With its references to Woodrow Wilson and Leon Trotsky, this masterpiece encapsulates Bacon’s contemplation of pain, isolation and mortality in the face of history’s ruthless advance
When the Tate Gallery celebrated Francis Bacon (1909-1992) with a second retrospective in 1985, its director at the time, Sir Alan Bowness, declared him ‘the greatest living painter’.
By then in his seventies, Bacon had been exploring the raw sensation of the human experience for more than 40 years. ‘I feel ever so strongly that an artist must be nourished by his passions and his despairs,’ he told art critic John Gruen in 1991. ‘These things alter an artist, whether for the good or the better or the worse.’
The following year, at the height of his fame, Bacon painted Triptych 1986-7, three monumental canvases that conflate public and private histories in his rarest and most celebrated format.
The suited figure in the left-hand panel is based on a press image of the US President Woodrow Wilson leaving the Quai d’Orsay during the Treaty of Versailles negotiations in 1919.
The right-hand panel is an over-scaled depiction of Leon Trotsky’s cloth-covered recording equipment, inspired by a photograph of his study taken soon after his assassination in Mexico City in August 1940. A single lamp illuminates the blood-stained sheet, a metaphor perhaps for the fleeting nature of life.
In the centre panel sits a figure resembling Bacon’s then-partner, John Edwards. His pose is reminiscent of the artist’s former lover, George Dyer, in the haunting eulogy Triptych August 1972, one of a series of ‘Black Triptychs’ that Bacon painted following Dyer’s suicide in 1971. With his naked body dissolving and his gaze fixed on the bloodied white sheet, he attempts to clasp the incongruous pair of cricket pads he is wearing, as if desperately trying to remain in the present.
The images, though half-connected by the strip of pavement, remain self-contained, the solitude of the figures heightened by the dark, canvas-like voids behind them.
‘It is an extraordinary meditation on the passage of time,’ says Katharine Arnold, head of Post-War and Contemporary Art Europe at Christie’s in London. ‘In the grand tapestries of life, death, love, art and war, Bacon seems to suggest that we are all ultimately alone.’
Between 1962 and 1991, Bacon produced just 28 large-scale triptychs, each measuring 78 x 58 inches (198 x 147.5 cm), nearly half of which reside in museums worldwide.
Triptych 1986-7, one of few such Bacon triptychs to remain in private hands, will be offered at auction for the first time on 1 March 2022 in Christie’s 20th/21st Century: London Evening Sale, a key auction within the 20/21 Shanghai to London sale series.
‘We’re thrilled to present the painting as a leading highlight of our London Evening Sale,’ says Arnold. ‘The quality and power of such a masterpiece are sure to appeal to our global collector base.’
Bacon began his career painting crucifixions, papal portraits and other instances of mortal reckoning, finding fame in the mid 1940s with his seminal Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), above, now held in Tate’s collection.
Chris Stephens, the former head of displays and lead curator of modern British art at Tate Britain, has called the painting ‘a turning point in the history of British art. It’s a work that was seen immediately as a brutally frank and horrifically pessimistic response to the Second World War.’
As the 1950s progressed, Bacon’s own life began to infiltrate his work, with portraits of friends and lovers taking centre stage. Famously, however, he did not paint them from life, explaining that ‘even in the case of friends who will come and pose, I’ve had photographs taken for portraits because I very much prefer working from the photographs than from them’.
Working from secondary imagery also allowed him, he said, to engage with the impulses of the ‘nervous system’. In his ferocious contemplation of the human condition, he sought to reveal the raw animal spirit beneath, or what he called ‘the pulsations of a person’.
By the time he painted Triptych 1986-7, Bacon had lived through almost the full gamut of the 20th century, experiencing personal triumph and turmoil in extreme measures. While basking in the extraordinary success of his Tate retrospective, he was still haunted by Dyer’s tragic death, and had spent much of the previous decade in painterly confrontation with his own mortality. It is perhaps no coincidence that the source images in Triptych 1986-7 span nearly the entire length of Bacon’s life.
‘The large-scale triptych format offered Bacon the opportunity to trace his life back through the historic events of the 20th century, instilling the canvases with his lived experiences, his triumphs and his traumas,’ says Arnold.
The historic implications of the iconography have come to resonate on many levels, too. The juxtaposition of Wilson and Trotsky has been interpreted by some as a recapitulation of Bacon’s intention to ‘paint the history of Europe in my lifetime’, and by others as an allusion to the American passport that was given to Trotsky in 1917, enabling him to travel from New York and re-enter Russia.
Then there’s the plinth on which Edwards sits. Propped open by an extended chair leg, it resembles a large reference book. Could this be what the Bacon scholar Martin Harrison calls the artist’s ‘sardonic review of the failings of a century’?
The year after Triptych 1986-7 was painted, it was one of 23 works by Bacon to be shown at the New Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow — the first exhibition by a well-known artist from the West to take place in Soviet Russia. The Iron Curtain would fall the following year.
‘Though many viewers did not recognise the Trotsky photograph as a source,’ says Arnold, ‘the painting heralded a sea change in the country’s political attitudes towards art.’
Just over a decade later, the work made its American institutional debut in the Yale Center for British Art’s Bacon touring retrospective. As it travelled the country, its nod to US history would undoubtedly have resonated with American audiences.
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Most recently, the work was included in the Pompidou Centre’s acclaimed 2019-2020 exhibition Bacon en toutes lettres.
‘Bacon’s ability to translate the full gamut of our emotions is perfectly encapsulated in this masterpiece,’ says Arnold. ‘The fact that it has been so widely exhibited is testament to its stature within his oeuvre.’