"Since I was a little boy I was obsessed with Velazquez's Christ in the Prado Museum; with his face hidden behind the flamenco dancer's black hair, his bullfighter's feet, and his frozen marionette's flesh transformed into Adonis. (In my 'Crucifixions') I have tried to take this image and to shake it, and fill it with a gust of protest" (Saura quoted in Antonio Saura, exh. cat., Fundació Joan Miró, 1980, p. 49).
Saura's Crucifixión paintings are among the most important and enduring themes in the artist's entire oeuvre. Adopted for the first time in 1957, Saura constantly developed the theme throughout his career. The Crucifixiøns of the late 1950s are distinguished by the energy and violence of their expression. In these works pain is expressed through contortions, screams, desolation, and the mutilation of arms, fingers, and hands. These images are like Bacon's screaming popes, an existential scream of anguish that Saura has described, using complex and expressive language, as a series of convulsed images. "The movement of flesh and emaciated gesticulation, the rictus of the congealed instant, gaping wounds in the chest, the tumefaction of the caressed knees, the blackness of the embraced feet, the crowns of thorns driven into the skull" (Saura quoted in Antonio Saura, exh. cat., Museo de Arte Moderna, Lugano, 1994, p. 44).
Triptico (Crucifixión) of 1959 is one of the earliest of these remarkable and important triptychs. Using violent gestural splashes of paint, Saura has concentrated the ocmposition on the gnarled and twisted human features of the central panel. The other parts of the tortured and seemingly dismembered body are isolated in the two flanking panels, and are highlighted against the flat and, what the artist calls, "absolute black of Velazquez's background" so that "the intrusive tension of the flesh stands out in the dark night" (ibid., p. 48).
This exclusive use of black and white in Saura's pre-1960 compositions is an important link with the past, and marks his debt to perhaps the first "modern" painter, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes. Saura has stressed the significance of this heritage by referring to Goya's oeuvre as being like a "manifesto" for modern artists. "We have a fundamental aspect of art history contained in the Prado Museum," he has asserted. "Dispersed in its bowels, like three manifestos, three theoretical concepts and three individual ruptures: the horizontal paintings of Rubens, the vertical paintings of El Greco, and the black paintings on the walls of Goya's house, La Quinta del Sordo. The "universe" that the baroque works of these artists represent "assimilates and metamorphoses the elements which make up the image." Saura also believes their 'obscene beauty' does not come from what they represent but from the general impulse that is behind them" (Saura quoted in ibid., p. 32).
Using the image of the Crucifixion and the traditional and religious format of the triptych, Saura has responded to this baroque tradition by modernising it and filling it with a new meaning. Saura's Crucifixións transform their subject into a social statement and a cry of protest. They do not represent the death and resurrection of God but the physical torture of a man and the psychological tragedy of what the artist called a "man in solitude," an outcast of society, or the artist working alone. The "man in solitude" is the central character of Triptico (Crucifixión), a feature that allows this dramatic work to be seen on one level as a psychological self-portrait.
Saura felt a strong moral duty to express his emotional and ideological opposition to the Spanish government through his art. Taking voluntary exile in Paris in 1953, he became involved in direct political activity against the violent and repressive dictatorship of the Franco regime in 1959. Executed in this same year, Triptico (Crucifixión) presents in stark black and white contrast an extraordinarily convulsed image of pain and torture. In a time of the suppression of freedom of thought and expression, Saura adopted the theme of the Crucifixion because he strongly believed that it was, "like Goya's fusilado with his hands raised and his white shirt (from Los fusilamientos del 2 de Mayo), or the mother from Picasso's Guernica," an image that "could be a tragic symbol of our time" (Saura quoted in Antonio Saura, 1980, p. 50).
In the exhibition catalogue for his 1980 retrospective in Madrid and Barcelona, Saura organised all the themes of this work into a table that allotted each one with both a positive and negative value. The value he gave to his Crucifixións was positive in the case of the victim and negative in terms of the torturer. In riptico (Crucifixión), this duality is reflected by Saura's stark use of black and white paint to emphasise the cold nature of the struggle and the clear-cut political division of Spain during this troubled period in its history. With the present work representing aspects of both torture and of a crucified and partially dismembered body, it is a powerful painterly expression of anguish that reflects Saura's personal feelings of oppression, estrangement, and the trauma of his homeland.