Not So Rosy: Bacon’s “Triptych”

Think pink! Easter eggs, ballerinas, baby girls in ruffles? Not quite what Francis Bacon (the 20th century painter, not to be confused with the 16th century philosopher) has going on in this painting. In fact, this work is considered to be one of his “black” triptychs:

Bacon's "Triptych - In Memory of George Dyer" 1971

Not much black paint, but the subject is certainly “noir” (ahem: black in French).

detail of Bacon's "Triptych - In Memory of George Dyer" 1971

This central panel reminds me of a thriller mystery scene. I typically try to write my initial reactions to a work before I read a lot about it. Before researching this painting, I wrote the following string of questions:

What sound must he have heard to stop from entering his room? A creak? A clatter? A scream? Is he even supposed to be going in there, or is that someone else’s room? Why are the papers piled up? Has he been away in hiding? Is there a dead body on the floor inside? I am curious, but a bit on edge. I don’t like scary movies—things jumping out and startling me—but I know the painting won’t make any unexpected noises. Still, I wonder…what fate lies ahead? There is something of the “future” to this—what will happen.

detail of Bacon's "Triptych - In Memory of George Dyer" 1971

Now, thanks to a library book and Google, I know what did happen. George Dyer, Bacon’s favorite model and, according to some sources, his lover, overdosed in the Hotel des Saint-Pères in Paris. Bacon painted this triptych in mourning for Dyer.

detail of Bacon's "Triptych - In Memory of George Dyer" 1971

The newspapers on the floor make sense for a hotel.

detail of Bacon's "Triptych - In Memory of George Dyer" 1971

The part I can’t quite make sense of is this left panel. Various places said that this was Dyer as a boxer, or falling down while running on a track, or…I can’t recall anymore. None of those explanations really resonated with me.

detail of Bacon's "Triptych - In Memory of George Dyer" 1971

What do you see? Here is bit more of my pre-research stream of consciouceness:

Is that contorted figure on a rail? Why only one shoe? What is with the egg? It is unpleasant to look at. Tortuous in a way. Grotesque. There is a lot of negative space, happy pink negative space, but the contorted man is all I can look at.

detail of Bacon's "Triptych - In Memory of George Dyer" 1971

My thoughts on the left panel haven’t changed much, despite my research. I still have mostly questions, and think the pink is an odd color choice. My favorite panel is the right-hand one:

detail of Bacon's "Triptych - In Memory of George Dyer" 1971

It is a café, I assume, from the shiny table. Dyer’s expression reminds me of a mobster—like he is settled in here to do business. Like he owns the place whether he actually owns the deed or not. More naïve questions:

Why is he a painting and a reflection on the table? Where is the actual person? Seems he must have been there… This [panel] seems a bit more of the past, empty table, has probably seated this gent. A painting hanging, complete. Why are there no chairs? No one is expected?

detail of Bacon's "Triptych - In Memory of George Dyer" 1971

I find this combination of portrait and reverse reflection fascinating. The portrait seems so permanent—someone had to sit for it, paint it, decide where to put it, hammer a nail into the wall, and hang the painting. The reflection seems so fleeting, and also distorted. Sure, you can see your face in on a shiny surface, but if you move, or set a plate down on it, or smudge it with your fingerprints, or if the light changes, it could go away or become unrecognizable.

Both are images of Dyer, but they feel distinctly different to me, even when the tabletop image is flipped vertically:

The full title of this work is Triptych – In Memory of George Dyer. I like that there is this tension between the permanence of Dyer’s portrait and the fleetingness of his reflection in a memorial painting. Among Bacon’s supplies and papers in his studio was a black and white photograph of Dyer, taken by John Deakin during the mid-1960s and cut out. Here, I have superimposed it onto the portrait in the right hand panel:

photo & painting comparison of George Dyer

Do you think remembering a loved one by a photograph is different than with a portrait? How does the triptych as a whole affect you differently than the individual panels?

 

If you’d like a more knowledgeable analysis on this style of work, the art savy folks over at SmartHistory have a short video discussing another triptych painted in memory of Dyer.

The estate of Francis Bacon has an official website with a great deal of info about the artist.

Steffen, Barbara, Michael Peppiatt, and Wilfried Seipel. Francis Bacon and the Tradition of Art. Skira, 2004. Print.

 

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