Grotesqueness in the Triptych

by Mariano Akerman*

Bacon's Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion is a mysterious and uncertain painting.[1] The image is a symbol of multi-leveled significance which is conveyed through the artist's manipulation of The Grotesque. As a configuration of the ambiguous, Bacon's instinctive painting engenders both curiosity and perplexity. It also conveys the artist's fears and desires. A well-calculated, disquieting interplay between vulnerability and cruelty also characterizes this peculiar work.

Francis Bacon
Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion
Tate Gallery, London
Photograph by Mariano Akerman, on location, 1995

The grotesque can be defined as “a tense and disturbing whole, combining conflicting elements in a visual paradox.”[2] Tension and intensity, the combination of the incompatibles and suggestions of the monstrous or the inhuman all prevail in Bacon’s intense triptych.

He uses the grotesque as a means of self-expression, which enables him to ambiguously communicate his fascination with power and violence, but also his haunted condition. The grotesque becomes a means of purgation and transcendence.

Despite its inherent grotesqueness, Bacon's instinctive painting is far from being ornamental (adornment alla grottesca).[3] With its distorted and crippled Figures, it works as a personal recollection, entailing a private truth, namely, the artist's contradictory feelings and sensations. Such ambiguous precision (to use one of his favorite idioms) is neither meaningless nor entirely evasive.[4]

Through his instinctive Studies, Bacon willingly walks along the border of an emotional precipice, expressing his obsession with sex and death, his apathy in matters of vulnerability and suffering, and his total fascination with power and aggressiveness.

The deep impact and suggestiveness of Bacon's picture reveal and simultaneously conceal the artist's ultimate intention. And they do so in such a blurred way that identity itself becomes problematic. Moreover, by depicting the ambiguously combined and the equivocally suggestive Bacon disorients the viewer, who cannot establish precise meaning in his ever-changing image.

Various readings are possible and they all appear to be equally valid. Considering that instinct implies the abolishment of morals, at the time of contemplating Bacon's imagery, we are to arrive at our own moral conclusions (certainly irrelevant to the artist and his calculated lack of concern).

At this point everything melts under our feet, because in Bacon's grotesque realm the only safe given is Insecurity.

This instinctive picture, on the other hand, is not the product of accident or chance (as Bacon could have claimed), but a carefully planned design that functions as an anti-illustrational trap and hints simultaneously at the artist's bittersweet reality.

In this context, we realize Bacon's manipulation of the grotesque and the artist's fundamental intervention in turning it into a useful vehicle for self-expression. Bacon's instinctive image proves to be profound but problematic—a New Grand Manner of Painting mixing up the defiantly powerful, the disquietingly extraordinary, the suggestively monstrous, the sarcastically allusive, the theatrically manipulative, and the extremely personal.

As a species of confusion par excellence, the grotesque suspends belief and invites a search for meaning. Pushing us to consider alternative possibilities, it paralyses language and challenges categories. Grotesque art is basically thought-enlarging art.[5]

This is true in Bacon's Three Studies for Figures, a grotesque masterpiece conveying immediacy and suggesting multilayered ideas that grant us an active role as both spectators and interpreters. This is possibly the ultimate meaning of the artist's pictorial freedom, which he has achieved through a singular manipulation of the grotesque.

The entirely personal element that inhabits Bacon's Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion has an immense capacity to openening the valves of feeling (to use another of Bacon’s cherished idioms). It is this expressive, ever-changing element of Bacon's art which I find extraordinarily rich: pictorial instinct is a provocative and fascinating, grotesque element which coherently unites Bacon's truth and our freedom.

* Mariano Akerman, art historian, researches the work of Francis Bacon since 1985.
1. Tate Online, accessed 15.01.08
2. Mariano Akerman, Definition of the Grotesque, The Grotesque in Francis Bacon's Paintings, 1999
3. Adornment alla grottesca becomes important in Europe from 1480 onwards and cultivated by artists such as Ghirlandaio, Signorelli, Raphael and Da Udine. See, for instance, my post on Grotteschi.
4. Bacon, remarks in filmed interview with Melvyn Bragg, 1985
5. See Geoffrey Galt Harpham, On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature, Princeton, New Jersey, 1982

Copyrighted material © Mariano Akerman. All Rights Reserved. This essay is not to be reproduced without the previous written authorization of its author.

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