Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944 was first shown at London’s Lefevre Gallery in April 1945. The three screaming and squirming grey creatures on a hot orange background hit a nerve with its war-ridden audience and, according to John Russell, the work ‘caused a total consternation.’ For Bacon, they represented the Eumenides from Aeschylus’ Greek tragedy the Oresteia.
The famous triptych manifested Bacon’s breakthrough in the British art scene and the starting point of his stellar career. The artist himself rated this work highly for the rest of his life and dismissed anything he had done before. Yet Bacon soon left behind its linear style in favour of a more malerisch approach, exemplified in the sketchy, dry brushstrokes of Painting 1946 and the thick, heavy impasto of Head II, 1949.
Bacon found his first major subject in variations of Diego Velázquez’s Portrait of Innocent X, c.1650. He obsessively collected photographs of the painting and, between 1946 and 1971, he based more than thirty paintings on the portrait. Bacon often combined these with film stills of a screaming woman from Sergei Eisenstein’s silent movie Battleship Potemkin (1925). As such, the ‘Screaming Popes’ are among his most recognisable works.
The year 1949 marked a pivotal turning point in Bacon’s creative development: the human figure became his principal subject matter and focal point of all his future efforts. It first features prominently in Study from the Human Body from that year. The painting is based on an image of two men wrestling from Eadweard Muybridge’s The Human Figure in Motion; this photographic motion series of humans and animals walking, running and jumping remained a constant source of inspiration throughout Bacon’s career.