Screams in the dark
Shock value … Study for a Figure at the Base of a Crucifixion (1943-44).
Francis Bacon used to tell interviewers he ''began'' with Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. He painted this work when he was 35 and, even though he had taken up painting about 14 years earlier, he felt it was the first work that showed his real mettle. It became a benchmark for everything that followed.
Today, the work is in the permanent collection of Tate Britain in London, where it has pride of place as a landmark of 20th-century art.
When Bacon's works go on display at the Art Gallery of NSW next month, an important, full-scale study related to this first opus will be among them.
Another work in the show, Crucifixion, relates to the same theme. In 1933, Bacon had the extraordinary luck to have this work reproduced in Art Now, a book by leading critic Herbert Read. The international scope of Read's survey made the book - for a while - definitive, but Bacon was not able to capitalise on the renown it might have brought him.
Three Studies was his first work to make use of the triptych format - he went on to paint an estimated 28 triptychs during the next 4½ decades. It was also the first to display the visceral impact and shock value typical of his mature work.
British art historian John Rothenstein saw Three Studies when it was first shown in London in a mixed exhibition of British art, including works by worthies such as Henry Moore and Matthew Smith. Bacon upstaged them all and was the sensation of the show.
''It was the object of ridicule, astonishment and outright horror and, by a very few, the object of cautious admiration,'' Rothenstein later recalled.
The exhibition took place in April 1945, a month before World War II drew to a close. Bacon's ''monstrous vision of pain and distress'', with its ''cold fury'', ''menace'' and ''hysterical anguish'' (terms observers have applied to Bacon's works in general) could not have been more topical, more resonant and more real.
Bacon's biographer, Michael Peppiatt, has suggested the war years acted as a goad for the artist, disinhibiting him of self-doubt and compelling him to confront his psychological demons.
Likewise, French art critic Andre Fermigier categorised Bacon as ''a man of 1945, a man from an era when everything lay in ruins, an era when we all learnt of crimes and horrors the cruellest imagination would have been at a loss to invent.'' To say Bacon is a kind of modern Goya is perfectly justifiable. Goya's predilection for unpalatable, confrontational imagery, his lack of concern for patrons and commissions, his heedlessness of genteel taste, established a precedent for modern artists such as Cezanne, van Gogh, Picasso and Bacon.
As with Goya's visionary images, Bacon's pictures invite interpretation but bedevil final explanation. Enigma is their lifeblood. The evocation of global violence provided a protective covering that allowed him to lay bare his psychic wounds - something he had never before been able to allude to in his art - and it caused an instantaneous ratcheting up of the intensity of his imagery. Although Bacon took care to protect his works from any undue, reductive biographical or psychoanalytic readings, his most sensitive commentators have been acutely aware of the personal content underlying his paintings: his obsessive circling around ideas and images that are never completely divulged.
Bacon was, fundamentally, a very damaged human being, but it was his luck - or his genius - to turn private aggravations into forms and symbols that could jolt observers into different ways of perceiving and feeling. Bacon's early life had been traumatically marked by disgrace and banishment from the parental home at the age of 16. His skimpy education, lack of aptitude for practical employment and consciousness of being a sexual outlaw impelled him to drift and seek pleasure where he could.
He drifted through the Sodom and Gomorrah of 1920s Berlin and through the demi-monde of Paris, trying his hand at a range of menial jobs, becoming adept at rent dodging, petty theft and prostitution. The series of paintings he began in 1956, based on van Gogh's self-portrait The Painter on his Way to Work, surely draws some of its harrowing power from Bacon's experience as a vagabond, exile and outcast. In his own view, however, the potency and longevity of images was a result of their resistance to ''meaning'', their refusal to ''become a story''. If an image couldn't be explained in words, it would continue to act upon viewers, fascinating, stirring and haunting them.
As a lifelong reader of poets and playwrights (Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Yeats and, especially, T.S. Eliot were his writers of choice), Bacon's imagery echoes many of their lines and images.
''The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera'' (from Eliot's Four Quartets) echoes through Three Studies. The atmospheres of sexual menace and intrigue, as well as the hysterical episodes in Eliot's early poems and plays, became quintessential to Bacon.
The creatures he painted in Three Studies were intended to evoke the furies in Aeschylus's play The Oresteia.
Those vengeful spirits who were ''daughters of the night'' sprang from the blood of Ouranos's severed genitals when he was castrated by his son, the Titan Kronos. The furies are symbolic adjuncts to the almighty castration complex that emerges over and over again in Bacon's work, to the accompaniment of an infinite regress of painted screams.
''If Bacon found his own voice in the panels of Three Studies,'' Peppiatt wrote, ''then it is in the unsilenceable scream of his open-mouthed monster on the right. But the basic questions continue to return after decades of attempted interpretation. What does this howl mean? What gives the whole triptych its power as an emblem of brute suffering, ravening greed and generalised evil?'' All this remains strong medicine to this day.
Francis Bacon: Five Decades is at the Art Gallery of NSW from November 17 until February 24.
Terence Maloon is a former curator for the AGNSW.