Sunday, February 20, 2011
Hugh Davies on Francis Bacon's 'Triptych – May–June 1973'
Triptych – May–June 1973 is Bacon’s tribute to his friend and lover George Dyer. I saw this painting in his studio over a number of weeks as it was being painted. At the time I was doing my doctoral dissertation on Bacon’s work, so I got to meet and talk with him many times during the course of 1973. The studio was small, so he could do only one panel at a time, and would lean the others against the wall.
This is more or less his record of what happened. In 1971 Dyer committed suicide on the eve of Bacon’s retrospec-
tive at the Grand Palais in the Paris hotel in which they were staying. Dyer overdosed from pills and alcohol and, from the evidence in the bathroom, he vomited in the sink. He was found slumped on the toilet. They had two bed-
rooms with an adjoining bathroom, so Bacon then painted the panels from different perspectives. One is from Dyer’s side and the other is from Bacon's. He was very influenced by film as we know, and using the triptych format was a way of capturing time, but he wanted to avoid the obvious linear narrative, which is why he changed the order of events in the picture so you can’t read it from left to right. Dyer vomits in the right panel, and is dying, or dead, in a foetal position in the first panel.
When I was first writing about the work, Bacon was still alive, so we tended not to write about the fact that Dyer had committed suicide. People who have written subsequently have criticised me for making a literal interpretation of events, as they believed the artist was painting a metaphorical depiction of death. However, the reality is, I believe, that this painting is the most graphic narrative engagement he ever made. When I spoke to Bacon at the time, I might have expected him to be dispassionate about the event, and to talk about the painting in formal terms, but it was clear that he was deeply affected by it. The painting was, for him, a form of catharsis. He had said how extra-
ordinarily unfortunate and sad the incident was, but not in terms of “oh, I wish I’d come back to the room a few hours earlier”. I felt that he thought there was a sort of inevitability about Dyer’s death.
Bacon painted two earlier triptychs that also deal with the subject, which to me are works that lead up to Triptych – May-June 1973. The first is Triptych – In Memory of George Dyer (1971), which is like an honest diaristic memory of him. In the centre panel you see Dyer turning a key in the door – a reference to T S Eliot’s “I’ve heard the key turn in the lock”. But, for me, it’s Bacon envisaging George returning to the hotel room. In the second, Triptych – August 1972, he has painted a grey section roughly in the centre of each of the three canvases. It resembles a wrestling ring, a platform or a theatre stage. The figures sit on the “stage”, projecting out to the viewer, their forms highlighted by the black background. However, in Triptych – May-June 1973 the figures have crossed the threshold and into the darkness, which I think was a very conscious decision on his part to represent Dyer’s passage into death. As for the two arrows that he painted in the bottom section of both the left and right panels, he said that these additions gave the figures a specificity and formality that he likened to police photographs. He wanted to make the paintings seem more clinically distanced. He also told me that the source of these arrows – aside from police photographs – were sports books, and in particular a golfing book by Jack Nicklaus. The illustrations of Jack playing out of various pre-
dicaments were embellished with blocky red arrows indicating the direction of the club and intended ball flight.
In a similar fashion, Bacon used the arrows in Triptych – May-June 1973 in an attempt to bring a form of profession-
al objectivity to the painful process of both recording and coming to terms with the death of his partner. I think he managed to depict that loss with great honesty and empathy. It’s a singularly powerful, contemporary and cathartic depiction of the death of a loved one.