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