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Meaning & Analysis

Bull Fight comprises a collection of lithograph prints by Irish-born British artist, Francis Bacon. Each of the prints were made after paintings that depict bullfighting – a popular pastime in Spain, Portugal, southern France, and some Hispanic American countries, such as Ecuador and Peru. In Study For Bullfight (1989), the lower portion of a human figure stands with one leg upheld in triumph; at thigh-level, what appears to be a bull’s horn – also surrounded by eminently human, flesh-coloured tones – juts out of a block-coloured background with a threatening dynamism. An eerie snapshot of truncated human form, the piece commands our attention by way of this geometric framing device – a common feature of Bacon’s paintings.

Portraying a markedly less ambiguous subject matter, Study For Bullfight (left panel) (1971) depicts a bullfight in full swing. This print is a copy of Bacon’s original 1969 painting,Study For Bullfight No. 1, and was issued on the occasion of Bacon’s retrospective at Paris’s Grand Palais. Sandy, orange tones recall those of the corrida, which Bacon visited frequently on his travels throughout southern France and Spain, whilst a segment of greyer tones to the right of the composition offer a snapshot of a baying audience. In front of the audience, an ancient Roman standard flies high in a metaphorical evocation of bullfighting’s links to gladiatorial combat. Study For Bullfight (right panel) (1980) is a lithograph print of the 1969 painting, Study For A Bullfight, Number 2 (1969), which is currently housed at France’s Musée des beaux-arts de Lyon and is based on Study For A Bullfight No. 1. In Study For Bullfight (centre panel) (1990), we notice a similar image; the omission of the biomorphic audience and its replacement by a rectangular panel of eggshell paint, is starkly clear, however. These two works in particular are testament to Bacon’s tendency to work and re-work the same subject matter for extended periods of time.

Born in Ireland, Bacon had grown up surrounded by animals; Bacon’s father, to whom he ashamedly confessed to have been sexually attracted, worked as a racehorse trainer. Much like Bacon’s Three Studies For Figures At The Base Of A Crucifixion (1944) and Second Version Of The Triptych 1944 (1988), the Bull Fight works are symptomatic of Bacon’s keen interest in the margins between the human and the animal. From a thematic standpoint, the bullfight fits right in with much of Bacon’s œuvre; a kind of ‘dance’ located at the intersection between life and death, its depiction serves as a much more profound meditation on marginality. Capturing the liminal – or ‘in between’ – state, these works also recall the tragic Triptych August 1972, which depicts the final moments of Bacon’s onetime lover and muse, George Dyer.