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Late Paintings (2015)

Gagosian Gallery, New York. 07 November 2015-12 December 2015

Essay by Richard Calvocoressi

Article taken from the February 2016 issue of the Gagosian quarterly magazine. Reproduced with kind permission of the gallery.


The installation at 980 Madison Avenue of more than twenty of Bacon’s works from 1976 to 1991, including three large triptychs, provided a unique opportunity to reevaluate the final fifteen years of work by Britain’s greatest twentieth-century painter. This was a period when Bacon turned increasingly to painting his own features, many of his close friends having died. There were six self-portraits in the exhibition, including one small triptych of heads showing successive aspects of the artist’s face, as if it were always in motion or a state of flux, and two paintings in which his likeness, based on a photograph, is ‘pinned’ to a square of unprimed canvas. In some of the self-portraits, the artist seems to be fading away or backing out of the picture. In the last self-portrait in the show, a small head from 1987, Bacon’s use of spray paint gives the image a dissolving, deathly appearance.

One of Bacon’s deceased friends was his former lover George Dyer, a regular subject in his art from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s. Dyer committed suicide in 1971 in a Paris hotel, on the eve of Bacon’s retrospective at the Grand Palais. Bacon commemorated his death in a series of paintings that recall its tragic and sordid details, most notably in the so-called ‘black’ triptychs of the early 1970s. At the time of the Grand Palais opening, Dyer was living separately from Bacon, in an apartment the artist had given him, and their relationship was over. But he insisted on joining Bacon in Paris, against his wishes. Bacon knew Dyer would be drunk, and before Dyer arrived, Bacon carefully hid all his own sleeping pills, remembering Dyer’s three previous attempts at suicide when drunk. Each time, he had managed to get Dyer to the hospital in time. That morning, Bacon had to leave the hotel early to put the finishing touches to the exhibition. While he was out, Dyer found the pills and locked himself in his room, which connected to Bacon’s. When Bacon returned, he saw that the pills were missing, but could not get to Dyer through the locked door. Having to go out again, he was reassured by Valerie Beston, his devoted minder at the Marlborough Gallery, who was also staying in the hotel, that Dyer would be alright. Later that evening, Dyer was found naked, slumped on the lavatory, having vomited into the washbasin. The cause of death was an overdose of alcohol and barbiturates.

Ten years later, Dyer’s shadow still haunts Bacon’s work. Even when addressing less autobiographical, more universal themes from classical Greek drama, such as vengeance and justice, in his Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus 1981, a headless, naked figure hunched over a bowl, open, connecting doors, and trails of bodily fluids contribute to its violent atmosphere. In an earlier work that includes Dyer’s unmistakable profile, Painting 1978, a naked figure is shown locking a door with his upraised foot. Bacon said that he had been inspired by the lines from T S Eliot’s The Waste Land, beginning:

I have heard the key

Turn in the door once and turn once only.

Bacon’s visual imagination was stimulated by his reading of Aeschylus and Eliot, and this may have merged unconsciously with feelings of guilt over Dyer’s suicide, despite maintaining that he wasn’t especially attracted to Dyer—saying, rather, ‘he was very useful to work from at the time.’ In Agamemnon, the first play in Aeschylus’s trilogy, Clytemnestra murders her returning husband Agamemnon, king of Argos, after enticing him to walk from his chariot into their palace over a long drape of crimson silk. Presumably Bacon had this image in mind when he came to paint the center panel of his triptych, with its deep red backdrop, a detail he repeated in the center panel of his Second Version of Triptych 1944 1988—his reprise, on a grander scale, of his disturbing early masterpiece Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.

Bacon described Agamemnon as ‘the most blood-bathed tragedy that exists. ... The line ‘The reek of human blood smiles out at me’ suggests a million different kinds of images.’ Another classical source for Bacon was the Oedipus myth, as dramatized in Sophocles’s Theban tragedies, in which Oedipus fulfills the prophecy that he will kill his father, Laius, king of Thebes, and marry his mother, Jocasta. When all is revealed, Jocasta commits suicide, and Oedipus, overcome with remorse, gouges out his own eyes. Bacon’s Oedipus and the Sphinx after Ingres 1983 is loosely based on Ingres’s famous painting in the Louvre, Oedipus and the Sphinx 1808. Bacon depicts the moment when Oedipus confronts and defeats the Theban Sphinx by answering her riddle, thus removing the only obstacle on his journey to Thebes. Where he departs from Ingres is in portraying Oedipus as an athlete with a blood-soaked, bandaged foot—a reference to the injury Jocasta had inflicted on him as a baby, before leaving him to die, she hoped, on a mountainside. The other detail not found in Ingres is the hanging, bat-like shape visible through a door in the background. This mythological creature, identified by Bacon as one of the Furies, is present in other paintings shown in the exhibition, including the left-hand panel of the Oresteia triptych, where it spurts a jet of gore. The Furies, or Eumenides, were female spirits who avenge family murder by pursuing the guilty. In Agamemnon, Cassandra foresees Agamemnon’s imminent murder by his wife and cries:

Howl, Furies, howl, you bloody ravening pack,
Gorged with this house’s blood, yet thirsting still;
The victim bleeds: come, Fiends, and drink your fill!

Another characteristic of the late work is Bacon’s tendency to turn some of his figures into sculptures. This can be seen in his Oedipus/Ingres painting, where the sphinx on her rock is transformed into a stone statue on a pedestal. In another painting inspired by Ingres, Diptych: Study of the Human Body—From a Drawing by Ingres 1982–84, the truncated bodies, one male, the other female, are shown on plinths. The right-hand, female torso bears a resemblance to one of Picasso’s Boisgeloup sculptures of the early 1930s, such as the plaster Bust of a Woman 1931, in which male and female genitals form a composite whole. Bacon was aware of the emotive power of the broken or fragmented body, as in surviving sculptures from classical antiquity. He was profoundly interested in sculpture, and it is noticeable how the decomposing forms of his earlier figures are replaced in the later work by more muscular torsos and limbs recalling Michelangelo.

If Bacon had a guiding principle in these late paintings, it was to pare down, to reduce to essentials: he talked about the ‘essence of a torso,’ the ‘essence of landscape,’ the ‘essence of water.’ He also said that ‘a shorthand of forms, really, is what I’m trying to do.’ This newfound economy of means is evident from the greatly simplified backgrounds, often consisting of large expanses of a single, radiant color such as cadmium orange, pink, or blue. His Triptych 1991, which has a markedly symmetrical composition, resembles an architectural memorial. The portrait heads in the side panels evoke photographs of the dead attached to tombstones, while the copulating figures in the center panel are like a distant memory, generalized almost to the point of abstraction. A sense of something close to equilibrium pervades this final triptych.