Tick, tick, tick… Bacon and time

Francis Bacon Three studies for a self-portrait 1979–80, oil on canvas, triptych 37.5 × 31.8 cm each, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, 1998. Photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resources/Scala, Florence. All works © The Estate of Francis Bacon. DACS/Licensed by Viscopy

‘Painting’s main claim to glory is to immortalize great men by leaving their image for posterity’, wrote 17th-century French art theorist André Félibien.

Three centuries later, Francis Bacon expressed a similar idea: ‘I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail leaving its trail of the human presence… as a snail leaves its slime.’

Of all the works coming to the Gallery for our Bacon show, I hadn’t paid that much attention to Bacon’s relatively somber Three studies for a self-portrait 1979-80 from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York but a lecture by philosopher Professor Elizabeth Grosz at the University of Sydney on 18 October piqued my interest in it.

The ’trick’ of painting, as she put it, is to make the immaterial material, the invisible visible – and Bacon’s achievement was to capture elusive forces such as movement and time. Channeling a perennial question in art history, Grosz asked: how can a painter create movement (which can suggest the passage of time) when the medium of painting is inherently static?

Bacon often worked in triptych (that is, three paintings grouped together) and Grosz proposed that his approach to this age-old format suggests the force of time. Unlike a traditional triptych that depicts three distinct but related subjects, Bacon’s triptychs usually repeat the same figure. This seems to create a circular relationship between the panels, rather than a linear narrative.

Three studies for a self-portrait brought to my mind another painting – not from Bacon’s era, but from Félibien’s – which employs a similarly uncanny repetition. Philippe de Champaigne’s 1642 triple portrait of Cardinal Richelieu in the National Gallery London depicts the cardinal from three points on view on the one canvas. (We can’t reproduce it here but it’s worth the click.)

Champaigne’s painting was not intended for display, but was a study sent to a sculptor in Rome to be used as a basis for a marble bust. A sculptor without access to the live model would require knowledge of the subject ‘in the round’, so to speak, hence the need for three different views of the cardinal’s head.

The resemblance between the works by Champaigne and Bacon is, admittedly, both superficial and coincidental. Bacon was working in an utterly different visual world than Champaigne, in a period after impressionism, cubism and abstraction had reinvented the function and meaning of painted images. And of his many nods to great painters of the past, from Vélazquez to Van Gogh, I’ve not heard of Champaigne as a source for Bacon.

So the compelling resonance of the two images remained puzzling, until a colleague reminded me that Bacon likened his triple portraits to police mug shots. And the mug shot format performs exactly the same function as Champaigne’s painting: capturing several points of view to convey a sense of three dimensions and the body in motion. This is clearer in another work in our exhibition, Bacon’s Three studies of George Dyer 1969, where a front-on view of Dyer’s face is flanked by his two profiles.

Francis Bacon Three studies of George Dyer 1969 oil on canvas, triptych, each 36 × 30.5 cm, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark. Donation: Ny Carlsbergfondet

In Three studies for a self-portrait, however, it is not the position of Bacon’s face that changes from image to image, but the light that falls on his face. The movement of the sun marks time and you can see it at work in this painting. The light seeks out and illuminates different features in each panel, exaggerating a cheek here, obliterating an eye into shadow there. Despite the absence of movement, time has left its mark on Bacon’s visage and on the canvas.

By tripling his own likeness, Bacon suggests the passing of time in a measured, rhythmic pattern. The dramatic changes in the face imply that nothing is fixed, that even when we are still we are perpetually subject to change at the hands of time. But framed and under glass, perhaps that elusive and ephemeral ‘snail’s trail of a human presence’ is indeed captured, trapped in time, immortal.

November 29 2012, 3pm
by Josephine Touma
Senior coordinator, public programs