Elephant Fording a River from 1952 is arguably as haunting for the viewer as Francis Bacon's later and more familiar works, and for many of the same fundamental reasons. Bacon delved deeply into his work of the 1950s, essaying various themes and experimenting with a variety of visual tools and techniques – there were sphinxes, dogs, birds, elephants, men in suits, ghostly heads and landscapes. For an artist who eventually painted his figures in foreshortened spatial interiors with little depth or backdrop, it is compelling to observe the full and vivid composition of Elephant Fording a River. Just three years after the completion of the present work, Bacon would have his first retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London in 1955 and truly enter the consciousness of the critics and collectors alike. For Bacon, his work of the 1950s captured a richness of anticipation and when viewing the paintings of this time one is immediately struck by the notion that something monumental is looming. He was coming into his own as an artist and perhaps more ready than the rest of the world for the daring pictures emerging from his genius.
In 1951, Bacon's beloved nanny died and he decided to leave his Cromwell Place studio, nomadically moving from one rented room to the next. On this occasion the nomadic and frustrated Bacon decided to visit South Africa where his mother had relocated after his father's death in 1940. Making stops in Cairo on his way back, the pyramids and monumental Egyptian sculpture overwhelmed Bacon, and he was equally consumed by the natural landscape of South Africa. His new wildlife surroundings gave birth to a small but nonetheless important series of paintings of animals, and in these early works, man and beast are treated interchangeably. Bacon's first paintings of animals were of dogs which were direct references to images from Eadweard Muybridge's film Animals in Motion. In the present work Bacon's skill for depicting larger animals shines. Many of the other animals that inhabited his paintings of this time are depicted screaming or in violent poses, while the elephant is a dark menacing animal lurking off in the distance, undisturbed yet dangerous when provoked. Sourcing images from a favorite book, Marius Maxwell's Stalking Big Game with a Camera in Equatorial Africa from 1924, Bacon proceeded to engage in a prolific study of the large animals to be found in the nature parks and preserves. The surprising agility and speed of these majestic and seemingly ponderous animals amazed Bacon.
The energy of quick brushstrokes is palpable and the drama vivid in this painting. It is apparent to the viewer that this scene is not only painted from source imagery but also from an internalized memory of an actual place and time – an experience that held great importance for the artist. Throughout his career Bacon was obsessed with depicting motion and although here the scene itself is still, the execution is quite the opposite. As John Rothenstein describes of Bacon's painting, "the brush-stroke creates the form and does not merely fill it in. Consequently, every moment of the brush on the canvas alters the shape and implications of the image. That is why real painting is a mysterious and continuous struggle with chance – mysterious because the very substance of the paint, when used in this way, can make such a direct assault upon the nervous system; continuous because the medium is so fluid and subtle that every change that is made loses what is already there in the hope of making a fresh gain." (Ronald Alley, Francis Bacon, New York, 1964, p. 13).
In a letter to his dealer Erica Brausen at the Hanover Gallery in 1951, Bacon describes his African vistas: "I got here about a week ago. I stayed at [The Great] Zimbabwe [Ruins] and the country from there to here is too marvelous it is like a continuous Renoir landscape and Zimbabwe itself is incredible." (reproduced in Exh. Cat., Norwich, Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, Francis Bacon in the 1950s, 2006, p. 144). Bacon was captivated by the luscious and dense landscape of Africa, much like Peter Doig would be drawn fifty years later to the Carribean scenes which he rendered with similar observational and painterly technique. Particularly aware of the effects of different times of day and different qualities of light in the wilderness, Doig clearly looks to styles of the past, particularly artists such as Bacon and Gauguin for their masterful ability to tackle exoticism. The present work is brilliantly distinct in depicting the awe for the exotic that Bacon observed in Africa. The scene is a quiet and calm moment – an elephant crossing placid waters of a river that is punctuated only by small disturbances in the water caused by its stride – and it becomes an oddly tender moment for an animal of such authority and force. Yet, the unpredictability of the elephant and the vulnerability of the voyeuristic observer, who is perhaps treading a bit too close, results in a sense of danger and uncertainty. Elephant Fording a River is beautifully rendered, focusing on the animal and its reflection in the tranquil water. The shade provided by the shadows of the leafy brush welcomes the elephant, who leaves behind the remnants of the open blue sky. With the ochre setting sun, the fear of what looms when the landscape darkens and the animals have complete control delivers a lasting effect on the viewer.
Oil on canvas
London, Hanover Gallery, Francis Bacon, December 1952 - January 1953
London, Lefevre Gallery, Contemporary British Painters, January 1955
New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Francis Bacon, October 1963 - January 1964, cat. no. 20, illustrated
New Haven, Yale Center for British Art; Minneapolis, Minneapolis Institute of Arts; San Francisco, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Fort Worth, Modern Art Museum, Francis Bacon: A Retrospective, January - October 1999, cat. no. 11, p. 73, illustrated in color
Norwich, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia; Milwaukee, Milwaukee Art Museum; Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Francis Bacon: Paintings from the 1950s, September 2006 - July 2007, cat. no. 12, illustrated in color
Milan, Palazzo Reale, Francis Bacon, March - June 2008, cat. no. 13, p. 99, illustrated in color
78 x 54 in. 198 x 137 cm.
Ronald Alley, Francis Bacon, New York, 1964, cat. no. 49, illustrated
Lorenza Trucchi, Francis Bacon, New York, 1975, pl. no. 19, illustrated
Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, New York, 1996, p. 138
Margarita Cappock, Francis Bacon's Studio, London, 2005, fig. 240, p. 135, illustrated in color
Hanover Gallery, London
Lefevre Gallery, London
Mr. and Mrs. William A.M. Burden, New York (acquired from the above circa 1955)
Private Collection, London
Crane Kalman Gallery Ltd., London
Acquired by the present owner from the above in June 1998