A Dance with Enigma

 Understanding Francis Bacon & His “Black Triptychs”


Few artists have been able to move me quite as radically and as deeply as Francis Bacon. On the eve of my high school graduation, my mentor gifted me a copy of Interviews with Francis Bacon by David Sylvester. There, in the front cover, he wrote to me, “to unleashing, to harnessing these forces…populated as we are.” Over the coming weeks, I fell into the universe of Bacon. Reading and re-reading each utterance of his, Bacon’s philosophy soon filled my young mind. It is rare that the first encounter with a visual artist is a transcript of interviews. Unusually, I came to know Bacon’s ideas before I encountered his unquestionably unique aesthetic. Two years later, this analysis is hardly my first tryst with Bacon. Each essay I write about him is a dance, a step forward and an inexplicable step back. To unveil one aspect of Bacon’s grasp over me is often to obscure another.

Of his oeuvre, his works from the 1970s have long eluded me. In ’71, two days before his retrospective was set to be unveiled at the Grand Palais in Paris, Bacon’s longtime lover, George Dyer, passed away from a drug and alcohol overdose in the hotel washroom.1 The proceeding years were dark times of introspection for the newly ‘widowed’ Bacon. Aptly, his three series paintings from this period are frequently referred to as his “Black Triptychs.” I have purposely skirted this period in my writings, for these paintings invoke sensations that are disconcerting and cringe-inducing, to say the least. Bacon’s aesthetic is notorious for the internal writhing it conjures, but something within his “Black Triptychs” magnifies this inner pain. In these pieces, Bacon’s unbearable agony and obfuscated sense of self become ever more immediate to the viewer. As I look upon these works, I find myself feeling guilt, ache, the grasp of death, solitude, fear, melancholy, and shame. Such a listing of reactions could be endless with these paintings. The questions that I have long evaded are why and how. How does he express such rich emotion, and how does he give it such agency? It is my ambition to understand, if not fully then at least more clearly, how Bacon so powerfully moves his viewers. What underlies his aesthetic? What emotions, sensations, desires, and fears are made felt by his works? It is only fitting for me to begin my exploration of such weighty questions with his painting that is the most personally affecting.

Triptych May-June 1973 is perhaps one of Bacon’s most poignant and memorable paintings. This series of three canvases deals primarily with loss and solitude, ultimately leaving the viewer emotionally drained and contemplative. The most immediately noticeable quality is that Bacon has broken free from traditional triptych format. Most works of this style are composed of three panels, typically of wood, that are hinged together and can be folded neatly to create a single piece with two wings. Bacon instead creates three separate canvases that have a thematic continuity, but are most literally isolated from one another. Each picture exists on its own. Bacon takes the central emotional resonance of this piece, solitude, and gives it physical form. It seems such a simple act of breaking free from tradition, yet it effectively makes loneliness tangible. The three moments of this pseudo-narrative have been split, broken down, and set to be alone. This first and most physical manifestation of the work’s emotions acts upon us subconsciously. The passerby might not actively think of how Bacon’s preparation of the canvases might be a physical expression of an idea, but it is that slight white space between hung pieces that makes separation felt. The continuity that is characteristic of a triptych has been shattered on a material level— the construction of the canvases—and before even taking in the painting’s subject matter, we already begin to feel.2

Bacon continues to play with isolation in his use of color blocking and line. Notice the choice of palette here. Deep reds and sandy tans flank a center of pure blackness while thick lines compose the doorway and wall base. The composition seems to fold in upon itself. Our eyes are attracted to the interplay between the rich hue of red and the earth tones, yet they exist on the periphery of our vision. Our eyes are drawn to the pure blackness of the center. Much like Kazimir Malevich’s The Black Square, the black space seems an abyss into unknown world. Bacon was known for his preoccupation with boxes. Most famously displayed in his studies after Pope portraits from the late ’40s and ’50s, Bacon often paints his characters within 3-D boxes that act like glassy prisons.3 Framed by spare white lines, these boxes conjure a particular claustrophobia. Not only are his characters trapped in the canvas but also inside of another painted structure within the image: Bacon constricts his subjects to a separate space, therefore demarcating a divide between the physical canvas plane and his own created plane. Viewers have long been unsure of why Bacon did this. They saw this decision as something imbued with meaning, perhaps something purposefully evocative. Bacon quells these questions when he responded to Sylvester during an interview in 1962.

“DS: Is there in fact any explanation of the relationship between your figures?

FB: No.

DS: So it’s the same thing as when you’ve painted heads or figures inside a sort of space-frame and it’s been supposed that you were picturing someone imprisoned in a glass box.

FB: I use that frame to see the image—for no other reason. I know it’s been interpreted as being many other things.”4

The brilliance of Bacon, and, in part, the key to how his paintings work, is his blunt attitude and detached demeanor. Bacon was an intellectual, but he sparingly theorized about his own technique and imagery. He genuinely stated when something was ‘meaningless’ and was a mere tool of his practice. The boxes, which are a subject of interest to many critical theorists, were to Bacon, entirely formal. Yet it is this precise absence of meaning for the artist that generates meaning for the viewer. Enigma is one of Bacon’s most formidable tools. Audiences are confounded by Bacon’s formal techniques and why they are so emotionally stirring if the artist did not intend them to be. This is crucial to understanding how Bacon’s art works. His lack of intentionality often draws rich interpretations out of his viewers. This plays out in Triptych May-June 1973 in an intriguing way. The enigma here lies in the dark washroom.

What is this space of blackness? In the most literal narrative reading of this series, it is the hotel lavatory where Dyer died in 1971. But then how do we reconcile the shifting views of this space? There is a dynamic quality to this blackness—it seems to grow, to deepen, to spread.

In the canvas to the left, that is if we are ‘reading’ left-to-right, we see Dyer seated upon the toilet, his face turned from our view. This is the most legible of locations depicted on the canvases. The toilet shape with a seated figure is recognizable and familiar. Notice the character’s skin tone and his body contours. He is flesh-toned with gray streaks running down his naked, contorted back. There is a sense of life in his body, a painful flickering life, but life nonetheless.

Now to the central canvas. The room has shifted. The toilet has receded into the darkness and now we see a bare light bulb hanging by thin wires. It is a bulb on the brink of death, a light about to go out, one that is hardly illuminating. The man’s color, too, has changed. The flesh tones present ‘earlier’ have nearly disappeared. His skin is a grayish purple-blue save for spots of pink on his wincing face. Further, we have no idea what this room is anymore. All signifiers that this is a bathroom have disappeared. Is this still the same space? And most strikingly, the blackness has transfigured and seeped out of the doorframe. It takes the shape of some winged demon—death in its silhouetted form. His body is now shrouded in the darkness and life seems on its last breath.

Finally, we reach the last canvas. In the previous two segments, the body seems in a state of distress, in agony, and in pain. The body is struggling to maintain its life force, which is represented by the shifting flesh tones. In this final canvas, that struggle has ended, and there is a tranquility to the space. The body no longer writhes and twists, it merely lies. His eyes are shut, and his face is calm and resigned. His skin is gray, the shadow has receded, and the light has disappeared. We are resituated in the hotel bathroom, and a sense of peace is palpable.

After reading each piece, many questions arise. How are we to view these canvases: left to right, outward to inward? Is there a narrative present? What exactly is this blackness and why does it change and move? I read this piece with the traditional lens of the art historian, but is the familiar scholarly approach appropriate for this triptych? Must I go beyond detached formal analysis and delve deeper into the personal sensations this painting musters to truly understand it? These questions are precisely the enigma that Bacon creates in this piece. Yet one question looms larger than others. It is clear that this is a series that deals with death, but why is it such an affecting death? This does not simply feel like the death of some figure; it actually does feel like the death of a lover or a family member.

How does Bacon make this death not only intense but also immediate and personal? In the western canon, death has often been a subject of art. Some famed works that come to mind include Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith beheading Holofernes or David’s Death of Marat. Many works show a person dying, yet these other works hardly make me feel as viscerally as this triptych. The reason behind that is while many artists paint a narrative that includes a death, only Bacon has made the ‘narrative’ dying itself. This is not a single scene; it is three moments in time that give form to death’s hand. It is gripping because we enter and experience the process of death. The sparseness and lack of an obvious narrative make the piece enterable. We can easily place ourselves in this body that is just a series of blurred strokes. Death’s hand is felt without being experienced. Further, it is not a death scene drawn from a historical narrative with a broader context, it a manifestation of the process of death, split into three distinct stages.5

The categorization of this work as a vision of mortality explains many of the conjured emotions, yet it does not quite explain this sense that the viewer is in some way implicated in this death. Why does the viewer not only identify with the dying figure but also with the spirit of death? Something makes me feel like my vision is the sight that causes this figures pain and his ultimate passing. The key to this perplexing problem lies in the anomaly of the white arrows in the bottom corner of the two pieces. What is their place or role in the work?

The arrows might have been just another formal technique, but, based on my experience with the piece, the arrows actively influence the viewer’s perspective. The arrows add a directional movement to our sight. Our eyes are quickly drawn to them, as they seem entirely out of place, but then when we follow the direction in which the arrows point our vision, it creates a diagonal that leads straight to the dying figure. As our eyes move along the created line, we feel almost as if our sight is pushing the figure into the restroom—into his death. The arrow acts as the omnipotent viewer’s metaphysical hand. It implicates our eyesight as an invisible force that pushes, even forces, this figure into the darkened space. While the arrows might not have been intentionally evocative, they do indeed act as another entry point into the work. The viewer of this piece can relate to it both as the dying figure but also as the bringer of death. It is an entirely unique and expressive form of identification that leaves the viewer with conflicting emotions. How do we reconcile being the giver and receiver of death? In many ways this is the precise emotional paradox that Bacon was dealing with after Dyer’s untimely death. He was facing difficult internalized questions at the time. Why didn’t I prevent this from happening? Was this my fault? Why wasn’t I there for him? How could I have let him die alone and in such pain? These questions are futile and impossible to find solace in. But Bacon, in the only way he understood how, found a way to deal with these questions. He gave his sentiments form in this piece and helped the viewer understand the pains he was feeling in these darkest of times.

Triptych May-June 1973 was one of Bacon’s masterpieces. Imbued with emotions and conflicting identification paths, these haunting pieces seem timeless views into the mind of someone contemplating loss. He effectively makes his own emotions, his agony, his pain, and his guilt, all felt by the viewer. While I’ve reached a relatively clearer understanding of Bacon’s hold over me in this piece, some questions remain unanswered. What is the black space? Is it really a bathroom or is it some dark portal into another realm? What is this a silhouette of? A demon? A person? An angel? Is this an image of transcendence into heaven or a casting down into hell? Many questions remain and will continue to remain. These enigmas are the root of my fixation with Bacon’s works. I crave answers. I crave to know precisely why Bacon affects me so deeply and personally. I crave to know why these blurry smears of paint and blocks of color conjure such visceral sensations. It is this precise insatiability that feeds my drive to continue exploring his oeuvre, to continue this dance of critical deconstruction, and to ultimately unveil the truth behind the vexing enigmas of his artworks.

  1. The Estate of Francis Bacon, Joe Hage & Henri Publishing:  Biography of 1970s.
  2. Supporting material, excerpt from Interviews with Francis Bacon by D. Sylvester: DS: And do the vertical breaks between the canvases of a triptych have the same sort of purpose as those frames within a canvas. FB: Yes, they do. They isolate one from the other. And they cut off the story between one and the other.
  3. Bacon, Francis. Pope I, 1951. Oil on canvas.
  4. Sylvester, David & Francis Bacon, Interviews with Francis Bacon. London: Thames and Hudson, 1975.
  5. Nochlin, Linda. “Triptych May-June 1973.” Catalogue Essay, Bacon Retrospective. The Tate Collection, Autumn 2008.