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.

Wallpaper

Mimi Johnson, Dorothea Tanning, Martha Johnson-Seillans 1966

This charming, playful family photograph of American Surrealist Dorothea Tanning with her two nieces Mimi and Martha Johnson, taken at the home she shared with her husband Max Ernst in Seillans, France, features wallpaper, the only thing that happened in her childhood home in Galesburg, Illnois, prominently.

In several of her works, noticeably Children’s Games and the final masterpiece of Surrealism, Room 202, Poppy Hotel, the wallpaper conveys a sense of menace bordering on horror. In her concentration on claustrophobic domestic spaces Tanning anticipated a whole wave of female artists, noticeably the photography of Francesca Woodman.

Dorothea Tanning-Children's Games 1942
Dorothea Tanning-Children’s Games 1942
Francesca Woodman, From Space2, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976
Francesca Woodman, From Space2, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976

 

 

 

 

After Bataille

Illustration for Madame Edwarda by Georges Bataille-Kuniyoshi Kaneko-1976
Illustration for Madame Edwarda by Georges Bataille-Kuniyoshi Kaneko-1976

As the tiger is to space,
So sex is to time,
Apparition of savage grace,
The prelude to crime,
A loss of all face,
A rending tear in the fabric
Stitched together by some joking maverick

Demented demiurge blind
And paralytic:
The only thing on your ravaged mind
Syphilitic,
Is where to find
The pot to piss and shit in
Which is, all things considered, rather fitting.

We’re near the limits of the I,
But I is another,
A discontinuity of cries,
All passion is other,
Into the emptiness we sigh,
Signs descend into parody,
Eggs eyes and testicles a chain of analogy.

I meet God, a lazy whore
Lolling on a bed,
Don’t you want some more?
As she opened her legs she said:
I needed her tender and raw
So I could penetrate the mystery,
Plumb the void of the coruscating divinity.

Horror

horror-19371
Toyen-Horror 1937

Toyen’s paintings are frequently imbued with a sense of phantasmic horror, fittingly for an artist born and bred in Prague, the city of Leppin, Meyrink and Kafka. Horror was also a frequent theme for her fellow Czech avant-gardists, of whom it has been remarked that they were the horror division of the Surrealist dream factory. Toyen’s first artistic partner Jindrich Styrsky (not to be confused with her second artistic partner Jindrich Heisler) in 1933 said, ‘An unwitting smile, a sense of the comic, a shudder of horror-these are eroticism’s sisters.’  As Strysky had been involved with Toyen in the late 20’s and the early 30’s in the publication of both the Erotic Review, a magazine dedicated to erotica, and Editions 69, strictly limited editions (subscription of 150 only) of famous pornographic novels including the Marquis De Sade and Pierre Louys, with illustrations by Toyen, he had a fair idea of what he was talking about.

At first glance the viewer may wonder why Toyen decided to title this painting Horror. However if T.S Eliot can show ‘fear/in a handful of dust,’  then Toyen can show us horror in a wilted dandelion clock. Again Toyen induces a sense of disorientation with scale, the dandelion is set against a fence that almost fills the horizon, the top of the fence is grasped by five hands, all clinging on, apparently for dear life, though one fears for the possessor of the hand in the centre of the picture, the only hand not part of a pair. Horror hints that beyond the banal facade of the world, there lies a incomprehensible and monstrous reality.

69\//\96

Jindrich Strysky-Emilie Comes to Me in Dream 1931
Jindrich Strysky-Emilie Comes to Me in Dream 1931

69

For a moment I thought,
When we came together
That anything, everything
Was finally possible;
Love as a greater unity,
Combining our limbs
Lips mouths cunt cock
Nothing to divide us,
No barriers to separate;
We shared a vision,
Tasted the pleasures
Of the long anticipated,
Much deferred paradise.

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But the moment passed,
Our bodies disentangled.
Even the shortest distance
Can lead to disenchantment;
Ultimately we fuck alone.
After such knowledge,
After being tantalized
With the promise of grace
Makes this world a hell
And other people,
Persecuting demons.
No, we can’t all just get along,
I will repay your hate
With pinpricks of fear,
Maybe then we can finally
Share the horror inherent
In everything, anything,
Even a wilted dandelion clock.