Francis Bacon’s Painting (1946), which is currently on view in the exhibition Solider, Spectre, Shaman: The Figure and the Second World War, came into MoMA’s paintings conservation studio in early 2015, after we received a request for an X-ray. The expectation was that an X-ray might provide material evidence to support Bacon’s recollections about the early stages of the painting’s development. In multiple published interviews with David Sylvester and others, Bacon recalled that he initially set out to make a painting depicting a bird of prey landing on a field, but that chance and a few stray marks led him down an unintended path, culminating in the image we see today: a grimacing dictatorial figure standing within a railed platform, decorated with cuts of meat and clusters of microphones. The figure holds a black umbrella, which casts a dark shadow, obscuring most of the figure’s face. Behind the figure hangs a flayed animal carcass, the upper limbs of which extend toward the upper corners of the composition. Floral garlands hang across the top of the composition, above and behind the animal carcass. Three purple window shades extend across the upper background, behind the central figure, carcass, and garlands.
The request was not surprising, as X-radiography is a common technique for revealing subsurface layers of paint, which can often suggest compositional alterations that occurred during the creation or subsequent restoration of an artwork. (To read about other conservation projects that were informed by X-radiography, check out previous posts about René Magritte’s The Enchanted Pose and Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31, 1950.)
The X-radiograph of Painting does suggest significant compositional alterations, particularly in the lower half of the canvas. Though no clear “bird of prey”–type shape is immediately evident, the large drumstick-like shapes and curved, rib-like linear brushwork at the lower-center portion of the X-ray are indicative of substantial and radio-opaque compositional elements that were covered up as the painting was completed. The X-radiograph also indicates that the animal carcass was initially laid in as a solid shape and was later divided with deep blacks and reds, strengthening its likeness to a crucifixion (the crucifixion and butcher shop imagery both being motifs that are conflated throughout Bacon’s oeuvre). We only wish that Bacon could have seen the X-ray of this pivotal painting, as X-radiographic imagery was also a prominent influence on his early visual vocabulary!Images of contemporaneous works suggest a somewhat different backstory than the one that Bacon suggested in his interviews with Sylvester. Photos of Study for Man with Microphones (1946) [pictured at left], which Bacon later repainted and subsequently destroyed, depicted very similar compositional themes to Painting, which was most likely painted after the abandoned work. In Study for Man with Microphones a black-suited figure stands within a railed structure, before a bevy of microphones, with the upper portion of his face concealed by a black umbrella.
The Bacon scholar Martin Harrison proposes that the similarity of these two images suggests that the creation of Painting was less the result of chance than Bacon let on. This inconsistency between the painting’s oral and material history is a recurring problem for conservators and scholars alike, as both types of histories are vital sources of information. In Bacon’s case, his impulse to self-edit and his careful construction of the publicized story of his creative practice give rise to conflicting histories of Painting.
The next blog post will look at how we weigh this evidence, and provides a possible peek inside the artist’s mind and a deeper understanding of this seminal painting.