Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion c.1944 by Francis Bacon 1909-1992
Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion c.1944 Francis Bacon 

In 1936 the painter and art dealer Roland Penrose (also later the husband of Lee Miller) and the art critic Herbert Read, who were organising the International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries, decided to pay a visit to the studios of the Irish born painter Francis Bacon in Chelsea. Bacon showed them four large canvases but the visitors were underwhelmed, to say the least. Penrose declared that they were insufficiently surreal to be included and is reported to have told Francis, “Mr. Bacon, don’t you realise a lot has happened in painting since the Impressionists?”.

However much this must have stung, Francis Bacon apparently agreed with Penrose’s assessment as he would later, when very famous, ruthlessly suppress any pieces that pre-dated his breakthrough painting Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion of 1944; that is to say, that any painting produced before he had engaged, assimilated and felt in a position to response in a highly personal way to the great Continental European avant-garde currents (including, naturally enough, Surrealism), were to be excluded from his oeuvre. Quite rightly so, as the critic John Russell noted, “there was painting in England before the Three Studies, and painting after them, and no one…can confuse the two,” which of course extended to Bacon’s own work.

Painted on Sundeala boards, a cheap alternative to canvas, used frequently by Bacon as he was often short of money due to his heavy drinking and lifelong gambling habit, Three Studies presents three nightmarish figures, Bacon’s horror take on Picasso’s biomorphs, with elongated necks and distended mouths, against a lurid, harsh, burnt orange background. Christ and the two thieves crucified have been transformed into the Furies. Bacon admitted to having been obsessed by the phrase in Aeschylus, “the reek of human blood smiles out at me”, and in a sense Three Studies is a raw, visceral, pictorial actualisation of such a striking and terrifying line. After all, Bacon was the best exemplifier of the Bataillean aesthetic in the visual arts; the body as meat, the world as an abattoir, the endless scream of being.

59 thoughts on “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion

      1. Hmmm…well I do think that the body is meat, the world as an abattoir, the endless scream of being as a good description of both Bataille and Bacon’s aesthetic but really did I have to grin and smile about the line? However you can encourage me Ms Feather.

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      2. Well I do like to grin and I suppose it is always nice to find the right words for the right occasion. As for culture, well the prices of Bacon are absolutely insane…minor works fetch absurd prices… however that shouldn’t distract from the originality and vision of the major works. Still I got very annoyed with the disappointment at the price for the Modigliani (157 million) and the completely bogus narrative about it being a pioneering feminist painting and a radical Modernist piece. It is a pretty picture, nothing more and nothing less.

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  1. ‘The reek of human blood smiles out of me’. Very dark and misanthropic indeed. I like how you managed to put all this information into this small text, a true miracle to me. And I like the paintings, this brick red orange rust colour.

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    1. Well nobody could accuse Bacon of having a rosy positive outlook, though strangely enough he was a very sociable fellow who haunting the casinos of Monte Carlo and ran his own illegal gambling club with the help of his Nanny, Jessie Lightfoot. He was even paid by pubs and clubs to bring a crowd in with him to their establishments. Thank you the comment about squeezing it all in, it was difficult as there is a wealth of information about Bacon. I wanted to show that this was his masterpiece and that it was the first British (though he was Irish his career was in London, at least before he became really big) painting to fully engage with modernism in any meaningful way. The colours are overlit, the biomorphs are menacing, and the full effect is unsettling.

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  2. He never did paint the crucifixion scene, did he? Well these are enough all by themselves. The inhuman not quite animal figures are terrifying, Oh the gaping mouth on the far right figure! And the strange placement upon stools or platforms, elevating them from the ground (if the ground is even there in that undefined orange space) perhaps to keep them clear of the blood of the abattoir? I can imagine them as the Furies preparing to pounce in revenge. Fascinating post and brilliant closing line! After all every organism is some other organism’s meal.

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    1. Thank you very much. It is a unnerving painting, and he never did paint the crucifixion scene, but he didn’t need to after this. I was pleased with the closing line which unconsciously mirrors the triptych nature of the painting.

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      1. Oh well done! I love when the unconscious leads you down such a path. What do you think of the later version of the painting? And have you seen these in person?

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      2. Yes I have seen it in person and I have also seen the later version, which is slicker, more polished and generally more technically assured but doesn’t possess the raw, harsh power of the 44 version.

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      3. Very cool. I know what you’re saying about the ‘80’s version – I do find it compelling though, especially the center figure. It’s just different enough to have its own draw, if that makes sense…

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      4. It is different enough, however I miss the rusty orange hue of the original , against which the pallid greasy grey-white skin of the biomorphs stands out so leprously.

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  3. Dear Mr. Cake, stellar post. Bacon’s triptych is completely unsettling and unnerving as well. There is so much going on, once one can quiet themselves enough to really look at the artwork, I think Bacon nailed it. What I mean is, when I think of the crucifixion it’s about death and rebirth. And so, when I look at Bacon’s three studies, I find myself in a reddish-orange room, off-putting yet oddly familiar, I can’t help but think this sanguine room represent the womb,and the biomorphs with their gray ashen color are the newborn and/or the afterbirth come to life. Still a very surreal and a somewhat creepy series of paintings. ~ Miss Cranes

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    1. Thank you so much Miss Cranes for your unique take on this uniquely disturbing painting…is the universe indifferent or actively malicious? If this is rebirth then the latter. You have given me the chills, well with Francis help.

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      1. You’re most welcome, Mr. Cake, and a difficult question. Is it possible that they’re slyly one in the same, passively malicious in it’s indifference (a passive aggressive universe)? That sounds about right. The more I look at the painting the more brilliant I realize it is, a bad dream from hell. For instance the biomorphs look completely helpless, much like a newborn. Of course they could probably swallow any one of us whole if we were within reach, very Stephen King like, just kidding, well maybe not. ~ Miss Cranes

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      2. If you thought it, then Giger probably did too, the similarities are strong. It’s a hard image to shake and most memorable, one that wishing it be forgotten doesn’t pan out. Thanks for the laugh, and what makes you think we don’t like in a passive aggressive universe? Remember “chance”? Oh, by the way don’t be surprised to see that line in something in my future!

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      3. I will look out for it… I checked your site on Monday and Tuesday for new work but genius can’t be hurried. My posts and the juxtapositions between them is becoming increasingly random and, dare I say it, surreal.

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      4. Thank you, I wrote it down, now I’m committed. I know, I’ve been involved with various other things, creativity and sanity have been on hold. Absolutely right, genius can’t be rushed, laughing! Remember, Cakeland is a very big place, and there’s a lot of surreal and great art out there.

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      5. Hmmm I usually don’t have to go that far…for instance by very latest post is a video installation that uses collage techniques so that is really only one degree… maybe 4 at the most (and I can also fake it if in doubt).

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  4. A rather grotesque triptych of religious subjects that I feel must represent Bacon’s own anguish, or perhaps they are meant to be actual people, mourners at the crucifixion. artistically beautiful yet the thing of nightmares. I read that D. Lynch was highly influenced by Bacon and referenced his work at times in the second season of Twin lakes. Don’t hold me to that but you know one can’t lie on the internet. Enjoyed Mr. Cake.

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    1. Thank you Miss Heart. Bacon was good at painting his nightmares and this post tries to situate him within surrealism and in particular Georges Bataille. They shared many preoccupations and obsessions, a particular morbid sexuality (though there proclivities were different) and a fiercely unsentimental view of human nature. I can see the influence of Bacon on Lynch, though this painting biggest influence was on H R Giger who created The Alien in Alien, he said Three Studies was the direct inspiration.

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      1. An exceptional work of mood, colour and form by Bacon , it surely makes one contemplate his state of mind and pessimism with his private world and the state of life in general. You have taken us to one of the most unique and Artistically beautiful and intriguing bodies of work. Thank you for your thoughts on this Mr. Cake.

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      2. Bacon’s work is very pessimistic and he certainly was a complex character. However he was very much a socialite as well, of a certain sort. Bars in Soho had him on retainer to bring a crowd to their establishment, his illegal gambling den was very popular, even though his Nanny could very well rob your wallet (and split the proceeds with her beloved Francis, she also would welcome guests with a proffered joint). Which reminds of the story of Jean Genet, the thief who started writing in prison and was discovered by Jean Paul Sartre. When invited by society hostesses to fancy parties, they would leave little knickknacks around for him to steal and on occasion would become incensed if Genet didn’t bother to steal the item.
        Always my pleasure.

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      3. I think Bacon was quite amusing, though definitely an absolute bastard. Which leads us back to the immortal question, does great art justify bad behaviour? Is great art possible without bad behaviour (or at least transgressing in the imagination) or at least by placing oneself at the limits? Such anecdotes certainly liven up a biography anyway. I will leave the questions to the moralists. As for the joints, it wasn’t really that common in 50’s England, so very friendly. Bacon was more of a whiskey man himself.

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