Fragment of a Crucifixion

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Fragment of a Crucifixion
Fragment of a Crucifixion.jpg
Artist Francis Bacon
Year 1950
Type Oil and cotton wool on canvas[1]
Dimensions 140 cm × 108.5 cm (55 in × 42.7 in)
Location Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven

Fragment of a Crucifixion is a 1950 painting by Irish-born, English artist Francis Bacon. Typical of his work, it is drawn from a wide variety of sources, including the mouth of the screaming mouth of nurse in Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 silent film The Battleship Potemkin,[2] and iconography from both the Crucifixion of Jesus and his descent from the cross.

The Crucifixion shows two animals engaged in a bloody struggle. A dog grips a chimera with its mouth, and is at the point of kill. The dog also seems to be dying, and stoops on a horizontal beam that forms part of a T-shaped structure, probably intended to signify Christ's cross. Blood pours from the dog's mouth onto the head and body of his prey, who is rendered as owl-like, with human facial characteristics. The chimera's despair forms the centerpiece of the work, and in its agony can be compared to Bacon's 1950s series of screaming Popes.

Although the title has religious connotations, Bacon's personal outlook was bleak; as an atheist and did not believe in either divine intervention nor an afterlife. As such this work, through the inevitable fate of the prey, seems to represent a nihilistic and hopeless view of the human condition.[3]


Head II, 1949. 80.5 cm x 65 cm. Ulster Museum, Belfast

The figures are positioned in the center foreground of the canvas. Both are mutilated and covered in blood, with their physical discomfort contrasted against the flat, neutral background typical of Bacon's work. The figures exhibit many elements typical of his early work, noticeably the expressive broad strokes, set against the tightness of the flat, nondescript background. The painting contains the same white angular rails Bacon had inserted into the mid-ground of his 1949 Head II and Head IV, as well as the Study for Portrait of the same year. In this panel, the rails are positioned just below the area where the horizontal and vertical bars of the cross intersect. The rail begins with a diagonal line which intersects the owl at what appears to be the creature's shoulder.[2]

A horizontal angular geometrical shape is sketched in white and grey in the mid-ground, and represents an early form of a spatial device Bacon was to develop and perfect over the course of the 1950s, when it effectively became a cage used to frame the anguished figures portrayed in Bacon's foregrounds. In the mid-ground, the artist has sketched a street scene, which features a number of walking figures and cars. The pedestrians appear unaffected and uninterested in the slaughter before them.[2][4][5]

The body of the hybrid bird[6] or chimera is rendered with light paint, and from it hang narrow red drips of paint, indicating the drips and spatter of blood. Pentimenti is used to depict the animal's death throes.[2] The link with the biblical Crucifixion is made through the raised arms of the lower creature and the T shaped cross.[7] The lower figure's human aspect is seen most notably in the details of its mouth and genitalia. The upper creature is obviously modeled on a dog,[8] his form is merged with pictures Bacon kept of bats.[9]

Imagery and sources[edit]

Owls 1956. The shape of the body of the dying chimera was later reproduced in thuis 1956 painting.[10]

The painting has been linked both thematically and in its formal construction to the 1956 work Owls and to a number of preparatory sketches only brought to the art market in the late 1990s.[10] Zweite traces the origin of the lower figure to a photograph of an owl Bacon found in a book on birds in motion. However, Bacon has replaced the bird's beak with a wide open human mouth.[11]

It is one of a number of Bacon's treatments of the biblical crucifixion scene. He incorporates Greek legend, notably the tale of Aeschylus and the Eumenides—or Furies—found in the Oresteia , which is referenced by the broad wings of the chimera. Bacon's imagery became less extreme and more imbued with pathos as he got older, and fewer of his canvases contained the sensational imagery that had made him famous in the mid-1940s. He said, "When I was younger, I needed extreme subject-matter. Now I don't." According to the art critic John Russell, Bacon found it more powerful to reflect violence in his brush strokes and colourisation, rather than "in the thing portrayed".[12]

Open mouth[edit]

Still from Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 silent film The Battleship Potemkin. Bacon called the image a catalyst for his work, and incorporated the shape of the mouth when painting the chimera[2]

The motif of the screaming mouths appears in many Bacon's work from the late 1940s and early 1950s. It was drawn from a number of sources, including medical text books, the works of Matthias Grünewald[13] and images of the nurse in the Odessa Steps sequence in Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 silent film The Battleship Potemkin.[14]

Bacon first saw the film in 1935 and viewed it frequently thereafter. He kept a photographic still of a close-up of the nurse shown screaming in panic and terror, with broken pince-nez spectacles hanging from her blood stained face. His paintings refer to the still throughout his career.[14] He tended to draw images in series, and the Odessa nurse become an obsessive motif for him. According to the art critic and biographer Michael Peppiatt, "it would be no exaggeration to say that, if one could really explain the origins and implications of this scream, one would be far closer to understanding the whole art of Francis Bacon."[15]


Peter Paul Rubens 1612-1614 Descent from the Cross. Center panel of a triptych.[16]

The title refers to Christian iconography of the Passion of Jesus.[11] Crucifixion scenes are found from Bacon's earliest works,[17] and weighted heavily throughout his career. The critic John Russell wrote that, to Bacon, the crucifixion was a "generic name for an environment in which bodily harm is done to one or more persons and one or more other persons gather to watch".[18]

Eric Hall commissioned a series of three paintings from Bacon on the crucifixion in 1933.[19] At this early stage in his career, Bacon drew influence from old masters such as Matthias Grünewald, Diego Velázquez and Rembrandt,[17] but also from Picasso's late 1920s and early 1930s biomorphs[20] and the early work of the Surrealists.[21] Bacon said that he thought of the scene as a "magnificent armature on which you can hang all types of feeling and sensation".[22] He believed that the imagery of the crucifixion allowed him to examine "certain areas of human behaviour" in a unique way, as the armature of the theme had been accumulated by so many old masters.[22] In this work, Bacon refers to the descent of the cross, and specifically to the depositions of Matthias Grünewald and Peter Paul Rubens.[23]

According to art critic Hugh Davies, the open mouth of the "terrified victim", and the predator leaning over the cross link the painting to Rubens' Descent of the Cross. But the mouth loosely opened in seventeenth century painting is taut in Bacon's image. Both the legs folded out of view and the left arm are passive in the Rubens, but in the Bacon are in violent motion, seemingly moving wildly up and down.[23]


Horizontal frames are often featured in his works of the 1950s and 1960s. At the time he was still developing the format, and can be seen, in various forms, into other contemporary paintings. The motif may been borrowed from sculptors such as Henry Moore and Alberto Giacometti, both of whom Bacon greatly admired; he often corresponded met with Giacometti especially.[24] Giacometti had employed the device in his The Nose (1947) and The Cage (1950), while Moore used similar frames in his 1952 Maquettefor King and Queen.[5]

Bacon's use of frames has brought to mind imprisonment to many commentators; Adolf Eichmann's glass cage during his 1961 trial is a common reference.[25][26] Writing on their use in Fragment, the art critic Armin Zweite wrote that the diagonal lines, on the one hand point inwards towards the idyll, in a promise of happiness, on the other they transform the cross into a guillotine and suggest misfortune. The situation is double-edged, a Damocles. If you want to reach the "good world" you have to pass through the "bad world", and you run the risk of being killed in the process.[2]


Bacon was his own harshest critic, and often destroyed or disowned his own work; including a number of pieces that were held in high regard by critics and buyers. Fragment of a Crucifixion is one he came to dislike; he viewed it as too explicit, in the words of Russell, "too near the conventions of narrative-painting."[12][27]


  1. ^ Peppiatt, 92
  2. ^ a b c d e f Zweite, 114
  3. ^ Davis, 404
  4. ^ Rothenstein, John. "Francis Bacon: Exhibition Cath." Tate Gallery, 23 May-1 July 1962
  5. ^ a b Sylvester, 36
  6. ^ Gale, Matthew. "Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion". Tate. Retrieved on 25 February 2017
  7. ^ van Alphen, 91
  8. ^ The Tate suggest it may have been modelled on a cat. See Gale, 1998
  9. ^ Sylvester, 40
  10. ^ a b Gale, Matthew. "Two Owls, No. 2 circa 1957-61". Tate, February 1999. Retrieved February 26 2017
  11. ^ a b Zweite, 85
  12. ^ a b Russell, 76
  13. ^ Schmied, 73
  14. ^ a b Davies, 18
  15. ^ Peppiatt, 24
  16. ^ Alley, 28
  17. ^ a b Sylvester, 13
  18. ^ Russell, 113
  19. ^ Davies & Yard, 12
  20. ^ Baldassari, 140-144
  21. ^ Zweite, 30
  22. ^ a b Schmied, 78
  23. ^ a b Adams, 179
  24. ^ Sylvester, David. "Giacometti and Bacon". London Review of Books, volume 9 No. 6, 19 March 1987. 8-9
  25. ^ Sylvester, 37
  26. ^ Farr, 60
  27. ^ Schmied, 75