TWO MEN WORKING IN A FIELD : AN ESSAY BY MARTIN HARRISON
The impressive Two Men Working in a Field stands alone in Francis the rhythmic pairing of the configuration of the 'Two Men' is unique: and although the cropped ellipse framing the 'Field' originated with Figures in a Landscape (1956-57; City Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham) and Study for Crouching Nude (1952; Detroit Institute of Arts), the striking field pattern in Two Men Working in a Field was unprecedented and was never repeated.
Bacon was evasive about the meanings of his paintings, saying he did not know what half of them meant himself and claiming to be indifferent to the interpretations anyone else might place on them. During his lifetime they were described in general terms, as manifestations of horror or existential despair perhaps, or admired for their skilful handling of paint, but notwithstanding his escalating reputation they were seldom discussed as individual paintings: the enigmatic Two Men Working in a Field has not hitherto received any extended study. Great works of art tend to embody indeterminacies that resist analysis, and Bacon's scheme appears to have placed a premium on this elusiveness: he said a principal factor in his admiration for Marcel Duchamp's Large Glass was 'that it's so impervious to interpretation.'1 This commentary aims to penetrate some of the mysteries of a major Bacon painting.
In what transpired to be his final lecture on Bacon, delivered in 2001, David Sylvester conjectured that the figures in Two Men Working in a Field were derived from Raphael's cartoon for the Miraculous Draught of Fishes (1513-14; Victoria & Albert Museum, London).2 Bacon's Reece Mews studio was just one hundred metres from the Museum, and as Sylvester pointed out, 'it is certain that Bacon used to walk around the corner… to look at the cartoons.' There can be little doubt that Sylvester was correct in his speculation, and indeed a further specific borrowing can be suggested in that the leg of Bacon's right-hand figure mimics the outstretched leg of St Andrew in Raphael's cartoon. Bacon frequently made decontextualised quotations from old masters at this time, and the right-hand figure is also comparable with the gravity-defying nude in the right-hand panel of his Triptych-Studies from the Human Body (1970), a reformulation of Caravaggio's Narcissus (1608-10; Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Palazzo Corsini, Rome). While his most direct inspirations as a painter may have stemmed from Van Gogh or Picasso, Bacon also inserted himself into the grand tradition of western art as its arch moderniser.
From 1953 until the end of his life Bacon's coupling or copulating men were based on Eadweard Muybridge's time-lapse sequence of photographs of men wrestling. But there were other doublings in his paintings, including androgynous or hermaphroditic fusions he took from alternative sources, including Michelangelo. Comparable in mood (and to some extent in form) with those in the present painting are the ape-headed men sleeping, possibly in post-coital exhaustion, in Triptych - Two Figures Lying on a Bed with Attendants (1968; Tehran
Bacon's duplications, together with his mirror images, are open to many interpretations, and whether they could be considered to be splitting or joining remains ambiguous. Ernst Van Alphen read them in the context of Djuna Barnes's Nightwood, and argued that the cloned or replicated figures signify the artist's 'loss of selfhood'.3 While Bacon's doubled representations were probably connected to his self-identity as a homosexual there is also a brotherly aspect to these pairings, and it may be relevant that both of Bacon's brothers had died young; in the segment of the Raphael cartoon proposed as Bacon's visual stimulus the fishermen were brothers, St John and St James, as were St Peter and St Andrew in the other boat. Bacon often remarked on his fraught relationship with his parents but following the death of his father in 1940 he gradually became reconciled with his mother: her death in April 1971 closely coincided with his painting Two Men Working in a Field.
In conceiving Two Men Working in a Field Bacon appears to have had in mind the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux of Roman mythology (Kastor and Polydeuces in Greek), inseparable twins who represented an ideal of brotherly love and whose souls were placed in heaven by their father, Zeus, as the brightest stars in the constellation Gemini. Patrons of gymnasts, among other activities, Castor was renowned as a horseman, Pollux as a pugilist: the hunched poses of Bacon's men are particularly reminiscent of the straining bodies of racing jockeys, boxers and cyclists. The decisive extant representation of Castor and Pollux, the standing 'San Ildefonso Group' (1st century A.D; Prado Museum, Madrid), is also to be found in the Victoria & Albert Museum, in the form of a marble copy by Joseph Nollekens (1767). Zeus had disguised himself as a swan in order to seduce Leda, who laid the eggs from which Castor and Pollux hatched: the skull-caps or pilos worn by the Dioscuri, as depicted on antique vase-paintings, were said to be remains of these eggs, and their form is emulated in Bacon's painting in the ovoid head-gear worn by the Two Men. The extraneous, truncated 'limbs' hanging from Bacon's figures resemble the necks of plucked swans, phallic avian morphology redolent of the swan in Leonardo da Vinci's painting of Leda, as well as the central fury in Bacon's Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944; Tate, London); Bacon was probably familiar with copies of the lost Leonardo painting, or with drawings such as Leonardo's Study for the Kneeling Leda (1503-07; Museum Beuymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam).
Bacon insisted on the impossibility of describing the genesis of his paintings. When pressed he tended to fall back on the explanation that they occurred by 'chance' or 'accident', a phenomenon he sometimes related to surrealist automatism. Doubtless certain passages in his paintings did evolve from impromptu painterly gestures; in Two Men Working in a Field, while the pink and grey flesh with its white highlights is confidently painted and well modulated, the scumbling of the impasted, mud-textured earth, and the bravura broad-brushed paint, dragged like excrement across the irrigation rivulets, may have been improvised on the spur of the moment: yet the relationship between the Men and the Field, however ostensibly irrational or unplanned, is unlikely to have been accidental except in the sense that it occurred to Bacon in a dream, or in his subconscious. I have suggested elsewhere that he may have been aware of the carnal Muckraker in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, although the rake he encountered most frequently was the croupier's.4 Of course the rake has a more quotidian agricultural function, and Bacon may have relished the incongruousness of nude males tilling a field. Bacon's rakes also resemble the forks used for mucking out stables, an item with which he would have been familiar from childhood in his father's racehorse stables in Ireland.
An avid reader, Bacon's most fertile literary inspirations came from Aeschylus and T.S. Eliot, whose evocations of the essential futility of existence resonated powerfully with him. In Eliot's The Hollow Men (1925) the endlessly circular motion of the repeated 'Here we go round the prickly pear' leads to 'This is the way the world ends', and in Choruses from 'The Rock'' (1934) workmen plough fields and 'The lot of man is ceaseless labour' - lines which were echoed in Bacon's sardonic pronouncements on the meaninglessness of life: similarly, the bruise visible on the arm of Bacon's left-hand figure recalls the 'sudden blow' with which W.B. Yeats dramatically opens the poem Leda and the Swan (1924).
It can only be surmised how Bacon conceived the ideas for his paintings: the reproductions which emerged from the chaotic image-bank that littered his studio floor possibly triggered the random juxtapositions of imagery, or he may have consulted the 'archive' seeking material that conformed to his preconceptions. He was ambivalent regarding his pictorial stimuli; conscious their identification might lead to reductive and over-literal interpretations of his paintings he suppressed all but a limited amount of information on the subject, and only intimate friends had access to his studio. His defensiveness was unnecessary - no amount of source detection could render Bacon's extraordinary paintings contrived - but it was not until after his death that it became practicable to pursue these investigations (the source of the Field, for example, was first published in Francis Bacon: A Retrospective, 1999). Hence the study of his pictorial 'sources' is still in its infancy, but the imagery he drew upon and synthesised in Two Men Working in a Field nonetheless appears to have been exceptional in both its range and its disparateness.
First, although the attitudes of the Two Men stemmed from Raphael's cartoon, it is quite possible they were informed by other images, such as Gustave Caillebotte's Raboteurs de parquet (1875; Musée d'Orsay, Paris) or Muybridge's sequence, 'Athlete. Rowing'. There is a strong likelihood that a drawing now attributed to Michelangelo, of two figures lifting Christ from the cross, was also at play in Two Men Working in a Field; Bacon owned a (well-marked) copy of Frederick Hartt's The Drawings of Michelangelo, published, significantly, in 1971.
Notwithstanding the correspondence with the pilos of the Dioscuri, and though it may be assumed Bacon was aware of affinities with Giorgio de Chirico's The Duo (1915; Museum of Modern Art, New York) or The Painter's Family (1926; Tate, London), the peaked caps worn by the men were derived from a plate in Ben Hogan: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf, 1957. Bacon had employed the graphic device of 'directional' arrows before Hogan's manual was published, but he claimed he first encountered them in a golfing book: Hogan's illustrations are at least likely to have suggested the arrows in Two Men Working in a Field. The graphic encircling of the hands which grip the rakes resembles the circular devices Bacon lifted from a much-used source, K.C. Clark's Positioning in Radiography (1939), but again in this instance the 'magnifying lenses' were based on one of Hogan's diagrams. And if Bacon commenced by painting the image of the men, as one would expect at this date, it is feasible that the elliptical field also proceeded from Hogan's diagrams of 'correct' and 'incorrect' arcs for the golfer's swing.
Bacon copied his field from a photograph of an agricultural irrigation system published in C.E. Millar and L.M. Turk's Fundamentals of Soil Science (1943). Bacon used to read this book while staying at the farm run by his sister Ianthe Knott and her husband in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) in 1967, where he was intrigued by the field patterns in the countryside and particularly by the ochre soil. In Two Men Working in a Field the richness of the soil is consummately translated in muddy-brown pigments flecked with red and yellow, the tactile painted earth in sharp contrast to the unreflecting matt lilac of the water in the rills. The caption to Bacon's source photograph refers to the 'corrugations' of the field, which points to his predilection for corrugated effects achieved by pressing corduroy and other materials into the wet paint and the vertical striations ('shuttering') he adapted from the pastels of Degas. Considering Bacon had, therefore, absorbed two manuals entitled 'Fundamentals', it might not have escaped him that 'fundament' was a colloquialism for buttocks.
The uniform azure 'sky' and deep cobalt foreground of Two Men Working in a Field flatten the picture plane so that the 'image' appears to be suspended in an arbitrary non-space. Bacon's intentions were adumbrated in his description of adding to Landscape (1978) 'that whole very intense surround of cobalt blue, which I felt made it look more completely artificial and unreal. I wanted that really strong blue to take all naturalism out of it'.5 Bacon's denial of spatial recession imposes an artificial perspective on the painting which intensifies the impact of the figures on display, raised up in a void, serene yet unsettling.
An ardent Francophile, many of whose literary as well as visual inspirations were grounded in French culture, Bacon gained the profoundest satisfaction from becoming the first British painter (and the only living painter with the exception of Picasso) to be granted a major retrospective exhibition at the Grand Palais, Paris, in 1971. He was given two years in which to prepare the exhibition, and as it drew closer he made two paintings which reprised earlier themes, Second Version of Painting 1946 (1971) (owing to its fragility the Museum of Modern Art was initially reluctant to lend the first version), and Study of Red Pope, 1962, second version (1971); he steadfastly maintained his affection for Painting 1946, and the new version of his 1962 Pope marked his final valediction to one of his most famous images. But given the importance he attached to the event Bacon was understandably anxious to be represented not only by atavistic paraphrases but by paintings which reflected his current preoccupations: two of the works he completed shortly before the October deadline were Lying Figure in a Mirror (1971) and Two Men Working in a Field, and the Paris exhibition was the occasion of their public debut.
The nude forms in both Lying Figure in a Mirror and the Two Men Working in a Field share a strongly sculptural aspect, and there are indications that Bacon considered them as linked and significant contributions to the Grand Palais retrospective. Formally, both paintings are radically simplified and immaculately pared down: the lying figure occupies an interior stripped of furniture or signs of domesticity and the two men are situated in a landscape devoid of reassuring rural attributes. In Two Men Working in a Field we appear to be observing a delving Adam or Millet's Gleaners projected, disconcerted, like foetal astronauts into the atomic age: eloquently painted, it forms a poignant if oblique and acerbic comment on the human condition.
1 David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1987, p. 179.
2 D. Sylvester, 'Francis Bacon and the Nude', in Francis Bacon: Studying Form, Faggionato Fine Art, London 2005, pp. 27-28.
3 Ernst von Alphen, Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self, London 1998,
4 Martin Harrison, In Camera: Francis Bacon, London 2005, p. 121.
5 David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1987, p. 162.