Painted in 1961, Two Figures is filled with the signature torment that haunts Bacon's greatest pictures. The figures of the title appear to be embroiled in some impossible and endless struggle. Their representation as one mass in the canvas, within the anonymous surroundings of a featureless room, renders them barely distinguishable. They appear to be two parts of one entity, a yin and a yang locked in battle. Some of the body parts and flesh-colored elements could belong to either. This is a tormented, psychotic and infernal struggle between two facets of the same element, a battle for life. The forms of these figures appear to be defining themselves through their fight and their exertions; like Michelangelo's slave sculptures in the Accademia in Florence, they are fighting their surroundings, writhing their way into flesh, struggling to become incarnate.
In a sense, this appears to be a dark reimagining of the episode in which Peter Pan meets Wendy, seeking his shadow from which he was separated. But where Peter Pan has Wendy to reattach the fairly compliant shadow, here there appears to be a form struggling to come into existence, to break through the veil and enter our world. The fact that it is presented as black with the flesh tones of the nearer figure thereby thrown into relief, enhances this shadow concept, and yet the positions of the Two Figures are completely different from each other, insisting just enough on their status as discrete entities.
The theme of fighting and wrestling recurs throughout Bacon's work. Sometimes his source images came from the stop-motion photography of Eadweard Muybridge, and indeed, there is something about the Two Figures that speaks of different positions being taken by the same figure. There is a sense of continuity, a flow of motion that increases the sense that these two entities are linked at the most fundamental levels. Pugilism fascinated Bacon, and he culled images from all manner of sources in order to focus his inspiration: 'I don't only look at Muybridge photographs of the figure. I look all the time at photographs in magazines of footballers and boxers and all that kind of thing--especially boxers' (Bacon, quoted in David Sylvester, Looking back at Francis Bacon, London, 2000, p.60). This interest in violence is central to all of Bacon's most famous works. It is not only in the explicit fighting that features in some of his paintings that we see it, but even in the distortions and mutilations exacted upon his subjects.
Violence formed a constant backdrop to Bacon's life, be it in childhood beatings, the threat of terrorism against the Anglo-Irish community of which his family was such a prominent part, or even the First and Second World Wars. During the Second, Bacon even painted in a studio in Cromwell Place whose roof had been destroyed by bombing. In his personal life too, violence played a constant role, not least in his turbulent relationship with his lover Peter Lacy, who would die the year after Two Figures was painted:
"I have been accustomed to always living through forms of violence--which may or may not have an effect upon one, but I think probably does. But this violence of my life, the violence which I've lived amongst, I think it's different to the violence in painting. When talking about the violence of paint, it's nothing to do with the violence of war. It's to do with an attempt to remake the violence of reality itself" (Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, New York, 1990, p.81).
This distinction between the violence experienced and the darker, more elemental violence of the human experience is telling. Bacon sought to create an artform that was a jolt to the system. He wanted art to pass 'from the eye to the stomach without going through the brain' (Bacon, quoted in F. Giacobetti, 'Exclusive Interview with Francis Bacon: I painted to be loved', The Art Newspaper, June 2003).
His paintings evoke an uneasiness in the viewer that in itself prompts vivid realizations about life. The strange, bared teeth of the skull-like face that appears underneath a fleshy membrane in the front of Two Figures tells of pain and torment. This is not just the pain of fighting, but the pain of living, the greatest struggle of all. This picture is racked with a potent existential angst, and the image of these distorted figures fighting in the centre is a nightmarish invocation of the human scream, 'The whole coagulation of pain, despair...' (quoted in D. Farson, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, London, 1994, p.106).
The idea of subjecting the world to intense violence in order to reveal some true, underlying essence or meaning was one that Bacon shared, to an extent, with his friend William S. Burroughs, whom he saw a great deal in Tangiers during this period. In a sense, the Cut-Up technique that Burroughs favored, taking words out of their original context and rearranging them to bring about some new and more intense truth, was a parallel development to the smears and distortions of Bacon's paintings which were often achieved by harnessing chance in his oils. He made the most of the fortuitous splashes of paint or turpentine that would suddenly reveal new ways of proceeding:
'One possibly gets better at manipulating the marks that have been made by chance, which are the marks that one made quite outside reason. As one conditions oneself by time and by working to what happens, one becomes more alive to what the accident has proposed for one. And, in my case, I feel that anything I've ever liked at all has been the result of an accident on which I have been able to work. Because it has given me a disorientated vision of a fact I was attempting to trap. And I could then begin to elaborate, and try and make something out of a thing which was non-illustrational' (Bacon, 1966, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, New York, 1990, p.53).
By 1961, when Two Figures was painted, Bacon's idiosyncratic paintings were gaining more and more recognition. He had already had one small retrospective at Nottingham University, but it was this year that the idea of a retrospective at the Tate Gallery in London began to take form. The show, which would take place the following year and in which Two Figures was exhibited, was arguably the most important exhibition of Bacon's work to take place during his lifetime. It was the first large-scale recognition of his central importance to Modern art, both in Britain and internationally, and sealed his fame and prominence in the art firmament. Its presence on Bacon's horizon in 1961 reflected a general although short-lived sense of good fortune and moving forward, for it was also that year that he began renting the famous studio in 7 Reece Mews which, despite the coming and going of other homes and studios in other parts of London and the world, would remain a constant until his death.