Beyond the blood-red color, the paint-scraped canvas, and the distorted bodies, it is the screaming mouth at the center of Fragment of a Crucifixion (1950) that affirms its absolute horror. Inspired by medical textbooks and the image of a screaming blood-covered nurse from Sergei Eisenstein’s film The Battleship Potemkin (1925), the scream motif recurs often in Francis Bacon’s work. As philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995) once remarked, from Bacon’s screams “the entire body escapes through the mouth.” Bacon favored the tangled geometry that distorts perspective from foreground to background. Here, the screaming figure seems suspended over a white geometric cage that projects into the viewer’s space. Another body recedes into the dark, truncated cross shape behind it, and a third mass of bloodied flesh hangs from the crossbar.
Bacon painted many distorted and near-blasphemous representations of the crucifixion, beginning with Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944). His religious icons, emerging from a manifestly atheist standpoint, refuse the possibility of hope or redemption. The abject hopelessness of Bacon’s crucifixion imagery is especially significant because it is impossible to detach it from the wartime horrors of the previous decades: The screaming figure, together with the ambiguous array of stick-figures and cars along the horizon, pull the work away from a straightforward recapitulation of ancient religious iconography and into postwar modernity.