- Leilani Radaideh
Bacon’s 1973 Triptych: Death on a Toilet Seat
(Triptych, May–June 1973, 1973. Oil on canvas.)
Regarded as one of Francis Bacon’s most accomplished pieces, as part of his series of Triptychs', this piece is one of my favorites for its sheer rawness and depth. It portrays Bacon's partner, George Dyer, moments before his fatal overdose in 1971. Although the artist first upkept a stoic appearance towards his loss, overtime he became overwhelmed with "daemons, disaster, and loss". In order to cope, he turned to painting a series of paintings of Dyer in homage to him. Thanks to the use of color, brush work, and structure; these paintings really stand out from his body of work.
Triptych artworks are usually separated into three panels, which can be opened and closed using the hinges attached. In traditional triptych paintings, the center panel is customarily the largest. This layout can be seen in Christian Iconography, most famously ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Bosch or Hugo van der Goes’s Portinari Altarpiece. Bacon strays away from the traditional use of this layout by isolating each piece from one another as they have no hinges to connect them- yet they still hold a sense of thematic continuity, exploring the same subject matter. The pseudo-narrative has been split and leaves us as viewers on our own to explore each piece. Alone in this devilish piece of meat, blood, ghastly shadows. A strange compliment for flesh and bone, dead post-puking. It isn’t pleasant, to say the least. In this way, we sort of feel connected to Bacon. We feel disgusted, upset, outraged, confused…etc. This is reflected in the casual play between the hellish reds and rich human and earthly tones; all contrasted with the deep emptiness of the black.
When ‘reading’ the canvases, there are many ways in which we can do this, from left-to-right, right-to-left…etc. This gives the spectator a sense of feigned freedom, as although we may think we are allowed to choose the way in which we explore the paintings, we are still very much trapped. Bacon controls us even further by implementing arrows into his work. The arrows might have been just another formal technique, however I believe that the arrows act as a directional movement to our sight, we are drawn to them as they seem so out of place. In pictures, these even look as though they may be edited on. From there, we follow the direction in which the arrows create a diagonal that leads straight onto the figure. The arrow acts as the almighty onlooker's metaphysical indicator. It’s actually almost funny in a way- where else would we be looking?
In this article, I’ll be your arrows. Starting from the left canvas, we evidently see Dyer sitting on the toilet with his face turned downwards, averting our view. The flesh colors make it look as though there may still be some life left in the person, however, the gray streaks juxtapose that and hint otherwise. With his head between his legs, he’s like an insect that has been trampled upon- but not enough to the point of death- only enough so he may squirm in lengthened moments of agony.
In the central canvas, the tone of the room has shifted as the toilet has retreated back into the darkness and now our attention is drawn to a naked light bulb that hangs from a frail-looking ensemble of wires. It seems as though there is more death in this piece than the others, as not only is the person in the center on the verge of death, but so is the light. The man’s color has also changed. The flesh tones that were evident in the piece before, have almost completely disappeared. Instead to be replaced by dule grays, purples, and blues. Our whole room has shifted, darkness has started oozing outside of the confines of what was once a bathroom. It has morphed and mutated to take the shape of, what I believe, some demonic figure with wings. The figure’s body is now living its final moments.
Finally, we end our journey on the last canvas. In the previous paintings, the body, although in a state of extreme sorrow and pain, was still alive; yet, in this piece, it seems as though the body is dead and the battle to stay alive has ended. This is evident in the posture of the figure, hunched over quite naturally and the head is in a downwards-relaxed position, instead of twisting and contorting, the body simply lies. There seems to be a shift in tone as now there isn’t an air of agony but serenity. The colors also make the fact that the figure is dead obvious as the skin is completely gray, the minuscule light present has disappeared and the shadow has retreated back into the bathroom. We are back in the place in which we first began which gives the story a satisfying ending, similar to that of a story; the first piece was the beginning, the second the climax and the third the resolution/ ending.
The most melancholic aspect; the lonely few seconds before the end of life. When I first learned of what this painting actually was, I thought: how humiliating. This surely was some breach of privacy, painting your lovers final moments as they flail and twist and turn as their insides become mush; all on a cold white toilet seat, alone. But then I reconsidered my original ponder. Why would it matter to him if he was already dead, with Bacon to deal with the consequences? Do we owe it to the dead to respect them, to keep their final moments intimate and confidential? Do any of these human frivolities even matter?
Don’t look at me for answers, I wouldn’t know.