'Bullfighting is like boxing - a marvellous aperitif to sex'. Francis Bacon1
The drama and the choreographed violence of the corrida gripped Francis Bacon's imagination over a lengthy period. Just six paintings survive to testify to this enduring fascination (two of them do so only obliquely), and they all fall within the years 1967 to 1987. Simultaneously monumental and visceral, Second Version of Study for Bullfight No.1 (1969) is a compelling evocation of a ritual slaughter, a tussle between man and animal in a public spectacle which heightens the human comedy to a level of absurdity that Bacon surely relished.
Bacon only completed (or rather, refrained from disassembling) one triptych on a bullfighting theme, Triptych 1987 (Estate of Francis Bacon). While it was still in progress he was asked if the painting was about death, and replied: ``It is about death. But it's about death in the sunlight, and for me that does conjure up all kinds of images``.2 This poignant juxtaposition recalls Ernest Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon (1932), a contemplative factual account of fear and courage in the world of bullfighting which Hemingway's novel The Sun Also Rises (1926) had partly anticipated. But Bacon, who late in life occasionally relaxed his guard when discussing his inspirations, confided that the spur for the 1987 triptych was Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías (Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías), by Federico Garcia Lorca: typically, he added that he doubted ``if the painting will have much to do with Lorca at all, but it's a starting point''.3
Bacon quoted one line in Lorca's extended elegy as particularly suggestive, the insistently repeated opening refrain, '``At five in the afternoon' (A las cinco de la tarde), which is revealed as the time of the young bullfighter's tragic death. And as he admitted in 1975, the poem had had a no less profound effect on Second Version of Study for Bullfight No.1.4 Lorca's lament was published in Spain in 1934 and translated into English in 1937; it is not known when Bacon first read it, but it was also translated by his friend Stephen Spender (together with John Louis Gili) in 1939, a version that was reprinted several times subsequently. Bacon said he had only seen 'a few' bullfights, but it could be conjectured that he attended one while in Madrid with Peter Lacy in 1956 and while staying near the Spender family in Provence in 1966: in the unlikely event he was not already acquainted with Lorca's poem, he possibly discussed it with Spender on the latter occasion. Another recurring phrase in Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías, the plangent ``I will not see it!'', is comparable with passages in two plays, both strongly resonant for Bacon and both rooted in Aeschylus's Oresteia trilogy - Shakespeare's ``Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow'' from the soliloquy in Macbeth and T.S. Eliot's ``Can't you see them? You don't see them, but I see them, And they see me''. (Family Reunion, 1939).
The literary inspirations for the bullfight paintings may appear more analogous with his paintings than the obvious visual antecedents. His aim, after all, was not to illustrate a bullfight but to evoke its haunting, elegiac atmosphere, though this became inextricable from his notion of realism. Bacon wrote to Michel Leiris in 1981, valiantly attempting to define realism, a perennially problematical term in art-historical discourse but a Bacon leitmotif. Discussing Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus (1981; Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Oslo), which he embarked upon ``after reading again Aeschylus'', he said, ``I attempted to make images of the sensations that certain parts of it had for me... one is forced back into trying to invent methods by which the reality of appearances can be impressed on our nervous system'':5 his remarks are equally pertinent to the connection between Garcia Lorca and the Second Version of Study for Bullfight No.1.
The cropped circular 'ring' in Second Version of Study for Bullfight No.1, in which man grapples with a dangerous beast, had entered Bacon's oeuvre as an important formal structure in 1952. Prefigured in Pope I (1951; Aberdeen Art Gallery), the curved arena became more explicit in Study for Crouching Nude (1952; Detroit Institute of Arts), an artificial, claustrophobic space, and a psychologically-charged intensifier of the gestures and emotions enacted within it. In 1988 he told an interviewer that he found the arena at Nîmes too large:6 in his own bullfight paintings the ring (ruedo) is tightly compressed, to resemble one of his decontextualized interiors more than any corrida. Uniquely, in paring down the pictorial matrix of Second Version of Study for Bullfight No.1, Bacon eliminated the front boundary of the arena and extended the dryly textured and subtly variegated sandy floor (albero) to the bottom edge of the picture frame. This was a crucial alteration, for we are metaphorically placed in the centre of the action ourselves as the bull in this version twists round to confront the audience (viewer).
Bacon is often described as having painted in series, although with the exception of the vaunted Popes, which he painted from at least 1946 until 1971, these tended to be confined to quite brief periods - the Men in Blue, the Blake heads and the Van Gogh paintings. On the other hand, he did become obsessed with certain themes - landscapes, say, or seated figures - to which he returned intermittently: the Bullfight paintings fall into the latter category. If Bacon's intention to paint a bullfight underwent a long gestation, it was first announced, albeit in an oblique, almost coded way, in the enigmatic Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho (1967; Staatliche Museum Berlin, Nationalgalerie). A plausible trigger for the incorporation of the bullfight reference in this painting was a book by Michel Leiris, Miroir de la Tauromachie, first published in 1938. As a result of the deep meditation on the corrida in the Miroir, Leiris would propose that the autobiographer ought to be prepared to take the same risks as a bullfighter - to write as though his life was on the line - an objective that would surely have resonated strongly with Bacon. Although Bacon was acquainted with Leiris's writing (he was familiar, for example, with Documents, the seminal journal on which Leiris had collaborated with Georges Bataille in 1929 and 1930), the two men did not meet until July 1965, on the occasion of Alberto Giacometti's retrospective at the Tate Gallery; they became close friends and collaborators, and Bacon valued Leiris's interpretations of his paintings above those of any other writer.
Significantly, on January 25th 1966 Bacon wrote to thank Leiris for sending ``your superb Miroir de la Tauromachie''.7 Painted in the following year, Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho combines three episodes on a single canvas, a kind of condensed triptych comparable with the three representations of his model in the contemporary Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne (1967; Staatliche Museum Berlin, Nationalgalerie). The figure of Rawsthorne was based on two John Deakin photographs in which she was literally standing outside a shop window, although Bacon realized her head with a haughty dignity redolent of the Egyptian art that may have suggested such a characterization. One of Deakin's photographs included a motor-car projecting behind Rawsthorne's back, and this was also retained by Bacon, who transformed it into one of his minimal cipher-cars, identifiable mainly by its 'vintage' spoked hub and mudguard. At the upper right of the picture Bacon's car overlaps the concave mirror/window, which contains a bull in vigorous motion (together with its partial reflection?) and six perfunctorily delineated spectators in the background; in one of Bacon's lucid inspirations the mudguard segues into the horn of the bull. Given that the entire ambiguous scenario is played out in a roughly circular enclosure which anticipates the spatial treatment of Bacon's bullrings of 1969, the swishing appendages to Rawsthorne's black dress could also refer to the balletic flourishes of the matador's cape.
Ultimately, Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho cannot be described as a painting of a bullfight, but considered in the context of his entire oeuvre it is curiously prescient of the theme to which Bacon would return a year or so later. In a book found in Bacon's studio after his death, Robert Daley's The Swords of Spain (London, 1967), Bacon had written a memorandum to himself on 14 July 1968: ``Studies from the human body and The Bullfight''. Study for Bullfight No. 1 (1969; Private Collection) was painted in a studio at the Royal College of Art which Bacon occupied between January and August 1969. The second version was almost certainly executed there during those same months: in July 1969, at Bacon's request, Leiris sent him another copy of Miroir de la Tauromachie, which firmly suggests that the bullfight was not only a continuing preoccupation but, at that point, an urgent one.
There is a strong likelihood that the bullfight paintings Bacon planned in 1968 were originally conceived as a triptych, in common with a majority of his major 'subject paintings' at that time. In Study for Bullfight No. 2 (1969; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon) the concave panel containing a crowd of spectators is placed at the left of the frame, which would have balanced with Study for Bullfight No.1 at the right: a further bullfight, almost certainly contemporaneous with the three surviving paintings from 1969 and possibly intended as the central panel, was eventually destroyed by Bacon. Thus Second Version of Study for Bullfight No.1 may have been considered, at some stage, as part of a revised triptych. Certainly the triptych form could be said to be inherent in the subject, since a bullfight is essentially 'a tragedy in three acts' - the three tercios that lead up to the ten minutes the matador is allowed in which to complete his faena and kill the bull. Since Bacon strove to avoid any willed expression in his paintings, and abhorred narrative art, he may have worried about the narrative connotations inherent in the time-sequence of a bullfight; moreover, he possibly thought that in Study for Bullfight No.1 the abbreviated, painterly renditions of the crowd of spectators and the physiognomy of the matador strayed close to establishing a story, which would have been antithetical to the immediacy of the sensation he wanted to convey.
According to John Russell, one reason for Bacon's professed ambivalence toward his bullfight paintings was that ``he found the load of association too heavy'':8 on the other hand, Bacon's self-deprecatory assessments are open to multiple interpretations, and should always be gauged in the context of his contradictory nature. Stripped of any prosaic associations, Second Version of Study for Bullfight No.1 is a distillation and refinement of the first version: rather, it should be reconsidered as a significant response to it. It presents a rationalisation of the balancing of order and spontaneity and of image and field, and lucidly reconciles two modes of vision - the distant view of the architectural setting and the close-up intimacy of the matador grappling with the bull.
In Bacon's revisions, the features of the matador have become spectral, feature-less, outlined in an ethereal, fluorescent lime-green; almost sinisterly shadowed, he is stripped of his identity. The setting is reduced to a stately inertness and the tiered rows of spectators who had previously occupied the semi-circular concave screen have been bleached out: by literally effacing the audience, Bacon appears to be commenting on the dual nature of the illusory screen of the first version, which he has turned into a mirror without reflections (or reflecting the afternoon sky). The spectators in the other bullfight paintings fulfil a similar function to the 'attendants', the voyeuristic onlookers Bacon had begun to introduce into his paintings in 1967 and that question who is observing whom: in Second Version of Study for Bullfight No.1 they are cancelled out. While he retained the area marking typical of the bullring, the encircled '4', the pink base of the barrera which had formerly terminated the upper area of the cadmium orange ground is also eliminated, now replaced by the thin white stirrup-board (escribo). The inclusion of the numeral was consistent with Bacon's enduring fascination with graffiti and hieroglyphics; the 'Letraset' adhesive lettering he began to incorporate in his paintings soon after the 1969 Bullfights fulfilled a similar function.
The thickly impastoed, spermatozoic streaks of white pigment which cross the bull's head and that spill across the floor can be compared not only with random secretions of bodily fluids but also with blood, thus providing a clue to what they may signify in later paintings by Bacon: the beautifully staccato splashes of white over the bull's back may have been suggested by black and white photographs of the shimmering, sunlit blood, brought forth by the thrusts of the banderillas. In 1979 his friend Eddy Batache witnessed Bacon apply one of these painterly flourishes: ``Suddenly he put on a glove and hurled a pellet of white paint at the picture with all his might, crushing it against the canvas. I was staggered by the force of his gesture and by the risk he was taking...''.9 The present painting is replete with similarly bravura touches, confirming how technically adroit Bacon had become by 1969. Several small areas are left as raw canvas (the bull's horn, one of its hooves and beneath the spectators at the extreme right), the pinkish blush of the bull's flank cleverly contrasts with the glossy black surrounding it, and Bacon deliberately flicked thin, liquid drips of black pigment around the centre of the canvas as a final gesture of feigned indifference.
Bacon returned to the subject in Lying Figure (1977). Yet in this painting, despite the formal compositional aspects it shares with the earlier Bullfights, the matador has metamorphosed into the eponymous lying figure, whose lower body rests over (or under?) a circular chrome and glass table reminiscent of Bacon's modernist furniture designs of c. 1930. One of Bacon's strangest conjunctions has the legs of the bull morph into the legs of the 'table' the figure is lying upon, so that this is only vestigially a bullfight painting at all, and then only in relation to the Bullfights of 1969. But a further painting, made in 1978, had marked affinities with Second Version of Study for Bullfight No.1. Tentatively entitled 'Corrida', it was stolen by workmen carrying out repairs at Bacon's Reece Mews studio in the summer of 1978; it was recovered by detectives who ensnared the thief by posing as potential buyers, but as Valerie Beston, of Marlborough Fine Art, recorded, when the painting was returned to Bacon on November 15th 1978, ``He cuts it up and puts pieces into dustbin.''10
No doubt when Bacon considered painting a bullfight he was conscious of the weight of art-historical precedent. Russell suggested that Bacon was ambivalent towards Goya's depictions of bullfighting because they were ``dramatic in a self-evident way''.11 It is a criticism, though, that could scarcely be levelled at paintings by other artists in Bacon's pantheon, such as Manet's 'Espada' series or impressive Bullfight paintings of 1863 and 1865 (The Frick Collection, New York and Art Institute of Chicago, respectively). Picasso, the one twentieth-century artist whose early work, at least, Bacon unequivocally admired for its unflinching ``brutality of fact'', was almost invariably involved in a dialogue with violence; however, one could not contemplate Bacon having been moved by either the Spaniard's neo-Baroque Toreador paintings of the 1930s or his self-identification with the mythical Minotaur. If, in the Bullfight paintings, Picasso was informing Bacon, it was probably only insofar as he provided both a sanction and a challenge: indeed, in Second Version of Study for Bullfight No.1 the matador and bull almost merge and virtually reverse the traditional iconography of the Minotaur.
Irrespective of the interest in identifying Bacon's disparate pictorial stimuli, many of his paintings stemmed more pertinently from a dialogue with his own paintings, reproductions of which he habitually pinned to his studio wall. He seldom hung the work of any other artist in his home, and never any of his own, yet these reduced illustrations of his completed works were a key reference source and a departure point for further variations: as we have seen, the Bullfight paintings partly emerged from precisely this kind of organic development. Nonetheless it is true that Bacon collected numerous profusely-illustrated books on bullfighting, among which the earliest so far identified is Peter Buckley, Bullfight, New York 1958, which contains 109 fine photographs by the author. Several of these books, or pages and fragments torn from them, were found in Bacon's studio after his death and are now in the collection of Dublin City Gallery: The Hugh Lane. In addition, Bacon pulled images that intrigued him from magazines and newspapers, and the photographer Jorge Lewinski, who took portraits of Bacon on several occasions from 1964 onwards, was asked by the artist to provide him with enlargements of bullfight photographs he had taken in Seville in about 1966. A book which evidently received Bacon's close attention when conceiving Second Version of Study for Bullfight No.1 was In the Presence of Death: Antonio Ordoñez, Shay Oag, London 1968; from a copy of this book Bacon removed sixty of its 262 pages along with the cloth covers - the latter he frequently recycled as mounting boards for the most useful images. Bacon synthesized elements from several of the books he consulted; evidently the white passage to the left of the bull, though it no longer exactly describes a matador's capote, was based on the strange shapes the fighting cape assumed when caught by the camera in a frozen instant.
Bacon was acutely aware of photographs whose odd disjunctions, details or distortions he appropriated more or less literally before translating them in pigment. Yet his paintings are never merely the aggregate of arbitrary source imagery; the specific conjunction of matador and bull in Second Version of Study for Bullfight No.1, for instance, appears to have evolved from his imagination as much as through his calculated strategies. And regardless of his dissembling on the question of 'illustration', the meanings of his paintings frequently reside in the non-resolution of divergent or ostensibly contradictory impulses. What Bacon consummately resolved in Second Version of Study for Bullfight No.1 was the interplay between the painterly and the linear, between the treatment of the silhouetted matador and the bull as contrasted with the curved white line of the escribo, the extended black outline of the concave screen and the black whiplash positioned between the bull and the matador: these arcing lines serve to deftly emphasize the swirling, spinning motion of the encounter, intensifying its emotional charge.
When discussing his literary inspirations, Bacon tended to speak of trying to create an image of the effect a text produced inside him. His recreation of the sensation of the bullfight was nicely articulated by Gilles Deleuze in terms of the alternative dimension of sound: ``we hear the noise of the beast's hooves''.12 Second Version of Study for Bullfight No.1 eloquently reconciles a field of cooled-down spatial grandeur with an image that powerfully captures the essence and raw energy of a dance with death between bull and matador.
Martin Harrison, September 2007
1. John Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1989, p. 143
2. 'Francis Bacon: Reality Conveyed by a Lie', Art International, Autumn 1987, p. 30 (interviewed by M. Peppiatt). Two panels of another, uncompleted triptych of 1987 are also in the collection of the Estate of Francis Bacon.
4. Bacon discussed the poem with David Boxer as early as 1975: see D.W. Boxer, 'The Early Work of Francis Bacon', Ph.D. dissertation, Johns Hopkins University, 1975 (unpublished)
5. Bacon wrote to Leiris on 20 November 1981; the letter was published in Francis Bacon: Letters to Michel Leiris 1966 - 1989, Gagosian Gallery, 2006, but the version quoted here is from an earlier draft in Bacon's hand.
6. Bacon in an unpublished interview by Pierre E. Richard, 1988. In an (undated) postcard, sent from Nîmes, Bacon said: ``It is superb here. We are staying on for the corrida on the 27th.''
7. Francis Bacon: Letters to Michel Leiris 1966 - 1989, Gagosian Gallery, 2006
8. Russell, op.cit, loc. sit.
9. E. Batache, 'Francis Bacon and the last convulsions of Humanism', Art and Australia, vol. 23, no.2, Summer 1985. The incident occurred in Bacon's Paris studio (14, rue de Birague), and the painting was Jet of Water (1979). Batache also describes how Bacon went on to manipulate the knot of paint 'with astounding vehemence'.
10. Valerie Beston's diary, 15 November 1978, The Estate of Francis Bacon
11. Russell, op.cit, loc. sit.
12. Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: the logic of sensation, London 2003, p. 42
Oil on canvas
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Francis Bacon: Recent Paintings 1968 - 1974, March - June 1975, cat. no. 6, illustrated in color
London, Tate Gallery; Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie; Berlin, Nationalgalerie, Francis Bacon, May 1985 - April 1986, cat. no. 62, illustrated in color
Basel, Galerie Beyeler, Francis Bacon Retrospektive, June - September 1987, cat. no. 23, illustrated in color and on the cover in color
Düsseldorf, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Francis Bacon. The Violence of the Real, September 2006 - January 2007, cat. no. 47, p. 156, illustrated in color
78 3/4 x 58 1/8 in. 200 x 147.7 cm.
John Russell, Francis Bacon, Geneva, 1971, pl. no. 102, illustrated in color
Lorenza Trucchi, Francis Bacon, New York, 1975, pl. no. 134, illustrated in color
Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon, New York, 1988, pl. 65, illustrated in color
Exh. Cat., Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre national d'art et de Culture Georges Pompidou (and traveling), Francis Bacon, 1996, p. 53, illustrated
Exh. Cat., Munich, Haus der Kunst (and traveling), Francis Bacon 1909-1992 Retrospektive, 1996, pl. 53, illustrated
Wieland Schmied, Francis Bacon: Commitment and Conflict, Munich, 1996, pl. 36, illustrated in color
Luigi Ficacci, Francis Bacon: 1909-1992, Cologne, 2003, p. 28, illustrated in color
Marlborough Gallery, New York
Mr. and Mrs. Jerome L. Stern, New York (acquired from the above)
Galerie Beyeler, Basel (acquired from the above circa 1986)
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1987