Published just over a century ago in December 1922, T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land is widely regarded as one of the most important poems of the 20th century. Bacon was deeply influenced by Eliot and his verses in The Waste Land, which becomes particularly apparent in the work that we are focusing on here, Painting, 1978.
When talking about Painting, 1978, to friend and art critic David Sylvester, Bacon however seemed contradictory about the literary influence on the work, saying:
“‘I think that came – I don’t know why I made it turn with the foot – it very much came from that poem of Eliot’s, “I have heard the key / Turn in the door once and turn once only…”. You know. It comes from The Waste Land. I don’t know why I should have made it turn with the foot. But it did come from that poem’ [Sylvester, p. 150]. Yet Bacon also insisted that the painting was ‘unplanned’ and agreed that the Eliot image ‘is not visible in the work’ (see also Study from the Human Body, 1983, 83‑02).”
Excerpt: Martin Harrison, Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné (London: The Estate of Francis Bacon Publishing, 2016 p. 1142).
As Harrison points out, these irreconcilable statements “epitomise the mythologising of the ‘accidental’ formation of Bacon’s imagery.” As Bacon himself said of his art, “I always think of myself not so much as a painter but as a medium for accident and chance.”
How much Bacon left this painting to ‘chance’ rather than deliberate allusion is not known, but as Harrison astutely notes in the Catalogue Raisonné, “in making the key turn with the foot, Bacon crucially departed from the text.”
These lines of verse are also evoked in the triptych that Bacon painted immediately after George Dyer’s death in Paris; In Memory of George Dyer, 1971. In this painting, the figure’s naked arm is twisting to turn a key in the centre panel, a similar gesture evoked in these lines from The Waste Land:
‘I have heard the key / Turn in the door and turn once only / We think of the key, each in his prison’.
The period after Dyer’s tragic death was one of grief for Francis Bacon, with this piece marking the start of his ‘black triptych’ phase. Perhaps therefore it is unsurprising that Eliot’s radical and bleak poem was an influence on Bacon at this time.
Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné can be purchased through our distributor’s website