One of the finest and most mysterious of Bacon's paintings from the 1970s, Triptych 1974-77 is the last in the great series of triptychs that Bacon painted in response to the tragic death of his lover George Dyer in 1971. Painted between May and June of 1974, this great, strangely open, Baconian landscape was the last work the artist made before a major retrospective of his work held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1974. As the most recent and also one of the most elaborate and ambitious of the artist's paintings to be included in this exhibition, it formed the culmination of this important survey of Bacon's career from the late 1960s onwards and was immediately recognised as both a major landmark and also perhaps a turning point in Bacon's career. With its sequential images of dark ominous umbrellas and George Dyer writhing and struggling on a near deserted beach overlooked by the spectre of two terrifying monochrome Orwellian witnesses, the subject-matter and the open-air landscape setting of this work, appeared to mark this work as both a conclusion and, a new departure in Bacon's art.
The exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was the first major survey of the Bacon's work to take place since his major retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1971. It was on the eve of the opening of this exhibition that George Dyer had committed suicide alone in the Paris hotel room that he and Bacon shared. Many of Bacon's works since then - marking what David Sylvester maintained was the absolute 'peak period' of Bacon's entire career - had been preoccupied with Dyer and the tragic and ugly manner of his death. The last of Bacon's paintings to depict Dyer, Triptych 1974-77 also borrows several elements from the three earlier so-called 'Black' triptychs (In memory of George Dyer, 1971, Triptych August 1972 and Triptych May-June 1973). In each of these great three-panel paintings, including this 1974 triptych, the figure of Dyer is presented on the threshold of entering a dark void, either in the form of his hotel room, or silhouetted against a sequence of black rectangles. Also in each work, what Bacon described as the 'grip and twist' of Dyer's contorted naked body is accompanied by bulbous shadows that seem to encircle and haunt the male figure with an ever-present shroud of death - appearing in purple emanations from a corpse in some works and as black premonitions of horror in others. At the centre of Triptych 1974-77, what is presumably also Dyer's naked figure, appears bowed into a pose of submission or collapse. Partially entering the monolithic void of the central black rectangle, his purple shadow seems to pour rather than fall onto the sandy arena-like oval of the foreground in a liquid pool. Here in this lone tortured figure, the more overt Catholic horror and violence of Bacon's Crucifixions has given way to a similar but colder, more lonely, minimal and existentialist sense of personal agony and sacrifice.
At the bottom of this central panel on a pale blue, purple and black curved continuation of this arena-like circle, there originally appeared a bizarre prone and bespectacled slug-like figure, seemingly crawling or sliding along this modern rail like an animated piece of human slime. Based on one of Edweard Muybridge's photographs Man falling prone and aiming rifle, it is an extraordinary figure, whose wide circular eyes staring as if through binoculars confront the viewer with cold circumspection. Martin Harrison has suggested that the source for this visage may be an image of a stalking birdwatcher. Whatever the case, in 1977, Bacon decided that this figure interfered too much with the general homogeneity of the rest of the composition and carefully painted it out in a manner that would ensure that over time its ghost should not reappear under the surface of the painted sand. It was in this way that Triptych May-June 1974 became Triptych 1974-77.
In conversation with David Sylvester in 1975 Bacon explained how little of this triptych had been preconceived and how much of its eventual form took shape intuitively while he was in the process of making it. Indeed, the only preconceived notion that Bacon seems to have had for this work was the painting of the two large screens with heads set against a beach. These, Bacon said, were images he had long thought about painting. They appear in this work for the first time here and also again, together and perhaps more prominently in a 1976 triptych centred around a Prometheus-like image of a bird pecking at a corpse-like figure. Each of these Big Brother-like placards is based on a specific photographic source which Bacon had had in his possession for some time. The left-hand head is based on an altered image of Raymond Poincaré as it appears in Baron von Schrenck-Notzing's 1920 book Phenomena of Materialisation. The right-hand head derives from a distorted photograph of Sir Austen Chamberlain that appears in Amédée Ozenfant's Foundations of Modern Art, although as several critics have pointed out, in Triptych 1974-77, the figure bears a close resemblance to Bacon's close friend Michel Leiris and particularly to some of Bacon's portraits of Leiris which he also painted at this time.
These flat dimensionless, alienating and distorted black and white images of politicians set against bleak and imposing black rectangles seem to introduce a terrifying Orwellian sense of television and voyeurism into this otherwise more-or-less benign seascape. The fact that these powerful images also depict just the kind of butch and thuggish men in suits that sexually so appealed to Bacon's sado-masochistic tendencies no doubt enhanced, for him at least, this vertiginous sense of these figures as both frightening and fascinating icons of some kind of alien authority.
Set into an oval arena that recalls the bullfight scenes of Bacon's late 1960s paintings, these two austere images are flanked in the other two panels of the triptych by startlingly simple beach scenes whose peaceful, open, even minimal, landscapes run counter to the oppressive and enclosed atmosphere of the central panel. In response to the strong novelty of this composition within the canon of Bacon's work, David Sylvester suggested that this triptych 'surely contains Bacon's most complex homage to Degas'. Bacon's biographer Michael Peppiatt also observed that the artist had 'obtained a copy of the rare Lemosine catalogue raisonné of Degas' work (which) he kept it in the studio during this period, frequently leafing through (its) hundreds of images'. (Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London, 1996, pp. 267-8) In analyzing the painting Sylvester suggested that not only are the horses on the beach carefully drawn from Degas' riders on the sands and the arch of the back in the central panel's portrayal of Dyer reminiscent of the National Gallery's After the Bath, Woman drying Herself (c. 1888-92) but that the whole scene, in its subject matter and balance of composition, is a clear echo of Degas' Beach Scene c. 1876, also in the National Gallery. (David Sylvester, Looking back at Francis Bacon, London, 2000, p. 151)
In addition to this, in a faint echo of the strange tripartite sequence of twisted and naked humanoid forms writhing on pedestals in Bacon's 1944 Study for Three Figures at the base of a Crucifixion, the three figures in this triptych also employ a distortional combination of Degas and photography. Instead of the eyeless creatures precariously balanced on plinths, here twisted and muscular flesh is contorted around the tubular armatures of a beach chair. A deep sense of the human animal as specimen is established by these cold presentations of flesh on a slab and is reinforced particularly in the right-hand figure of Dyer with Bacon's use of a circular highlight to emphasise his ankle. This device, looking like a magnified area from a technical diagram is one Bacon often used and derives from another favoured photographic source, Kathleen Clara Clark's 1939 manual on Positioning in Radiography. While owing something to Degas, particularly the artist's pastels of naked women seen from the back, which Bacon so admired, the twisted flesh of these figures set against the bleak emptiness of the beach in fact recalls more forcefully another major spur of Bacon's pictorial imagination: the powerful paintings of bathers on the beach which Picasso painted in Dinard around 1929. Specifically, as Bacon told David Sylvester, it was the 'brutality of fact' that Picasso managed to achieve in his beach paintings by contrasting 'unillustrative' abstractions of flesh with 'illustrative' elements from the 'real' world, such as keys, balls and bathing huts, that he believed gave these paintings their extraordinary power. 'A curious curved image unlocking the door of a bathing cabin is far more real', Bacon maintained 'than if it was an illustration of a figure unlocking the door of a bathing cabin' (ed. David Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact , Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1990, p. 170) When asked by Sylvester, whether the 'reality' that such Picasso images had for him owed something to this 'contrast between the quite literal rendering of the key and the keyhole and the invented character of the figure?' Bacon replied, 'I think so. I think that it brings in not only the external reality but it brings in the unconscious reality of turning the key in the lock, which has subjective implications, and these are what gives a poignancy to the key being inserted into the lock. I believe that realism has to be reinvented.' (ibid, p. 172)
It was presumably in order to establish a similar sense of the 'brutality of fact' in this painting that led to a similar conjunction of distorted 'unillustrative' naked figures with the sharp, cold and 'illustrative' realism of the metallic armatures of beach chairs and shafts and spokes of umbrellas. The umbrellas themselves, which Bacon has said were an intuitively arrived-at addition, are no sunny beach parasols. With their black presence in the picture darkening the scene more like a pair of unwelcome crows, they are responsible for endowing this otherwise pleasant beach with a slightly sinister and metropolitan sense of melancholy.
These sombre shades are predominantly a formal device that, like Bacon's favoured use of abstract black rectangles as a background, enabled him to paint the profile of his figures in sharp silhouette. They also recall Bacon's earlier and more sinister use of umbrellas to crown and conceal the figures in his 1940s paintings, Figure Study II and the terrifying Painting of 1946. As in these works, the presence of the umbrellas in this painting endows the side panels of the triptych with a similar sense of claustrophobic menace and of things both seen and unseen, to that conveyed in the central panel. Contrasting Dyer's twisting figure with a dark background - their animate 'life' screaming at the nothingness of death, as Gilles Deleuze once observed - they bestow on this otherwise harmonious beach scene a more disturbing sense of psychological intensity and establish the beach as ultimately, but another landscape of confinement. Although seemingly open and unconfined, with the addition of the enclosing space of the 'illustrative' umbrellas, this seascape - delineated solely as a simple Barnett Newman-like abstract division of land, sea and sky - is revealed as an artificial realm - an abstract echo perhaps, of a particular state of mind. It is in this use of landscape to reinforce the psychological atmosphere of the painting that this work comes close to the psychological Expressionism of an artist like Edvard Munch and the tortured atmosphere he managed to achieve through similar means in a painting such as Melancholy of 1891.
Munch was another artist that Bacon admired, though he was always fiercely resistant to any association between himself and Expressionism. In his depiction, in Triptych 1974-77, of these muscular figures contorting themselves under and around umbrellas and kneeling before the darkness with its apparition-like witnesses, haunting vistas and lone isolated figures set against the vastness of an empty beach, Bacon generates a new, powerful and evocative landscape of existential loneliness. The two riders - an image that must have been strangely familiar to him from his childhood past - were, he said, put in as an afterthought to lend the painting depth. Though they too, also help to establish this new atmosphere of emptiness, isolation and psychological introspection set in the open air. It is only the sea, which Bacon once told Michael Peppiatt could convey a 'feeling of hope', that lends this work any sense of optimism and release from the overriding sense of existence as some kind of physical and psychological trap.
It was essentially this feature of this triptych - its rare landscape element with its pervasive atmosphere of sea, sky, wide space and open air - features hitherto almost unknown to Bacon's art - that essentially provoked critics at the Metropolitan exhibition to see it as a new departure in Bacon's art. After years of exorcising his deep sense of guilt and grief over Dyer's death in dark and oppressive paintings that marked a clear attempt to face up to and reveal the gruesome details of this tragedy with a cold unflinching eye, Bacon, appeared, in this final painting of the series, to be offering a broader, brighter and perhaps more epic view of the human condition - one rooted in his own personal experience but perhaps open to wider interpretation.
Michael Peppiatt has seen in this work a 'very graphic' manifestation of Bacon's claim that he was following 'a long call from antiquity' equating it with other of his paintings inspired by the Greek tragedies that he so loved. Above all an enigma, this triptych, with its sequence of lone, uncomfortable and mysterious figures confronting either the infinity of the horizon or, alternatively, the black nothingness of the void, recalls something of the metaphysical mystery and melancholy of Arnold Böcklin and Giorgio de Chirico's classical beach scenes. Like these artists, Bacon consciously avoided the depiction of any cohesive sense of narrative in his work seeking through the pictorial enigmas established by his work merely a re-enforcement of the shock and surprise that his ever-new and intuitively arrived-at images generated. Sceptical of all interpretation, Bacon told Sylvester, 'I'm just trying to make images as accurately off my nervous system as I can. I don't even know what half of them mean. I'm not saying anything. Whether one's saying anything for other people, I don't know. But I'm not really saying anything, because I'm probably much more concerned with the aesthetic qualities of a work than, perhaps (an artist like) Munch was.' (David Sylvester, Brutality of Fact op. cit, p. 82)
Even so, by responding to sensory glimpses of life prompted in him by secondary images such as paintings and photographs, Bacon was able to convey not just the extraordinary visceral vitality of life through the shock, surprise and immediacy of his paint, but also a more wide-ranging and profound sense of the kind of existential alienation felt by modern man than perhaps any other Twentieth Century painter. Like some of Max Beckmann's great allegorical beach scenes of departure and alienation painted in the repressive political climate of the 1930s, Bacon's subject matter is, ultimately, the odyssey of human life and the fundamental strangeness and awkwardness of man's existence.
As in many of his works, Bacon appears to have arrived at the final composition of Triptych 1974-77 entirely intuitively, following the pictorial demands of the painting as it proceeded. The dominant presence of the ominous placards in the central panel - reportedly his starting point - seem to have determined the squirm and twist of the central nude whilst, brushed directly over the raw canvas, the convoluted poses of the two flanking figures in turn seem to have determined the form of the apparatus (deck-chairs, umbrellas and newspapers) surrounding them. Incorporating pastel into his oils - another echo of Degas - and, the more modern graphic designer's technique of letraset transfers, which, broken and dislocated, convey a similar sense of a partial, time-worn and fragmented language to that of the broken and partial forms of Bacon's painterly imagery, the beach-scene seems to gain a strange, enigmatic atmosphere of timelessness.
The spontaneity, freshness and immediacy of life, is suggested by the sperm-like splash of white paint that Bacon has thrown across the surface of the canvas and over the right-hand figure of George Dyer. This, probably final act, and Bacon's greatest submission to chance in the painting, was made at the risk of ruining the painted figure that Bacon had done underneath and ultimately serves as a kind of signature for the triptych as a whole. Its fluid, forceful and unrepeatable line, unable to be made in any other way, stretches across Dyer's body from the umbrella to the beach charging the entire work with a final splash of vitality, action and immediacy - one manifestly drawn from the real temporal world of experience and from the living, breathing action of the artist.