‘The impressive Two Men Working in a Field stands alone in Francis Bacon’s oeuvre. Coupled figures are prominent in his iconography, but the rhythmic pairing of the configuration of the “Two Men” is unique … the striking field pattern in Two Men Working in a Field was unprecedented and was never repeated’ (M. Harrison, 2007).
‘The imagery [Bacon] drew upon and synthesised in Two Men Working in a Field … appears to have been exceptional in both its range and its disparateness’ (M. Harrison, 2007).
‘Painting, in short, discovers the material reality of bodies with its line-color systems and its polyvalent organ, the eye. “Our eye”, said Gauguin, “insatiable and in heat”. The adventure of painting is that the eye alone can attend to material existence or material presence.’ (G. Deleuze, 1981, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, London 2005, p. 39).
‘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 Museum of Contemporary Art)’ (M. Harrison, 2007).
‘The lot of man is ceaseless labour’ (T. S. Eliot, ‘Choruses from The Rock’, 1934).
‘Out of the meaningless practical shapes of all that is living or lifeless
Joined with the artist’s eye, new life, new form, new colour.
Out of the sea of sound the life of music,
Out of the slimy mud of words, out of the sleet and hail of verbal imprecisions,
Approximate thoughts and feelings, words that have taken the place of thoughts and feelings,
There spring the perfect order of speech, and the beauty of incantation’
(T. S. Eliot, ‘Choruses from The Rock’, 1934).
‘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’ (M. Harrison, 2007).
With its vast ocular lens suspended within a deep blue spatial void, Francis Bacon’s Two Men Working in a Field unveils an extraordinary parable for the cultivation of the eye. Filtered through an other-worldly vision of rural labour, its two naked protagonists toil in unison, ploughing a furrowed terrain of flecked, impastoed and scumbled paint. Yet in the strange, airless vacuum of Bacon’s canvas, their travail becomes a striking metaphor for the marks, abrasions and impressions sown by the flood of images that filtered through his vision and saturated his consciousness. A rare landscape born of several pieces of unprecedented and never-repeated source imagery, this singular work was painted in 1971 for the artist’s landmark retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris that year. Created within the throes of Bacon’s increasingly tortured relationship with George Dyer – his mercurial muse and lover, who committed suicide just hours before the exhibition’s opening – Two Men Working in a Field shows the artist at his most visceral. A carnal undercurrent pulses behind its prosaic exterior, expounding the connection between the eye and the flesh that lay at the heart of his practice. Riddled with watery rivulets - tears, membranes, fluids - Bacon’s elliptical field becomes a twitching optical vortex. It is the eye that runs as a dark, erotic metaphor throughout Georges Bataille’s L’histoire de l’oeil; it is the eye that is violently blinded in Salvador Dali’s and Luis Buñuel’s film Un chien andalou. These were the images that nurtured Bacon’s imagination as a young man in 1920s Paris; here, over forty years later, they had been brought full circle, back to the city that had cultivated his own eye. It was an eye that, just months after this work was painted, would be forced to confront the pain and tragedy of loss: the denouement of a tempestuous eight-year love affair driven by lust and anguish in equal measure. The twin, semi-Tiresian figures would be wrenched apart, cut and spliced into the mournful black triptychs that followed Dyer’s death. Formerly held in the prestigious collection of Elaine and Melvin Merians, Two Men Working in a Field is an outstanding, richly allusive work that, according to Martin Harrison, ‘stands alone in Francis Bacon’s oeuvre’ (M. Harrison, 2007).
In spite of his deteriorating relationship with Dyer, the year 1971 was nonetheless a moment of climactic professional triumph. As the first British artist – and, excepting Picasso, the only living painter – to be granted a major retrospective at the Grand Palais, Bacon had reached the top of his game. Shortly before the opening of the exhibition, he was named the world’s leading artist in a poll conducted by the French art review journal Connaissance des Arts. Two Men Working in a Field was one of the most recently-completed works included in the retrospective, and it is therefore no surprise that it was one of the most visually daring. The relationship between optics and haptics had always been the driving force within Bacon’s practice, and metaphors of vision were central to his thinking. Yet never was the shape of the eye so prominent as it is in the ovular plot that orbits the centre of the present work. Bacon had famously lacerated his own eye in a fight with his former lover Peter Lacy, who, in a fit of alcohol-fuelled rage, had thrown the artist through a glass window. It is perhaps ironic, then, that Un chien andalou - first shown in Paris in 1929 - had been one of his most important early influences. ‘I was also very influenced by the films of Buñuel’, he later explained, ‘especially the early ones because I think that Buñuel had a remarkable precision of imagery ... they certainly have affected my whole attitude to visual things – in the acuteness of the visual image which you’ve got to make’ (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1975, p. 199).
At the time of its French première, Bacon had been living in Paris for two years. Surrealism was on the rise, and the symbol of the eye loomed large in the lexicon of the movement’s European proponents. Bataille – whose journal Documents was greatly admired by Bacon – had just published the novella L’histoire de l’oeil, a highly-charged sexual fantasy in which the eye became an almost hallucinogenic symbol for corporeal fetishisation. As Roland Barthes later described in his seminal analysis of the book, its globular form and aqueous membrane spawn two interlocking metaphorical strands that informs the carnal imagery of Bataille’s vignettes. These two schema are united in Bacon’s waterlogged field: ribbons of liquid become cathartically-released ocular fluid. As they irrigate the soil, they mimic the filtration of images that coursed throughout Bacon’s vast mental archive, channelled through his nervous system onto the canvas.
Like the rectilinear space frames that house Bacon’s screaming figures, the elliptical vortex became one of the artist’s most pertinent sites of enquiry - a profound means of spotlighting and isolating psychological tension. In Two Men Working in a Field, writes Gilles Deleuze, ‘the painting is composed like a circus ring, a kind of amphitheatre as “place”’ (G. Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, 1981, London 2005, p. 1). Harrison has identified a number of potential sources of inspiration for this structure, including the circular barriers around casino roulette tables, the swirling vortexes of Soutine’s landscapes, Max Ernst’s appropriation of the zoopraxiscope and the photographs of operating theatres found in Bacon’s prized medical textbooks (M. Harrison, In Camera: Francis Bacon. Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, London 2005, pp. 118-121). In addition, Bacon was entranced by the delimited areas of sporting arenas, and his circular spaces may be seen to relate particularly to the high-octane, blood-fuelled energy of the corrida, which first appeared in his works in 1969. The Bataillen overtones of the bullfight are particularly pertinent in relation to the present painting, particularly since Bacon’s two versions of Study for bullfight No. 1 were also included in the Grand Palais retrospective. At the same time, however, the artist has also acknowledged that his predilection for the structure was informed by the memory of the ‘beautifully curved rooms’ at the back of his grandmother’s house in Farmleigh. These ‘oedipal spaces’, as Harrison names them, ‘were sites for the re-enactment of infantile traumas … As a child [Bacon] was a hidden witness to what seemed to him a brutal sex act. Recounting this story as an adult he was asked if he was not traumatized by the episode, but replied, “On the contrary. It was the making of me”’ (M. Harrison, In Camera: Francis Bacon. Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, London 2005, pp. 113). If the two figures recall jockeys, or stable boys with their rakes, it is perhaps noteworthy that Bacon’s own first sexual encounters had allegedly taken place at the Kildare racecourses he frequented in his youth.
‘Coupled figures are prominent in [Bacon’s] iconography, but the rhythmic pairing of the configuration of the “Two Men” is unique’, writes Harrison (M. Harrison, 2007). Their near-sculptural musculature not only recalls Bacon’s enduring fascination with the work of Michelangelo, but, perhaps more pertinently, the time-lapse motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge. Seen in this light, the twin figures take on a new association, bringing to mind the copulating figures that Bacon derived from Muybridge’s studies of men wrestling. As Harrison has written, ‘The protagonists in this impressive painting appear to be “muckraking”, and as Bunyan’s Interpreter in Pilgrim’s Progress informed Christiana, the Muckraker who “could look no way but downwards” was demonstrating “his carnal mind”’ (M. Harrison, In Camera: Francis Bacon. Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, London 2005, p. 121). Ernst Van Alphen has interpreted Bacon’s tendency towards duplication as expressing a ‘loss of selfhood’, relating them to the artist’s conflicted homosexual identity (E. Van Alphen, Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self, Cambridge MA 1993). For Bacon, who passionate relationship with Dyer had reached a point of fracture, the figures take on a new level of erotic charge. Indeed, Harrison explicitly relates them to the carnal myth of Leda and the Swan: the assault of Leda by Zeus who, disguised as a swan, spawned the ‘Dioscuri’ twins Castor and Pollux. As Harrison writes, ‘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’ (M. Harrison, 2007). The eggs from which Castor and Pollux were hatched were said to have left their remains in the white skull caps alluded to in the present work. It is interesting to note the egg is one of Bataille’s most potent metaphoric substitutions for the eye - a dualism that enhances the work’s connection to L’histoire de l’oeil.
As Harrison points out, Bacon would almost certainly have known Joseph Nollekens’ marble copy of the decisive extant representation of Castor and Pollux - the standing ‘San Ildefonso Group’ (1st century A.D.). Located in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London – just minutes from Bacon’s studio in Reece Mews - it was there that, as David Sylvester suggests, Bacon would also have encountered Raphael’s cartoon for Miraculous Draft of Fishes, 1513-14 - a source which Sylvester believes relates closely to the two figures (D. Sylvester, 2001, reproduced at http://www.francis-bacon.com/world/?c=David-Sylvester [accessed 21 April 2015]). Yet, as Harrison elaborates, the depth of Bacon’s visual archive extends further still: ‘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’ (M. Harrison, 2007).
In addition, Two Men Working in a Field represents Bacon’s only use of a particular image found in C. E. Millar and L. M. Turk’s 1943 volume Fundamentals of Soil Science. Bacon discovered this book in 1967 whilst staying at his sister’s farm in Zimbabwe, and was entranced by the country’s field patterns and the deeply saturated ochre soil. As Harrison writes, ‘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’ (M. Harrison, 2007). In its subject matter, the work may be seen to evoke the tradition of agricultural landscape painting, from the works of Jean-François Millet to Vincent van Gogh’s recapitulation of the French master. In the rich tactile surface of Two Men Working in a Field, Bacon aligns himself with van Gogh’s visions of rural living, in which ritual and labour function as a kind of existential lifeblood, mirrored in the artist’s intensely-worked application of paint.
Ultimately, however, the field is violently dislocated from any bucolic, earthbound associations. Statically poised within the centre of the composition, it is bracketed by two flat planes of colour: unyielding, uninhabited spaces devoid of wind, rain or sunlight. Bacon’s rich arable plot is thus suspended within a different kind of field: no fertile ground but a futile abyss, an impenetrable spatial void. With its rigid planes of colour and geometrical divisions, the work takes on an abstract quality that recalls Bacon’s studio settings. As Harrison writes, ‘Two Men Working in a Field appears, irrespective of its title, to be set in a constricted interior, the abrupt demarcation between the “field” and background eliminating realistic spatial recession – a plein-air camera’ (M. Harrison, In Camera: Francis Bacon. Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, London 2005, p. 121). In a later description of a similar work - Landscape, 1978 - Bacon describes the impact of ‘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’ (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1975, p. 162). It is a statement that speaks directly to the present work. Airless and lifeless, stripped of the elemental forces of nature, the painting brings to the fore the ‘inside-outside’ dialogue that runs like a uniting thread throughout Bacon’s oeuvre. As with so much of the artist’s work, we are unsure whether the physical spaces delineated by Bacon are in fact a projection of his own mental architecture; labouring within a seemingly limitless vacuum, the two figures may be seen to comment not only on the lot of the artist, but on the human condition in its broadest sense.