"We nearly always live through screens – a screened existence. And I sometimes think, when people say my work looks violent, that perhaps I have from time to time been able to clear away one or two of the veils or screens"
The artist cited in: David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1993, p. 26
Capturing in paint an exceptional convergence of the artist's passions and talents, Figure Turning could not be more representative of Francis Bacon's phenomenal painting of the early 1960s, which was critical to both his breathtaking career and immense contribution to modern and contemporary art. From the especially decisive year of 1962, which witnessed the first major international retrospective of his work, this painting both summates the period of experimental investigation that preceded it as well as presciently anticipating several stylistic strategies and the increasingly autobiographical nature of his subsequent work. Indeed, it was only from the breakthrough year of 1962 that Bacon adopted this specific large-scale canvas format exclusively, alongside a fourteen by twelve inch canvas for his more intimate works. Here it provides a fitting arena for his execution of one of the most focused and intense studies of the existential nature of the Human Condition. The creation of a self-assured fifty year old, Turning Figure exhibits all the technical mastery and painterly genius that is characteristic of Bacon's very best mature output. The fulcrum of the composition, a naked human being, is offered up to the viewer primarily by the corporeal essence of its body rather than by traits of physiognomy or other identifying signifiers such as clothes or hair. This is in stark contrast to Bacon's contemporaneous series of Popes, which he had initiated back in 1951 and in which pontiffs are described via the vestments and trappings of their office. Indeed, comparison with Study from Innocent X, which was finished just months earlier in January 1962 and is thus an immediate predecessor for Figure Turning, affords rich insight to the present work. Between these two paintings, the placement and anatomical arrangement of the figures and the shapes of the semi-abstract linear frames that contain them are highly comparable. For a moment, it almost seems as if Figure Turning reveals the Pope without his clothes, rid of the accoutrements of that station, and left clutching a mere glass as a raw and more exposed portrayal of the human psyche.
This turning figure is caught in a symphony of simultaneous movement; its representation comprised all of shadows and flashing motion and evolving in constant flux through a series of states. This recalls the photography of Edweard Muybridge, which used multiple cameras and an elaborate trigger device to capture successive stages of motion. Bacon possessed many illustrations of Muybridge's images and comparison of this human form with Muybridge's photograph series 'Striking a Blow with the Right Hand', a fragment of which was found in the artist's studio, offers close parallels and should be considered a source contributing to the painting. Indeed, Hugh Davies and Sally Yard have described a Bacon adaptation of Muybridge figures that perfectly suits Figure Turning: "Calling to mind naked men locked away in anonymous, windowless cells, this figure conveys the introspection, regression, and withdrawal associated with... the quintessential posture of man divested of civilisation" (Hugh Davies and Sally Yard, Francis Bacon, New York, London and Paris 1986, p. 29).
However, in Figure Turning Bacon subjugates all bodily stasis, including that fixed by a photograph, with painterly violence in an attempt to get beneath the surface of the physical being. Additionally, in contrast to the intangible, transient and almost spectral suggestion of material flesh, the body here is locked in a complex sequence of framing devices. Caught off-balance by the sloping, vertiginous floor that tips the room towards the picture plane, the figure remains constrained by the claustrophobic interior space. Standing next to a doorway that offers only a black void of nothingness, it looks towards a closed window-blind from within a transparent prison that has been demarcated around it. Clutching an empty glass that acts both as an explicitly loaded allegory as well as a pithy reference to Bacon's own biography, the figure's twisted writhing and visceral contortion is set against the inscribed permanence of a fixed shadow that looms out towards the viewer. The shape and appearance of this shadow is analogous with that belonging to the wandering figure in Vincent van Gogh's 1888 painting The Artist on the Road to Tarascon. The works of van Gogh had a determining influence on Bacon, who had portrayed the Dutchman as this wandering artist at least seven times in 1956 and 1957, and the shadow of Figure Turning hints at the solitariness, struggle and ultimate tragedy that overwhelmed the post-impressionist.
Engaging his expert familiarity with academic precedent, such as the incomparable figural studies of Michelangelo and masterful descriptions of flesh by Théodore Géricault, Bacon uses this opportunity of the turning figure to interrogate relationships between light and form in order to analyse every muscle and sinew. Here the distance between the shoulder and lower ankle holds within it some of the most dynamic brushwork and painterly virtuosity of Bacon's entire corpus. The artist accelerates the effects of light and shadow, plunging form in and out of darkness so that several passages of light flow in simultaneous chorus. The chiaroscuro rhythms of forceful anatomic gesture negotiate the threshold between total dissolution into the black and crimson backdrop and the brilliant incandescence of impasto urgency. The landscape of the paint surface flows from the thick sweep that is lathered over the shoulder-blade and bicep to the deft schema of thinly applied strokes that define calf tendons and feet arches.
At the same time, the entire head and neck wear a thickly impenetrable mask, which divests identity and provides the anonymity that is so essential to the ultimate success of the painting. The head's silhouette is filled with a textural opacity that intentionally gives little insight to personality, and in its rounded shapes and mottled fleshy hues sooner evokes the carnality of the bovine carcasses that Bacon had previously painted after the works of Rembrandt and Chaïm Soutine. This visceral affirmation of the simple substance of human flesh acts as illustration to Bacon's mantra-like adage "we come from nothing and we go to nothing", which he apparently oft repeated as a fundamental belief (the artist cited in: Exhibition Catalogue, Valencia, IVAM, Institut Valencià d'Art Modern; Paris, Musée Maillol Fondation Dina Vierny, Francis Bacon: The Sacred and The Profane, 2003-04, p. 32).
This struggling figure is situated near the open doorway of a space that has been minimally implied by linear perspective. The doorway, imbued with connotation and metaphor, is another autograph device in Bacon's work and is core to some of his later works. Indeed, his awe-inspiring Tripych, August 1972 in the Tate, which commemorates the suicide of his lover George Dyer, includes two panels where Dyer is seated in front of doorways that similarly open into sheer blackness. Bacon's doorways are thus portals to an abyss of despair, and that the figure in the present work is near the verge of the doorway, perhaps even moving towards it, introduces a high dose of ominous tension to the scene.
The colours of this painting presage some of the most important and highly acclaimed works of Bacon's subsequent oeuvre. The intense combination of deep saturated crimson, soaked into his trademark unprimed canvas, together with a black so pure as to seem to absorb light, space and time, are immediately evocative of such works of genius as Triptych, May-June 1973, another post-mortem eulogy to Dyer, and the haunting masterpiece of 1988, Second Version of 'Triptych 1944 now in the Tate, where screaming anthropomorphic demons dwell in an atmosphere of this same blood-red and are surrounded by a black mist.
Thin white and black lines demarcate a superimposed structure; a space-frame that traps the figure in an inscribed yet indeterminate space and provides a glass prison for solitary confinement. These space-frames were a long-standing feature of Bacon's paintings, beginning more as compositional devices before turning more explicitly cage-like and eventually reaching a more metaphorical identity. In Figure Turning, although the interior conditions of this transparent jail are apparently identical to those outside it, the figure is nevertheless separated from the wider context of the scene and, by implication, from the communal environment of shared experience. This provides a literal interpretation of an existential state of being whereby individuals inhabit isolated microcosms, fending for and governed by solely themselves.
However, the fact that the head of this figure's shadow creeps beyond the lowermost boundary of the space-frame suggests an additional interpretation of this figure's existence. This semi-abstracted arching shape is clearly outlined and its deliverance out of the confines of the box suggests notions of a platonic shadow. The prominence of this shadow can be seen to reference Plato's philosophy that, as a shadow merely implicates a physical object, so too is reality itself merely a shadow that is created by phenomena beyond our quotidian understanding and experience. In this context, the transience of the turning figure's morphing forms represent an intangibility that invites the viewer to question what is really materially present. Trapped by the space-frame in a cell of individuated isolation, Bacon's figure thus also throws out a shadow that references the very substance of that lonely introspection. The painting thus posits two polar extremes against each other: an existential state contingent on total seclusion versus the implicit suggestion of phenomena beyond our comprehension.
As much as any other artist of the Twentieth Century, Francis Bacon held up the mirror to the nature of the Human Condition, and Figure Turning of 1962 provides the perfect reflection of what he saw. Akin to many great thinkers in the mid Twentieth Century, Bacon was fascinated by the 1940s and '50s works of the French existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir, and their explorations of themes such as dread, alienation, freedom and the absurd. In a Europe utterly devastated by the savagery of war, many people questioned the adequacy and relevance of traditional belief systems as a way of explaining the complexities of the world. Stories of undefined higher powers and aspiration to abstract ideals, which had been the basis for widespread behavioural codes, were deemed by many as deficient rationalization of human action after Auschwitz and Hiroshima. The most important characters of Bacon's canon, typified by the figure in the present work, precisely crystallise this questioning attitude. This figure is indeed alone in the world and is suffused with solitary introspection. It portrays a psychology that has abandoned the sureties of religious mythology and the redemption of an afterlife, and is confronting an existence ungoverned by greater forces. Devoid of ancient frames of reference, Figure Turning is living out the ultimate existential paradox: confronted with the freedoms of newfound individuality on the one hand, it is doomed to suffer the loneliness of segregation on the other.
In this light it is clear that Bacon's work does not just provide visual interpretations of ancient narratives, such as Christian myths or Greek tragedy; or a précis of wide-ranging art historical and photographic sources; or even summarise the philosophies of his own time, such as the existentialist works of Sartre, Camus, and de Beauvoir. Bacon's legacy to the canon of modern and contemporary art is that his art was the product of a philosopher, who chose to manifest his profound observations and thoughts in paint and image rather than in word. Figure Turning is a sensational image that exhibits the full gamut of Bacon's painterly genius from the vivacity of his technique to his inimitable aesthetic and semi-figurative dialect. In addition, inasmuch as it forwards various notions of existence that are complex, layered and open to interpretation, it is comparable to a work of philosophical significance. Indeed, this is a definitive visual essay in Existentialism and the incarnation of Francis Bacon's explanation of the Human Condition. Frequently instigating idioms such as 'the violence of the real' and 'the brutality of fact', Bacon's paintings are direct, unashamed and uncompromising; qualities that are perfectly encapsulated by Figure Turning, which so effectively summates a world in which we all survive as individuals.
Oil on canvas
London, Tate Gallery, Francis Bacon, 1962, no. 91, illustrated
Eindhoven, Stedelijk van Abbe-Museum, Contemporary Paintings in London, 1962, no. 1, illustrated
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Francis Bacon, 1963, no. 72
London, Marlborough New London Gallery, Francis Bacon, 1963, no. 5, illustrated (incorrectly titled Figure Turning (with glass))
Florence, Mostra Mercato Nazionale d'Arte Contemporanea, Francis Bacon, 1964
Paris, Galerie Nationales du Grand Palais; Düsseldorf, Kunsthalle, Francis Bacon, 1971-72, p. 116, no. 42, illustrated
São Paulo, Fundação Bienal de São Paulo, Francis Bacon, 1998
197.4 by 141cm. 77 3/4 by 55 1/2 in.
Ronald Alley, Francis Bacon, London 1964, p. 147, no. 203, illustrated
Lorenza Trucchi, Francis Bacon, London 1976, no. 79, illustrated
Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, Francis Bacon, 1998, p. 56, illustrated
Marlborough Fine Art, Ltd., London
Private Collection, New York