‘Triptych 1991’ was the final three panel work by the British artist Francis Bacon. It was also one of the last works that Bacon completed before his death at the age of 82 the following year.
The right panel shows a closely cropped image of Bacon’s own face while the left panel shows closely cropped image of the Brazilian racing driver Ayrton Senna. Both of these are seemingly stuck onto muscular lower torsos.
In the centre panel is what looks like a body, a mass of twisted flesh and muscle with one arm cradling the head and a black arrow shaped object about to pierce the flesh.
It is impossible not to see an image of Senna’s death in this painting. Bacon was at this time painting death and deathlike imagery into his work more and more, the centre panel showing the driver cut down by a freak accident in his prime.
At the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix Senna’s car slid off the track at one of the sweeping curves of the old Imola circuit, after skidding across the gravel trap the car impacted into a section Armco barrier. What at first looked like a minor crash from which he should have walked away from was much more serious. A piece of carbon fibre broke away from the front suspension pierced the visor on Senna’s helmet and lodged in his brain.
In spite of the work of the medical team who were on the scene extremely quickly, and an airlift to a nearby hospital Senna died from his injuries.
If one follows motor sport then it is impossible not to see the image as being of Senna’s death. However it can’t be: ‘Triptych 1991’ was painted in 1991, Bacon died in 1992 and Senna’s fatal crash was in 1994. The painting foreshadows Senna’s death and almost seems to predict it.
Bacon loved to take risks, he constantly experimented with his work. Sometimes the risk paid off and sometimes it didn’t. If it didn’t then he would destroy the work. Even in his final years when a small painting was worth over $1m if Bacon felt it was not right he would have it destroyed and start again.
Gambling was of Bacon’s favourite pass times and he spent a lot of time in the casino’s and clubs of Monaco.
Senna would take risks. For Senna winning was everything and he would push himself and his car to the limit:
“And so you touch this limit, something happens and you suddenly can go a little bit further. With your mind power, your determination, your instinct, and the experience as well, you can fly very high.”
Senna made that statement during qualifying for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix after he beat his team mate Prost by over a second.
Senna was the King of Monaco, he won on the tight and twisting street track six times, more than any other driver in history. His final five victories came in a row but the one blip was 1988. In the race he pushed too hard touched a curb and slid into the barrier. That accident he walked away from.
‘Triptych 1991’ then is about the two men depicted. Senna and Bacon, both who push the limits. Sometimes it works, a win, a great work of art, a world championship or a masterpiece was created. Sometimes it doesn’t, a painting cut to ribbons and burned, a car stuck in the gravel trap its front wing jammed under the Armco.
Bacon understood Senna, because like Bacon Senna never shied away from taking risks.