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Francis BACON

Ireland 1909 – Spain 1992

  • Movements: worked in Great Britain

Triptych 1970 London, Greater London, England
paintings, oil on canvas
Technique: oil on canvas
Primary Insc: signed, dated and titled verso u.r. (left canvas) and u.l. (centre and right canvases), blue fibre-tipped pen, "Triptych 1970/ Francis Bacon"
overall (variable) 218.2 h x 551.6 w cm
canvas (each) 198.0 h x 147.5 w cm
framed 218.2 h x 167.2 w cm
Collection: National Gallery of Australia Purchased 1973
Accession No: NGA 74.263.A-C
© Francis Bacon/DACS. Licensed by Viscopy


  • In Triptych, Francis Bacon uses the three-panel format of religious painting to create heightened personal narratives. Bacon’s figures are distorted and located in ill-defined spaces. He evokes the ambiguity of dreams, while presenting conflict and tension in sharp focus.

    The figures on each side of the composition—clothed and detached on the left, naked and watching on the right—may be George Dyer, Bacon’s close friend and primary model for over a decade. The opposition between these two figures is not resolved but rather heightened by the central panel, which shows two wrestling male figures.

    The suggestion of men copulating is confirmed by an ejaculatory whip of white paint across the canvas. Sweeps of luscious paint produce brutal disarticulations of bodies while creating new and sensuous forms. The colours of bruised and mashed meat lend a perverse kind of voluptuousness to the flesh.

    The central image, which is simultaneously dangerous and erotic, is based on a photograph of wrestlers by Eadweard Muybridge. Bacon preferred to work from memory and photographs rather than from life, and often referred to Muybridge’s serial photographs—published in Animal locomotion in 1887—of humans and animals in motion.

    The complex system of ropes or wires that suspends the platforms supporting the figures on the left and right may have been borrowed from Muybridge’s serial photographs of a woman getting in and out of a hammock. The single dangling light bulb above the figures in the central panel conveys an atmosphere of desperation and isolation.

    In the uncomfortable scene set, Bacon has aligned a sense of violence, religious associations of the triptych form with erotic play, and the assault on realism with the most refined aestheticism.

    The painting has an unusual capacity to do things to the viewer, to act directly on the senses and open up areas of feeling. A close inspection of the canvases reveals techniques of painting and passages of paintwork that take the breath away with their audacity and finesse.

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
    From: Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008

  • The features of the man, dapperly dressed in the left canvas, and naked in the right canvas, are recognisably those of George Dyer. Bacon met Dyer in 1964 and he became Bacon's close friend and primary model for over a decade, his presence persisting in Bacon's work well beyond his death in Paris in October 1971. Bacon preferred to work from memory and photographs. As a point of departure he often used the serial photographs which Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) made in the 1880s of humans and animals in motion and published in the enormous compendium Animal Locomotion in 1887. The image in the central panel of the Canberra painting was adopted from Muybridge's photographs of wrestlers. Bacon had used this image on a number of previous occasions, at first in Two figures 1953 (private collection, London) and, contemporaneously with the Canberra painting, in the central panel of Triptych — studies from the human body 1970 (collection Jacques Hachuel, Paris). However, Muybridge's photographs may also have been the source of another feature that is unique to the Canberra Triptych - the suspended platforms that support the figure in the left and in the right panels. While the overlapping geometric forms of the platforms may recall Bacon's own early designs for modernist furniture, the complex system of lines denoting ropes or wires from which these platforms are suspended seem to be derived from Muybridge's serial photographs of a woman getting into and out of a hammock - also from Animal Locomotion.

    Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.402.

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010