Collected Works: Art
Triptych, May-June 1973
by Francis Bacon
A hunched, grotesquely distorted figure appears in various stages of distress: crouched over the bowl of a toilet, writhing in agony, vomiting into a sink. Each apparition is caught beneath the glaring gaze of a bare, hanging bulb. We watch from the hallway, clinically observing the three events taking place beneath the dim light. Peering voyeuristically into the intimate and disturbing scenes, we are implicated in the pain before us.
Despite its severe setting and detached title, Triptych, May-June 1973 is a deeply personal work. The painting is a response to the suicide of the artist’s lover, George Dyer, presenting the viewer with a graphic account of the latter’s final moments. The representation of Dyer’s death is unflinching, though the realism is underlined with a hint at the spiritual. The work resembles depictions of Christ, the painting’s triptych form echoing that of an altarpiece.
The austere geometry of an interior setting dominates the work, pushing the figure into a small space within the doorway, while arrows float, seeming to invite lookers-on to follow him. The darkness within this portal spills across the threshold towards us, coalescing into a strange shape, both bat-like and angelic, in the central panel. The simple wooden frame is juxtaposed with this mercurial creature, which looms out in angularity from beneath.
Here, the boundary that divides life from death is shown to be unguarded. Without a door to close, Dyer is separated from his shadowy counterpart only by inches of floorspace. His death is conveyed to us without compromise; Bacon offers us a synthesis of spiritual and physical responses to loss that does not sentimentalise either. Yet there is love in Triptych, May-June 1973, too, emerging from the gloom to embrace us with its leathery wings.
Words by Lewis Coenen-Rowe
More to discover
You can visit the artist's official website here, and read an article about the artwork written by Max Porter for The Paris Review. A feature article with contributions about Francis Bacon's art from various writers, including Linda Nochlin and Hugh Davies on Triptych, May-June 1973, is available on the Tate website. Peter Conrad has written on Bacon's life for The Observer.