In October 1971, Francis Bacon was attending a retrospective of his work in none other than the Grand Palais in Paris. Cited as Britain’s greatest living artist, Bacon had soared to the heights of the artistic profession, and his retrospective in such an esteemed location confirmed this. It was on this evening, in the Grand Palais, that Bacon was informed of the death of his lover, George Dyer. Dyer’s tragic suicide would shape Bacon’s work and personality for the rest of his life, and the event is essential to understanding the Triptych of August 1972.
In ‘Triptych – August 1972,’ Bacon depicts George Dyer (left panel), himself (right panel), and finally their entangled bodies together (central panel). In each, feelings of agony, loss and guilt pervade the composition. These feelings are most obviously conveyed in the dark void of blackness which incases the figures in all three panels. A defining feature of Bacon’s three “Black Triptychs” (of which this is the second), the blackness appears to be the most powerful force in the painting, consuming the figures into it’s darkness. For example, in the lefthand panel, the black paint steals away the body of George Dyer, while in the central panel, the bodies of Dyer and Bacon seem to be rolling into the black void behind them. Perhaps Bacon was reflecting upon the idea that, in their love, Bacon and Dyer corrupted each other, and led each other to dakrness? It is well stated fact that the relationship between the two was turbulent at best, and fuelled by alcoholism. Perhaps Bacon meant to suggest that black darkness was the only location for the lover’s existence, with the memory of Dyer’s suicide tormenting the artist?
Ultimately, we will never know the answer to such questions, but what is clear, is that in ‘Triptych – August 1972,’ one can perceive a level of pain previously unseen in the work of Sir Francis Bacon. Further highlighting the pain of the artist is his depiction of his and Dyer’s bodies, which are literally decomposing onto the floor, forming a murky pool of paint beneath each man. As Bacon’s biographer put it, “What death has not already consumed seeps incontinently out of the figures as their shadows.” Hauntingly, both men appear to sit solemnly, accepting this bodily detterioration. This decay makes sense with regards to Dyer, who was dead, but with regards to Bacon, lost limbs and gaping black holes has interesting implications. By painting his body as deteriorating and unhealthy, it is obvious that without Dyer, Bacon feels neither whole nor alive.
‘Triptych – August 1972’ stands as a reflection on some of the most distressing emotions anyone can experience, and it is difficult not to feel troubled looking at the work. However, Bacon includes one small source of happiness in the painting. In the central panel, the two figures are locked in a passionate embrace. Beneath them pours not their decaying bodies, but a gentle arc of bright violet. It isn’t much, but it acts a quiet and gentle testimony of the artist’s love for Dyer, and the peace that Bacon found within his embrace.