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Bacon, Triptych - August 1972

Francis Bacon, Triptych - August 1972, 1972, oil on canvas, 72 x 61 x 22 in. (183 x 155 x 64 cm), (Tate Modern, London) . Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: We're in the Tate Modern, and we're looking at a Francis Bacon, actually we're looking at three Francis Bacon's. This is one work of art, but in three large, painted panels. It's a triptych. In fact, that's the title. DR. BETH HARRIS: Normally, when I think about a triptych, I think about Renaissance or a Medieval altar piece that's in three panels that are connected, and therefore something that is spiritual, a religious scene. But here we are in the 20th century using that format, but there is something dark and spiritual about these images. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: These were deeply personal paintings and the subject couldn't be closer to home for the artist. DR. BETH HARRIS: You can tell how personal they are. On either side, these figures are very, very powerfully depicted. That seems very psychological, and personal, and emotional, and profound, from the way that he's treating the human body. Tell me about what the personal aspect is. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So within these very spare renderings we have a representation of George Dyer on the left. This is Francis Bacon's lover, who had just recently committed suicide. In fact, this painting is generally seen as one of the series of black paintings that are in a way, a kind of chronicle of his response to this event. You've got the artist himself, the self portrait, and then in the middle, you've got this composite creature. You can just make out two bodies in a kind of violent love Making. The reference that is usually drawn by our historians is to the English photographer more bridge who invented the strobe light and was the first person to use photography to freeze animals and people in action. He did a famous series of wrestlers, from which this is drawn. But of course, that scientific context is completely transformed in this personal context. DR. BETH HARRIS: In the image of Dyer, there's an immediate sense of death. There's an immediate sense of the flesh disintegrating, with Bacon there's this feeling of the flesh melting and being eaten away. In fact, in his torso, that blackness that's that panel on the back, seems to kind of move forward and kind of take over the speaker's body. And at the same time, there's something very transcendent about the phase. The eyes are closed, the head tilts up slightly, as though there's a way that the figure's somehow transcending the body as the body is being consumed. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So interesting that you say melting. We can see that shadow that he seems to cast, almost as a kind of pool of flesh to the lower right in some terrible way. DR. BETH HARRIS: The pool is pink and flesh colored, and the body itself is being taken over by this black DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: It's also that it has a kind of dementia. It seems to be literally seeping out of him. DR. BETH HARRIS: There's a real tension between surface and an illusion of depth to the body. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: The depicted space as opposed to the conceptual space, that alternation becomes a beautiful metaphor. The entire set of paintings places these figures in a kind of isolation, in a very spare, very abstract space. He's created this very uncomfortable, very tense, kind of relationship. DR. BETH HARRIS: On the other hand, both panels on either side, although they are flat, they have some sense of dimension by the diagonal line that's in front of either one and yet in the central panel, which is the most abstract, in terms of the space, because they don't have that diagonal line. We can't locate depth at all. It's almost as though the middle space, where those two figures are joined, perhaps where he's rejoined with his lover in some space beyond the physical, we had the most abstracted space. Whereas in the two other panels, as you've said, there's that conceptual, transcendent, flat space that's in conflict, somehow with the organic three-dimensional shapes of the figures. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: DR. BETH HARRIS: But I also read something else into that diagonal on the right and left panels. Although these are hung on a flat wall, these are hinged paintings, and they actually come out at an angle towards us slightly, referencing that bottom angle. DR. BETH HARRIS: DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: The way that a traditional triptych would unfold. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: DR. BETH HARRIS: Yes, exactly. There was tremendous energy being expended in the brush strokes. I see it in the composition, and I see it in the tension between the figures, sexual or violent, or both. DR. BETH HARRIS: Yeah, and you have in fact, that big, broad white brush stroke. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Now that's interesting, in another sense, because of course, Bacon, although he's working in Britain, is very much of the generation of the Abstract Expressionist. Bacon, quite distinctly, and very much unlike the Americans, is maintaining the privacy of the figure. DR. BETH HARRIS: These are very hard-edged abstract shapes, yet one easily recalls Abstract Expressionism. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: They're both responding to a similar kind of existential issues that have to do with the isolation of the figure, the meaning of the figure. DR. BETH HARRIS: These paintings are difficult to understand and to read. They take time to sort of grapple with. On the other hand, still having the presence of something that one can recognize, especially the human figure, does give us a handle. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: There's something really extraordinary about taking the human figure, painting it so beautifully, but then attacking it, cutting into it, melting it away, making it so grotesque. I think that's what makes these paintings so tough. [MUSIC PLAYING]