme find immediate precedents in adapting a Renaissance form to modern purposes.[72] Beckmann retained the hierarchy between the central panel and its wings, but his suppression of a narrative relationship is one which Bacon would share. However, it is notable that the central panel of Three Studies retains a slightly larger frame which establishes it as the point of focus (reinforced by the perspectival boxes).

Bacon’s interest in the Crucifixion, signalled in the title of the triptych, may be seen in terms of a pursuit of a monumental theme. In the late 1930s, following the two 1933 canvases on the theme, he was said to have ‘a vast mural of a crucified arm’ across his bedroom wall at Glebe Place.[73] In 1959, he volunteered that he had ‘intended to use’ Three Studies ‘at the base of a large Crucifixion which I may still do’.[74] Fifteen years later, he told Boxer that they had been ‘essentially attendant figures’ and was reported as describing ‘his original idea of the painting as consisting of a “central crucified image” at the base of which would have been these three figures arranged on a circular construct “in much the same way those two pieces of meat are arranged on that circular railing in Painting 1946”’.[75] Another account of the same year confirms this scheme: ‘I saw the whole Crucifixion in which these would be there instead of the usual figures at the base of the cross. And I was going to put these on an armature around the cross, which itself was going to be raised, and the image on the cross was to be in the centre with these things arranged around it.’[76] These accounts clearly substantiate the projection of a further culminatory image implied in the title.

The more ambitious scheme remained unfulfilled but may be seen to conform with parallel concerns in the work of others in the 1940s. Crucifixions by both de Maistre and Sutherland modernised religious iconography in the light of both artists’ Catholicism and, in David Mellor’s words, ‘reflected the existential contingencies of a complex urban-industrial culture’.[77] In 1934, at the time of Bacon’s early interest in the theme, de Maistre had exhibited religious works at the Mayor Gallery,[78] and in the 1940s he reworked a Crucifixion, 1932-45 (Art Gallery of New South Wales)[79] which concentrates upon the downcast head and body of the crucified Christ, and is closely related to a Crucifixion of 1942-4 (Leicester City Art Gallery)[80] and another acquired in 1945 by the Abbey on Iona.[81] The emphasis that de Maistre placed upon the gaunt body and rib cage, exaggerated by sub-Cubist facetting, and upon the brittle crown of thorns has much in common with Sutherland’s exactly contemporary reconsideration of the theme. Although Sutherland was commissioned by Rev Walter Hussey in February 1944 on the recommendation of Henry Moore (who made his Madonna and Child for the same church, St Matthew’s, Northampton), the painter had apparently ‘already had the idea of doing a Crucifixion of a significant size’.[82] According to his ‘Thoughts on Painting’, he did not begin until early the following year when he made paintings of thorn trees.[83] During this delay he and Keith Vaughan discussed the possibility of painting what the latter termed ‘the great myths; Prometheus ... or a Crucifixion or an Agony in the Garden’; Sutherland acknowledged their currency ‘if one could feel strongly enough about them’.[84] Significantly, the gestation of this idea - in which (for Vaughan, at least) Christianity and mythology were treated on a level - exactly coincided with regular contact between Sutherland and Bacon, and with the making of Three Studies.[85]

All of these works gained impetus from Picasso’s re-interpretation of the poxed and distended body of Christ in Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. Davies has proposed that Bacon may have studied the suffering Mary before making his left hand panel,[86] although there is no similarity in detail. Boxer has related the drooped head of Christ (with its open mouth) to the poses adopted by Bacon for his figures; more generally seeing the side panels as female (left) and male (right), he has read them as Mary and St John flanking the more elevated central figure of Christ.[87] While acknowledging that this may be too literal an interpretation (but going on to suggest the figures as Christ between the two thieves)[88] Boxer notes that even without the expected image of a crucified body the figures are ‘capable of supporting the Crucifixion “idea” on their own’.[89] The wrapping around the neck of Bacon’s central figure has been traced to the blindfolded Christ in Grünewald’s Mocking of Christ,[90] a link which Bacon was willing to support.[91] However, he strenuously rejected religious identifications, especially the mis-naming of Figure Study II, 1945-6 (Huddersfield Art Gallery)[92] - a work similarly posed to that in the left hand panel - as ‘The Magdalene’.[93]

Related to the rejection of these iconographic associations, Bacon drew attention to his own atheism and tended to stress the indefinite article in his title: ‘the base of a Crucifixion’.[94] By this, he would suggest the less specifically Christian nature of the suffering. Famously comparing it to images of slaughter-houses, he told Sylvester in 1962: ‘I know for religious people, for Christians, the Crucifixion has a totally different significance. But as a non-believer, it was just an act of man’s behaviour, a way of behaviour to another.’[95] This attitude serves to reinforce two other contexts which are often mentioned in relation to Three Studies: the influence of Greek tragedy and the presence of the war.

In 1959 the artist made a rare intervention in directing the interpretation of his painting. An enquiry from the Tate Gallery had noted Sylvester’s suggestion ‘that the three studies for figures at the foot of the cross were intended to suggest the Eumenides’.[96] In his reply (already quoted in part) Bacon confirmed this: ‘David Sylvester is correct. They were sketches for the Eumenides which I intended to use at the base of a large Crucifixion which I may do still.’[97] This statement, made fifteen years after the completion of the painting, appeared in subsequent Tate Gallery catalogues and the Eumenides - the Furies who ensure revenge in Greek myths - have become an accepted presence in Three Studies. By bringing together the idea of concentrating human suffering in the sacrifice of the son of God with the more vengeful pursuit of the Eumenides, Bacon could suggest the universality of his theme over that of specifically Christian associations; he remarked to Sylvester in 1962 that ‘Greek mythology is even further from us than Christianity’.[98] The connection with Greek myths also served to justify the distortion of the bodies of the figures, as the Eumenides - representatives of the relentlessness of conscience and of justice - were wingless in the Oresteia of Aeschylus and ‘black they are, and so repulsive’.[99]

Two sources have been identified for the painter’s interest in Aeschylus’s trilogy, of which one play is named after the Eumenides who pursue the matricide Orestes. One was T.S. Eliot’s play The Family Reunion performed in 1939 - and which the painter recalled having seen several times[100] - which used the ancient play as a model. Eliot was a regular point of reference for Bacon, so that the appearance of the Furies there and in his subsequent poetry is of significance. The second source is an academic study by W.B. Stanford,[101] which included an assessment and translations of passage from the plays. This has been cited in relation to the appearance of Eumenides in later paintings - notably Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus, 1981 (Astrup Fearnley Collection, Museet for Moderne Kunst, Oslo)[102] - as Stanford emphasised the raw character of the writing and, in particular, the synaesthetic qualities (conveying one sense through a parallel art) of Aeschylus’s language.[103] Stanford’s book was published in 1942 and, to have a direct bearing on Three Studies, Bacon would have had to read it immediately; even so, it could not have substantially shaped the image of the central panel which related back to the paintings of 1936. In retrospect the painter was reported as having stated in 1973 that ‘he had started the Eumenides (Bacon’s name for the figures ...) early in the thirties and that the Tate triptych ... was “the culmination of these”’.[104]

Just as Three Studies gathered together strands in the painter’s work of the 1930s, so it has also been seen in the context of the Second World War. Commentators have noted his experience of London during the Blitz even if he distinguished between a perceived ‘violence of paint’ and the ‘violence of war’.[105] Bacon served in the ARP on black-out duty presumably during the Blitz of 1940-1, and, as Peppiatt has speculated, possibly ‘having to pull dead or mangled bodies out of the wreckage’ of bombed buildings.[106] His asthma was ‘aggravated by the clouds of fine dust’[107] so that he abandoned this volunteer work to recuperate in the country. Eric Hall rented a cottage at Petersfield in Hampshire and the painter seems to have been there by 1942. However, he wrote to Sutherland from there in February 1943: ‘I am more often in London than here now’.[108] Man with Cap seems to have been painted in Hampshire, as indicated by the inscription on the back. A similar inscription appears on the back of the right hand panel of Three Studies, and (as already noted) this suggests that it, too, was painted - or at least begun - at Petersfield in 1942-3.

Peppiatt places the painter’s occupation of his new London studio in Cromwell Place (formerly Millais’s) in late 1943,[109] and asserts that Three Studies was painted there.[110] This may be because of Michael Wishart’s recollection of the studio which includes the first recorded sighting of the painting: ‘Upon the dais in the shadows stood an enormous easel. There were only three paintings, uniform in size, already framed and stacked against a wall. This was the triptych Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’.[111] No date is given for this visit, but the framed state may suggest that it was towards its first showing in April 1945 or possibly associated with the purchase of the work by Eric Hall, who was registered as resident at Cromwell Place in 1947.[112] It is presumed that he bought the work from the Lefevre Gallery,[113] but there remains some possibility that he owned it before it was shown.[114] A 1949 photograph of the panels shows them already in the frames, which are still used,[115] and which may be presumed to have been selected by the artist; whether the trimming of the boards was connected with fitting them to these frames is uncertain.

Wishart’s recollection confirms the unity of the triptych as it has come to be recognised. The emergence of paintings on the same size board opens the possibility of a series prior to the resolution of the triptych. Davies proposed that the panels were a series of variations on the same pose (starting with the left panel)[116] which gave rise to the triptych idea, with the backgrounds being adjusted accordingly. The alterations now recognised in the compositions, especially the greater uncertainty of Untitled, might support this. However, the uniformity of the orange inscriptions on the reverse (which identify the relative position of each panel) suggest that Bacon had to confirm the arrangement for someone else.

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion was first exhibited in London in April 1945 alongside work by four more established artists: Frances Hodgkins, Matthew Smith, Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland. Bacon fitted most easily with the latter pair, although he was obviously the ‘new-comer’[117] and his contribution was limited to the triptych and Figure in a Landscape, 1945 (Tate Gallery N05941). It may be that his presence in the exhibition was at the behest of Sutherland whose generous support Bacon would acknowledge in the following year, by thanking him for being ‘good enough to mention my work to other people’.[118]

As has been noted, John Russell has recalled the impact of Bacon’s contribution to the exhibition in extraordinary terms. In 1964, he wrote of Three Studies that visitors ‘were brought up short by images so unrelievedly awful that the mind shut with a snap at the sight of them’ and he added: ‘They caused a total consternation. We had no name for them, and no name for what we felt about them.’[119] This same account (with the added information that the triptych was hung to the right of the door) was expanded in Russell’s later book,[120] and in each case the exhibition served to illustrate an idea of Bacon’s unheralded explosion on the London art scene. The drama of this account has encouraged its re-use and elaboration by others,[121] but it bears closer examination.

Reviews of the mixed exhibition were relatively scarce. One critic breezily passed over it in one sentence as an ‘interesting display’,[122] but another commented on the ‘temperamental’ debt to Sutherland of Bacon’s ‘large ferocious studies ... for a Crucifixion’.[123] Horror was expressed in a frequently quoted assessment by Herbert Furst as ‘Perspex’ in Apollo:

I, I must confess, was so shocked and disturbed by the Surrealism of Francis Bacon that I was glad to escape from this exhibition, which I had anyway entered prematurely, unguided therefore by a catalogue. Perhaps it was the red background in the three pictures that made me think of entrails, of an anatomy or a vivisection and feel squeamish.[124]

It may be assumed that he felt that the title in the catalogue would have forewarned him. Furst, who also wrote on Renaissance painting in the periodical, had used the earlier part of his long review to debate ‘embodiment’ in contemporary art. Largely critical of modernist strategies, he wistfully contrasted lost standards of natural beauty to what he saw as an artist holding ‘an autopsy of his own “liberated” bowels’, an investigation characterised as both physical and psychoanalytic.[125] It is as a result of his allusion to the art of anatomy that Furst recognised ‘entrails’ in Three Studies. The general terms were equally to be applied to Sutherland and Moore, although it is notable that the critic understood the latter’s work as a descent from the ‘summits of abstraction ... to the level of the common man’ brought about by ‘the affairs of the world’ - an oblique reference to his Shelter drawings.

In a review of the previous day Michael Ayrton had been more measured.[126] From Figure in a Landscape he recognised that Bacon ‘has a power, and a personal quality’ but that it was ‘almost entirely disguised in his other three exhibits’, discussion of which was confined to recognising their debt to Picasso of around 1930. To some extent Ayrton opposed Furst’s arguments in a more general discussion of ‘poetic, mystical and organic’ painters some months later. Although equally distancing himself from Surrealism, Ayrton specifically valued a ‘kind of x-ray’ vision which ‘pierces the skin to what we see and reveals the blood and bones of nature and human experience, of life and death’.[127] Bacon was not considered among the neo-romantic artists discussed, but the reception of Three Studies may be relocated within this wider debate about contemporary imagery at the arrival of peace. For his part, Ayrton had made clear his support of a visionary art in criticisms of Picasso which - especially in the light of the latter’s post-Guernica reputation - drew unexpected parallels with Fascism. He proposed that ‘the crux of Picasso’s art is, in my view, hysteria ... such men as Hitler have changed the course of human history to the disadvantage of humankind and I believe that Picasso, taking all things into account, has been a negative service to art’.[128] These views were exactly contrary to Bacon’s debt to Picasso and oddly exposed the simultaneous (and private) fascination with Hitler. While in their different ways Furst and Ayrton anticipated a revitalised post-war art, Bacon’s images appear to have justified his later views that specific incidents of cruelty were but signs of suffering endemic within the contemporary condition.

A rather more positive reception of the exhibition of April 1945 was published by Raymond Mortimer who also sought a rejuvenated post-war art. Like Ayrton, he recognised that Three Studies ‘seemed derived from Picasso’s Crucifixion, but further distorted with ostrich mouths and button heads protruding from bags - the whole effect gloomily phallic’, adding ‘These objects are perched on stools, and depicted as if they were sculpture, as in the Picassos of 1930’.[129] After partially admiring Figure in a Landscape, he concluded: ‘I have no doubt of Mr Bacon’s uncommon gifts, but these pictures expressing his sense of the atrocious world into which we have survived seem to me symbols of outrage rather than works of art. If Peace redresses him, he may delight as he now dismays.’ Despite this faint hope Mortimer establishes many of the strands of debate surrounding Bacon’s work in subsequent years: the debt to Picasso, the sexualised distortions, the sense of outrage.

It is significant that the exhibition of Three Studies at the Base of a Crucifixion coincided with the final months of the war and that its reception was circumscribed by ‘the atrocious world into which we have survived’. The ambiguity reflected in this phrase was further qualified by the news emerging from Germany as the ‘death camps’ were liberated by the Allies. Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald and Dachau were all entered in April. The appalling conditions were such that initially they seemed to be the cause of the death toll; only gradually did the scale of the extermination of the Holocaust become clear. The MP Mavis Tate, writing in the Spectator in May,[130] contrasted the films and photographs of the camps which ‘millions of people will in the last few days have seen’ with the reality of her visit to Buchenwald where she found the living as ‘human bodies which were reduced to mere skeletons covered with skin’. She noted that 17,000 people had died there between 1 January and 11 April 1945 - the day of liberation. Thus the bestially distorted bodies in Three Studies coincided with the reports from the camps but - unlike the bloody cruciform carcass of Painting 1946 - cannot be attributed to them.

In style and colouring the triptych generated a number of closely related paintings by which Bacon’s reputation was established. The Lefevre Gallery showed Figure Study I, 1945-6 (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh),[131] Figure Study II, 1945-6 (Huddersfield Art Gallery)[132] and Study for Man with Microphones, 1946 (private collection)[133] during 1946.[134] Three Studies may have been exhibited at the Anglo-French Art Centre later that year, when Bacon was placed amongst the artists ‘already well-known to the English public’.[135] Three works were bracketed as ‘Studies for figures at the base of a crucifix’; although Eric Hall’s ownership is not specified, he is thanked in the preface. The accompanying illustration of Study for a Man with Microphones opens the possibility that the description was not exclusive to the triptych but a generic term applied to related works, so that three other paintings may have been shown. Curiously Bacon’s contribution did not travel to Paris with the rest of the exhibition. However, Three Studies subsequently appeared in his 1949 exhibition, where the panels were listed separately - and somewhat ambiguously - as Study I, Study II and Study III. In the previous year, Painting 1946 had been bought by the Museum of Modern Art, New York; this was a remarkable signal of the artist’s sudden achievement as the painting epitomised the ‘horrific’ imagery for which he was criticised. With the growing prominence of American painting, Bacon’s disjunctive figures may have seemed comparable to the totemic figures of Jackson Pollock.

Public institutions in Britain reflected this recognition. The Contemporary Art Society bought two works,[136] and in 1950 the Tate purchased Figure in a Landscape. Eric Hall’s gift of Three Studies in 1953 followed his similar gift of Study of a Dog, 1952 (N06131) the year before. Three Studies was immediately included in Bacon’s section of the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1954. Bacon would later suggest that it was accepted by the Tate with reluctance[137] and Andrew Sinclair has referred to Hall’s offer being ‘ignored for several months’;[138] both seem to be confused with the delay in responding to the gift of Study of a Dog the year before. Two aspects of this acquisition are notable. First, that Sutherland was a Trustee of the Gallery during this period. Second, that the title of the triptych was modified to Three Studies for a Larger Composition - used for both Venice and São Paulo - in order to reduce potential ‘offence’. This sensitivity was attacked by Sylvester in 1956, who pointed out the misleading nature of the substitute ‘because the artist had never intended to paint a large composition (none of Bacon’s ‘Studies’ is ever a study in this sense)’. While this was contradicted by the artist in 1959, the critic added that ‘a request, made on behalf of the artist, for the title to be changed to Three Studies from the Human Figure was turned down’.[139] It is notable that these sensitivities had already been attacked more directly by the artist through Fragment of a Crucifixion, 1950 (Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven).[140] A fleshy part-bird with open human mouth in front of a T-shaped cross is shown as the prey of a cat or dog, with implications of torture and sacrifice aided by Bacon’s more summary handling of paint.

In the years after it was first shown Three Studies at the Base of a Crucifixion rapidly became the point of departure from which Bacon’s work was measured. Most critics and commentators voiced their reactions to the violence perceived in the artist’s imagery and many were repelled by the transformation of the human body into forms most often seen as bestial. These reactions were concentrated around Bacon’s 1949 exhibition at the Hanover Gallery, when newspaper reviews went under titles such as ‘Good but goulish’,[141] and were followed by similar reactions in 1950. One of the most frequently used adjectives was ‘nightmare’.[142] In support of the painter, Robert Melville understood the violence to be a necessary corollary of Bacon ‘disclosing the human condition’ and concentrated instead upon a discussion of the immediacy of his ‘conception of reality’ which, by comparison to Picasso and Duchamp, was expressed ‘with more congruity, in painterly terms’.[143] These are understood as giving ‘reality to an illusion’ so that ‘I cannot divorce the facture from what it forms’.[144] In direct opposition, the painter Patrick Heron could open a combative review by outlining the two accepted propositions which underpinned such enthusiasm: that Bacon’s works ‘are evocative of the essence of true nightmare; and, secondly, that he paints very well’.[145] He dismissed both in calling the handling ‘a not insensitive but nonetheless slapdash imitation of an old-fashioned technique to portray figures conceived according to an exhausted and discredited modern surrealist formula’.

Surrealism and Existentialism were frequent points of comparison. As a measure of art in which juxtaposition, automatism and the transformation of the body were enacted, Surrealism was a dominant stylistic currency during the period of the formation of Three Studies.[146] With the post-war decline of the movement, critics who placed the painter in its orbit could dismiss both as ‘hackneyed’.[147] Bacon preferred to stress his independent from Surrealism while availing himself of parts of its artistic language, notably an emphasis on chance.[148] He similarly distanced himself from Existentialism,[149] even though the cultural climate allowed the philosophers’ recognition of the absurd isolation of the individual to chime with his images. Certainly, a recognition of links with Existentialism was implicit in the supportive writings of Melville and of David Sylvester.[150]

In an article promoting his selection of Bacon’s work for the 1954 Venice Biennale, Sylvester drew up the current lines of the debate around the artist. ‘He seems’, the critic wrote, ‘to be looked upon either as the most important painter Britain has produced for some generations (a view which the present writer shares enthusiastically), or as a flashy sensationalist, exploiting an obscenely horrific iconography and indulging in wild extravagances of style.’[151] Treating positively the same terms used by Heron, Sylvester even sought to defuse reaction by acknowledging the ‘nightmarish horror’ linked to the scream, by that time the hall-mark of the works. He described how in Three Studies, ‘the sculpturally modelled invented forms ... transmit a sense of physical anguish so powerfully that we cannot but squirm in pain’.[152] The approach was one of empathy by which was established Bacon’s ‘achievement ... in putting on to canvas the anguish of contemporary life’. To this was added the orthodox anchor in ‘the electric brilliance with which it [Bacon’s art] captures the quality of our sensations of corporeal things’.[153]

The parameters of Sylvester’s approach are sketched out in this early article and they remain important because his interviews with the artist became the key texts through which the work was subsequently interpreted. Their focus falls primarily after Three Studies, which he considered a reflection of pre-war concerns. The corporeal was confirmed by the conjunction of the figurative with an emphasis on process. Bacon’s fatalism also tacitly encouraged the implicitly Existential interpretations. ‘I think that man now realises that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without reason’, he told Sylvester in 1962.[154]

If unexpected juxtapositions and individual isolation were both recognised in Bacon’s art from an early stage, the interpretations of Three Studies were more specific. Mortimer had seen the bodies as ‘gloomily phallic’[155] and Furst had, by implication, recognised in the figures a psychoanalytic exposure. In 1966, while professing the desire ‘to paint the scream more than the horror’, Bacon himself acknowledged of his concentration on the details of the mouth, ‘people say that these have all sorts of sexual implications’.[156] A number of commentators have remarked on these details and developed loosely Freudian interpretations. Boxer has seen the bodies as ‘deliberately phallicised’, and elaborated a ‘“disguised” reference to fellatio’ in the conjunction of the central figure and the open mouth (interpreted as vagina dentata) of that in the right hand panel which carries ‘strong associations of impotence and castration’.[157] Sylvester (to whom the artist revealed that he was ‘sexually attracted’ to his own father)[158] and Russell,[159] have discerned troubled attitudes to the father-figure in Bacon’s work in general. However, it has fallen to Michael Peppiatt to relate the theme of the Crucifixion to the artist’s known homosexual and masochistic preferences in a series of questions:

Was Francis Bacon’s relationship with his father so traumatic that the artist sought expression for it through the Crucifixion? Was being surprised by his father, to whom Francis felt an erotic attraction, while he was putting on his mother’s underwear the real humiliation? Or was it his father’s disgust and the subsequent banishment from home? Or were these simply details of a tortured childhood (which included being regularly horsewhipped by the grooms at his father’s behest)?[160]

Such psycho-biographical readings may be set against the contextual view. Writing of the wartime work of John Minton, David Mellor has proposed that ‘in linking the male body to an urban pastoral of the pubs, streets and docks that surrounded it with a particular discourse, we encounter a major trope in terms of sexuality and representation’.[161] In conjunction with his understanding of Three Studies in terms of

‘pure violence’,[162] this proposal may suggest a violent version of ‘homosexual codings’ understood in the milieu in which Minton and Bacon both participated.

Whatever the private or coded causes of the imagery, John Rothenstein recognised that the figures of Three Studies ‘make an assault on our nervous system so overwhelming that they are impossible to forget’.[163] In so doing he echoed the artist’s assertion in 1962 that a painting was ‘an attempt to bring the figurative thing up onto the nervous system more violently and more poignantly’.[164] Rothenstein also wrote, rather more haltingly, of the theme in the 1962 Three Studies for a Crucifixion (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York)[165] as ‘surely one of the least forgettable representations of it of our century’.[166] Although this work - as its title and orange and red colouring signals - is a reprise of the concerns in Three Studies, the discussion between Bacon and Sylvester of its process and technique curiously avoids confronting its deliberately brutal imagery.[167] The muted violence of the 1944 triptych seems to have been made manifest in the bloodied carcasses of the 1962 triptych and, somewhat less frenetically, in the ensuing Crucifixion, 1965 (Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst, Munich).[168] The composition was taken up again, and much more literally, when Bacon made Second Version of Triptych 1944, 1988 (Tate Gallery T03073). As the title confirms, this was a re-conception: the canvases are of the standard size for his later career, necessitating the slight enlargement of the figures and the expansion of the spaces which are deep burgundy.

Michel Leiris’s view of Bacon’s repeated conjunction of violence and traditional religious imagery was more contemplative than most. Understanding the ‘wholly secular nature of an art which ... attributes no other role to its themes than to be what they are’, he nevertheless recognised a latent ritual content in the Crucifixions:

Bacon’s art, at once suitably composed and furiously spontaneous, not only makes great use of a convergence between modernity and tradition (hence its frequent recourse to the eminently classical form of the triptych which, as it were, enfolds the spectator within itself ...) but also, since its cool framework so often seems intended to restrain an almost savage violence, appears to be marked by a surface ritualism[169]

He concluded that Bacon ‘expresses the human condition as it truly and peculiarly is today (man dispossessed of any durable paradise when able to contemplate himself clear-sightedly)’.[170]

One significant aspect of Leiris’s interest in Bacon’s work is the writer’s continuation of concerns initiated in his association with George Bataille and the ‘dissident’ Surrealist periodical Documents, 1929-30 of which Bacon is said to have owned copies.[171] Their anthropological studies and phenomenological approaches pursued connections between religion and violent ritual, developed theories of crowd mentality and, particularly in Bataille’s writings, proposed a notion of the abject through which civilised man was traced to bestial sources. Dawn Ades has drawn attention to Bataille’s article on the mouth which, in his concern with the direct presentation of material sensation, may be related to Bacon’s approach as it noted that ‘on great occasions human life is concentrated bestially in the mouth’.[172] The postures in Three Studies have been compared by Ades to Bataille’s ensuing observation that ‘the stricken individual, in stretching out his neck, frantically lifts up his head, so that the mouth comes to be placed, so far as possible, in the extension of the vertebral column, that is to say in the position it normally occupies in the animal constitution’.[173] This apposite connection serves to reinforce the painting’s private associations with haranguing Nazi orators.

In his densely layered study of Bacon,[174] Gilles Deleuze has brought together aspects of this exposure of the bestial and discerned in the paintings ‘a zone ... of ambiguity between man and animal’. To this he added: ‘Man becomes animal, but the animal at the same time becomes spirit, the spirit of man, the physical spirit of man presented in a mirror, like the Eumenides or Fate. The forms are never combined; instead the stress is on the qualities common to both’.[175] In developing a reading of the rhythms of the triptych format, Deleuze has identified deformation as the means to ‘render visible invisible forces’[176] and, in the central head of Three Studies, has noted: ‘la tête aux yeux bandés n’est pas du tout une tête qui s’apprête à mordre, mais une tête abominable qui sourit, suivant une déformation horizontale de la bouche’ (‘the head with bandaged eyes is not at all a head that is preparing to bite, but an abominable head which smiles, following a horizontal deformation of the mouth’).[177] He characterises the smile as a ‘plat sourire hystérique’ (flat hysterical smile), and - extending Bataille’s notion - posits more generally that ‘tout le corps s’echappe par la bouche qui cri’ (‘the whole body escapes through the mouth that cries out’).[178]

For all his obsession with the qualities of the mouth, Bacon himself continually stressed formal over narrative qualities or even matters of experience. In this respect it is typical that his very limited discussion with Sylvester of Three Studies at the Base of a Crucifixion in 1962 derives from a question about whether he had ever wanted to make abstract paintings. Bacon replied: ‘I’ve had a desire to do forms, as when I originally did three forms at the base of the Crucifixion.’[179] It may also be seen as instructive that the discussion moved swiftly to Three Studies for a Crucifixion, 1962, a work which seemed to fulfil the expectations established by the earlier triptych. It was direct in its fleshy depiction of the carcasses, where Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion had shown isolated figures with mysterious intent and implications.

Matthew Gale
November 1998

[1] John Russell, Francis Bacon, London, Paris and Berlin 1971, 2nd ed. London and New York 1979, 3rd ed. London 1993, p.24
[2] Andew Durham, ‘Note on Technique’, Francis Bacon, exh. cat. Tate Gallery, London 1985, p.231
[3] Tate Gallery conservation files
[4] Repr. Ronald Alley, Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné and Documentation, London 1964, [p.258], no.A1
[5] Tate Gallery conservation files
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Tate Gallery Conservation 30 Oct. 1997
[9] Repr. Alley 1964, p.41, pl.19 (col.)
[10] Bacon, letter to Sutherland, 20 Aug. [1946], Picton Castle Trust:79, Tate Gallery Archive TAM 67/2
[11] Roger Berthoud, Graham Sutherland, A Biography, London 1982, p.130
[12] Durham 1985, p.231
[13] Tate Gallery Conservation 30 Oct. 1997
[14] Alley 1964, p.10 and Heather Johnson, Roy De Maistre: The English Years 1930-1968, Roseville East, New South Wales, Australia 1995, p.24
[15] Alley 1964, p.35; and Hugh M. Davies, Francis Bacon: The Early and Middle Years, 1928-1958 (Ph.D thesis, Princeton University, 1975), New York and London 1978, pp.34-6
[16] Repr. Referee, 17 Jan. 1937 and in Alley 1964, [p.264], nos D1 and D2
[17] Pierre Jeannerat, ‘Nonsense Art Invades London’, Daily Mail, 14 Jan. 1937, quoted in Johnson 1995, p.100
[18] Alley 1964, [p.264]
[19] Note on list of questions for Bacon, Alley papers, Tate Gallery Archive 8414
[20] Davies 1978, pp.34-5
[21] Former collection Sir Michael Sadler, repr. Alley 1964, [p.261], no.6
[22] Repr. Alley 1964, [p.163], no.13
[23] Russell 1993, p.17
[24] Repr. Johnson 1995, p.24, pl.5 (col.)
[25] Ibid., p.22
[26] Ibid., p.23 quoting Adrian Mibus
[27] Repr. Alley 1964, [p.259], no.A4 first state
[28] Davies 1978, p.41, n.55
[29] David W. Boxer, ‘The Early Work of Francis Bacon’, unpublished Ph.D thesis, John Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland 1975, pp.91-2, n.3
[30] Alley 1964, [p.260]
[31] Jörg Zimmermann, Francis Bacon Kreuzigung: Versuch, eine gewalttatige Wirklichkeit neu zu sehen, Frankfurt 1986, p.32, fig.22

[32] Ziva Amishai-Maissels, Depiction and Interpretation: The Influence of the Holocaust on the Visual Arts, Oxford, New York, Seoul and Tokyo 1993, pp.189-90,225-6

[33] Ibid., p.354
[34] Davies 1978, pp.39-40
[35] Sam Hunter, ‘Francis Bacon: The Anatomy of Horror’, Magazine of Art, New York, vol.95, no.1, Jan. 1952, pp.13-14
[36] Amishai-Maissels, Oxford 1993, pp.189-90
[37] Repr. in Peter Pachnicke and Klaus Honnef (eds.), John Heartfield, New York 1992, p.167, pl.74
[38] Repr. (reflected) in Gianni Dova, Bacon, Moore, Valmier, Lam Sutherland, Severini, Balla, Saint Phalle, Schiele, exh. cat. Luca Scacchi Gracco Studio d’arte Contemporanea, Milan, 1963, n.p., no.45 (col.)
[39] Alley 1964, [p.258]
[40] Boxer 1975, p.91, n.3
[41] Repr. in Francis Bacon, exh. cat. Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1996 p.17
[42] David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1975, revised as The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, 1980, 3rd ed. 1990, 4th ed. as Interviews with Francis Bacon, 1993, p.34
[43] Davies 1978, p.43
[44] Interview with Bacon, August 1974, Boxer 1975, p.39
[45] Boxer 1975, p.47
[46] Sylvester 1993, p.50
[47] 48 x 41 in. (1220 x 1040 mm), repr. Alley 1964, [p.259], no.A3 and repr. in col. in Gianni Dova, Bacon..., exh. cat. Luca Scacchi Gracco Studio d’arte Contemporanea, Milan, 1963, n.p., no.44
[48] Boxer 1975, p.91, n.3
[49] Alley 1964, [p.258], no.A2 verso
[50] Davies 1978, p.41
[51] Hunter 1952, pp.13-14
[52] Repr. Francis Bacon, The Human Body, exh. cat. Hayward Gallery, London 1998, [p.43] no.1 (col.)
[53] Repr. Alley 1964, [p.260], no.A5
[54] Boxer 1975, p.9
[55] The New Decade, exh. cat. Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1955, quoted in John Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1964, [p.3]
[56] Sylvester 1993, p.8
[57] Christian Zervos, ‘Picasso à Dinard: Eté 1928’, Cahiers d’Art, vol.4, no.1, 1929, pp.5-20, ‘Les Dernieres oeuvres de Picasso’, ibid., no.6, 1929, pp.233-49, ‘Projets de Picasso pour un monument’, ibid., no.10, pp.341-53
[58] Davies 1978, pp.19, 26-7
[59] Boxer 1975, p.64
[60] ‘L’Atelier de Sculpture’ in André Breton, ‘Picasso dans son élément’, Minotaure, vol.1, no.1, June 1933, pp.16-19, and Brassai ‘Nus’ in Maurice Raynal, ‘Variété du corps humain’, ibid. p.43
[61] Repr. in Francis Bacon, exh. cat. Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1996 p.15
[62] Boxer 1975, pp.26-7
[63]Crucifixion: Dessins de Picasso, d’après la Crucifixion de Grünewald’, Minotaure, vol.1, no.1, June 1933, pp.31-2
[64] Davies 1978, p.33
[65] Picasso’s Guernica with 67 paintings, sketches and studies, New Burlington Galleries, London, Oct. 1938
[66] Dessin au crayon, 8 Mai 1937, in Davies 1978, p.47
[67] Herbert Read, ‘Picasso’s “Guernica”’, London Bulletin, vol.1, no.6, Oct. 1938, p.6
[68] Michel Archimbaud, Francis Bacon: In conversation with Michel Archimbaud, Paris 1992 and London 1993, p.34
[69] Phenomena by Pavel Tchelitchew, Arthur Tooth and Sons, London, June-July 1938, repr.
[70] Exhibition of 20th Century German Art, New Burlington Galleries, London, July 1938
[71] Repr. Erhard and Barbara Göpel, Max Beckmann, Katalog der Gemälde, Bern 1976, vol.2, no.439, pl.150-2
[72] Davies 1978, p.47
[73] Mollie Craven cited in Daniel Farson, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, London 1993, p.37
[74] Bacon, letter to Tate Gallery, [9 Jan. 1959], Tate Gallery cataloguing files
[75] Boxer 1975, p.19
[76] Sylvester 1993, p.112
[77] David Mellor, ‘Francis Bacon: Affinities, Contexts and the British Visual Tradition’, in Achille Bonito Oliva (ed.), Figurabile: Francis Bacon, exh. cat. Museo Correr, Venice 1993, p.98
[78] Johnson 1995, p.129
[79] Repr. ibid. p.130, pl.51 (col.)
[80] Repr. Mellor 1993, p.98
[81] Johnson 1995, p.129
[82] Ronald Alley, Graham Sutherland, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1982, p.111
[83] ‘Thoughts on Painting’, Listener, vol46, 1951, pp.377-8, quoted in Alley 1982, p.110
[84] Keith Vaughan, Journals 1939-1977, Alan Ross (ed.), London 1989, p.55
[85] Mellor 1993, p.99
[86] Davies 1978, p.46
[87] Boxer 1975, p.22
[88] Ibid.
[89] Ibid., p.20
[90] Alley 1964, p.35
[91] Boxer 1975, p.27
[92] Formerly Bagshaw Art Gallery, Batley, repr. Alley 1964, [p.166], no.18
[93] Ibid. p.39 and Boxer 1975, p.105, n.160
[94] Davies 1978, pp.45-6
[95] Sylvester 1993, p.23
[96] M[ichael] C[ompton], letter to Francis Bacon, 6 Jan. 1959, Tate Gallery cataloguing files
[97] Francis Bacon, letter to Tate Gallery, [9 Jan. 1959], Tate Gallery cataloguing files
[98] Sylvester 1993, p.46
[99] Eumenides, 55, in Aeschylus, The Oresteia, Robert Fagles and W.B. Stanford trans., Harmondsworth 1977, p.233
[100] Westminster Theatre, March 1939, see Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London 1996, p.89, and Boxer 1975, pp.31-2
[101] W.B. Stanford, Aeschylus in his Style: A Study in Language and Personality, Dublin 1942
[102] Repr. Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1996, p.201, no.74 (col.)
[103] Dawn Ades, ‘Web of Images’, Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1985, p.19
[104] Interview, 26 June 1973, Davies 1978, p.15
[105] Sylvester 1993, p.81
[106] Peppiatt 1996, p.83
[107] Ibid., p.84
[108] Francis Bacon, letter to Sutherland, 8 Feb. 1943, Picton Castle Trust 68-70, Tate Gallery Archive TAM 67/2
[109] Peppiatt 1996, p.101
[110] Ibid., p.83
[111] Michael Wishart, High Diver: An Autobiography, London 1978, pp.61-2
[112] Peppiatt 1996, p.102
[113] Ibid., p.109
[114] Unattributed note on Tate Gallery cataloguing files

[115] Robert Melville, ‘Francis Bacon’, Horizon, vol.20, nos.120-1, Dec. 1949-Jan. 1950, between pp.418 and 419

[116] Davies 1978, pp. 48, 49-50
[117] Raymond Mortimer, ‘At the Lefevre’, New Statesman and Nation, vol.29, no.738, 14 April 1945, p.239 and Michael Ayrton, ‘Art’, Spectator, vol.174, no.6094, 13 April 1945, p.335
[118] Francis Bacon, partial letter to Sutherland from Monte Carlo, [1946], Picton Castle Trust:78, Tate Gallery Archive TAM 67/2
[119] Russell 1964, [p.4]
[120] Russell 1971 and 1979, p.10
[121] Davies 1978, p.44, Farson 1993, p.43, and Peppiatt 1996, p.108
[122] Cora Gordon, ‘London Commentary’, Studio, vol.130, no.629, Aug. 1945, p.62
[123] Robin Ironside, Painting Since 1939, London 1947, p.37
[124] “Perspex” [Herbert Furst], ‘Current Shows and Comments: On the Significance of a Word’, Apollo, vol.41, no.231, May 1945, p.108
[125] Ibid. p.107
[126] Michael Ayrton, ‘Art’, Spectator, vol.174, no.6094, 13 April 1945, p.335
[127] Michael Ayrton, ‘Young Painters of Today: Poetic, Mystical and Organic’, Listener, vol.34, no.861, 12 July 1945, p.46
[128] Michael Ayrton, ‘A Master of Pastiche’, Spectator, 1944, quoted in David Mellor, ‘The Body and the Land: Neo-Romantic Art and Culture’ in David Mellor (ed.), A Paradise Lost: The Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain 1935-55, exh. cat., Barbican Art Gallery, London 1987, p.68
[129] Mortimer 1945, p.239
[130] Mavis Tate, ‘More on Buchenwald’, Spectator, vol.174, no.6097, p.402
[131] Repr. Alley 1964, p.37, no.17 (col.)
[132] Repr. ibid. [p.166], no.18
[133] Repr. ibid. [p.260], no.A5
[134] The first two in Recent Painting by Ben Nicholson, Graham Sutherland and Francis Bacon, Robert Colquhoun, John Craxton, Lucian Freud, Robert MacBryde and Julian Trevelyan, Lefevre Gallery, London, Feb. 1946, the third in British Painters Past and Present, Lefevre Gallery, London, July-Aug. 1946
[135] A Rozelaar Green, Seventh Exhibition: Adler, Bacon, Colquhoun, Hubert, MacBryde, Trevelyan, exh. cat. Anglo-French Art Centre, London 1946
[136] In 1946 Figure Study II and in 1949 Head II, 1949, Ulster Museum, Belfast repr. Alley 1964, p.43, no.21 (col.)
[137] Archimbaud 1993, p.25
[138] Andrew Sinclair, Francis Bacon: His Life and Violent Times, 1993, p.94
[139] David Sylvester, ‘At the Tate Gallery’, Encounter, vol.191, 6 Sept. 1956, p.67
[140] Repr. Alley 1964, p.49, no.28 (col.)
[141] Daily Herald, 10 Nov. 1949
[142] E.g. Nevile Wallis, ‘Nightmare’, Observer, 20 Nov. 1949
[143] Robert Melville, ‘Francis Bacon’, Horizon, vol.20, nos.120-1, Dec. 1949-Jan. 1950, p.421
[144] Ibid., pp.422,423
[145] Patrick Heron, ‘Francis Bacon’, New Statesman and Nation, vol.38, no.978, 3 Dec. 1949, p.64
[146] Davies 1978, Chapter 2 ‘The Surrealistic Phase (1944-1957)’
[147] Heron 1949, p.64
[148] Sylvester 1993, pp.16-17
[149] E.g. in 1971 interview, ibid. p.82
[150] Melville 1949-50, and Sylvester 1993
[151] David Sylvester, ‘Francis Bacon’, Britain Today, no.214, Feb. 1954, p.23
[152] Ibid., pp.24-5
[153] Ibid., p.26
[154] Sylvester 1993, p.28
[155] Mortimer 1945, p.239
[156] Sylvester 1993, p.48
[157] Boxer 1975, pp.63-5
[158] Sylvester 1993, p.71
[159] Russell 1971 and 1979, p.92
[160] Peppiatt 1996, p.99-100
[161] Mellor 1987, p.58
[162] Ibid., p.75
[163] John Rothenstein, ‘Introduction’, Alley 1964, p.11
[164] Sylvester 1993, p.12
[165] Repr. Alley 1964, pp.144-5, no.201 (col.)
[166] Rothenstein, ‘Introduction’, Alley 1964, p.20
[167] Sylvester 1993, pp.12-14
[168] Repr. Bacon, exh. cat. Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1996, p.140, no.43 (col.)
[169] Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon: Full Face and in Profile, Oxford 1983, p.28
[170] Ibid., p.46
[171] Ades 1985, p.12.
[172] ‘La Bouche’, Documents, vol.2, no.5, 1930, pp.299-300, translated in ibid., p.13
[173] Ibid.
[174] Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: logique de la sensation, Paris 1981
[175] Ibid. p.20 extracted and translated in Gilles Deleuze, ‘Interpretations of the Body: A New Power of Laughter for the Living’, Art International, no.8, Autumn 1989, p.34
[176] Deleuze 1981, p.40
[177] Ibid., p.52
[178] Ibid., p.23
[179] Sylvester 1993, p.8

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