The neoclassical paintings of Ingres and the nightmarish renditions of Bacon have, a priori, nothing in common. Ingres’ suavity of outline and extraordinary control of parallel hatchings are stark antipodes to the fragmented and inevitably tortured style of Bacon. Yet Bacon had an affinity for Ingres’ sensual treatment of the body, an anatomical execution that was bereft of warped reconstruction. Bacon also shared his fascination with Antiquity, hence why he rendered his own version of Oedipus explains the riddle of the Sphinx (1805). The canvas version by Ingres depicts the triumph of human intelligence. It shows the Greek hero, Oedipus, in the guise of a majestic naked athlete, calmly confronting the monster, whose tilted head symbolizes submission. In Bacon’s version, Oedipus and the Sphinx after Ingres (1983), the roles are reversed. Like Ingres, Oedipus is painted in profile, but this time he is wounded: blood smears a bandage wrapped around his leg. A winged creature, depicting an Erinys, emerges from the dark background. Erinyes, also known as a Furies, were female chthonic deities of vengeance sometimes referred to as “infernal goddesses.” This Erinys is literally “Fury” incarnated, an agent of divine vengeance whose image contributes to the dramatic atmosphere of the scene for she is, too, covered in blood.
Bacon’s tableau is made of multiple vanishing points. The vertical lines are not perpendicular to the ground, as can be seen from the slanted structure of the door. This gives the painting a very precarious, uneasy atmosphere. Primarily composed of rectangular and circular geometric forms, the room seems like a house of cards that could collapse at any time. Depth is created by the walls leaning backwards in perspective, yet the space in total is denied of dimension by the flat colors and lack of shadows. Everything is on the same plane. The framing is a medium shot, it is close to the action and fixates the viewers eyes Oedipus and the Sphinx, both of whom seem distorted into halves. The floor gives an impression of contra-plunging, while the characters are represented upright and head-on, accentuating the volatility of the work. Compositionally, it is in an interior space; symbolically, it is within the characters and the realm of action.
This scene can be divided into three zones: the left third of the table is the Sphinx area, the door is the area of the Erynis and the remaining space is the Oedipus area. Oedipus and the Sphinx are highlighted as they are the two main characters, yet Bacon reserves a sizable space for the Erynis, who represents the future, portending the fate of Oedipus’ self-cursing oath, and is thus also important.
Pink and beige are the predominant colors. Rather light tones, they create an atmosphere of serenity. However, the three red spots: on the foot of Oedipus, the Sphinx’s head, and the mutating swirl of Erynis, combined with the black wall behind the door disrupt the serenity. Pink is painted thickly on the walls, a solid application reinforced by a violent spattering of red blood. At this point, a blue ellipse highlights Oedipus bloodied foot. The blue and red give this table an incisive violence. Merely degraded shapes, the bodies of Oedipus and the Sphinx form enough to materialize, but no further technique is devoted to their representation.
Interestingly, these same colors are present in the Ingres painting. However the subtle, nuanced layering technique of colors so gracefully mastered by Ingres are not reused by Bacon: his colors appear more vibrant and bleak despite their pastel tones. Unlike Ingres, who uses a clear contrast between shadow and light, Bacon seems to bathe his subjects in light and flatten the dimensions of space. The light is artificial and has no defined source, which cancels the shadows of objects and bodies. It puts Oedipus and the Sphinx on the same plane creating a foreign proximity and brightness reminiscent of a theater stage, thus bringing modernity to the scene.
The Sphinx is located on a pedestal on the left side of the table, like a statue or work of art, but is in motion. It is asexual, impossible to identify, anonymous. A red spot covers his face, representing the violence and danger of the creature. His figure is in profile but its face seems to swivel, looking simultaneously at Oedipus and the viewer. Thus in challenging the viewer, the “Man,” it succinctly answers the riddle.
The heavy stature of Oedipus contradicts the soft curves of Ingres’ Romanticist depiction. He wears sports clothes: blue shorts and a white wifebeater. It is a modern and simple outfit, bearing no individuality. Like the Sphinx, he has a blurred face. Bacon uses shades to outline the idea of human face while avoiding identification. By becoming irrecognisable, the bloody foot characterizes Oedipus. The myth redefines the man. His right leg is lifted as if sprung to span a hedge, a haphazard yet recognizable image of an athlete. His foot lands painfully on a pedestal as if seeking to reach the level of the Sphinx watching him.
The creature asks about his own humanity. In essence, he asks a riddle whose answer is Man. Indeed, Bacon here evokes the postwar man who questions the violence he is capable of. The artist adapts this scene of the Oedipus myth to a more modern philosophical question. It created a connection between a myth of antiquity and a new problem, a reactive composition that renders the myth timeless and contemporary. Our attention is drawn by the blue ellipse surrounding the foot. It reminds us to observe the original disability. Oedipus is injured, it is no longer the embodiment of human intelligence that Ingres so defines. The two blood stains can be an advertisement of gesture that clots the tragedy of character: in its illumination it is, quite literally, blindingly obvious, further reflected in the tarnished Erynis in the center.
The Erynis personifies the curse cast by someone and is responsible for punishing crimes during the life of the actor. Her face is even more vague and indistinguishable than the Oedipus and the Sphinx. It fuses a gray and blue spattered doused in bloody shades of red. One manages to make out two round ears and muzzle, thus pointing her regard in the direction of Oedipus. Indeed we guess she is here to punish homicide he committed against his family and incest. Often represented with blood in her eyes, her bloody exterior has a dual symbolism: it allows us to identify the character but also declares the fate of the Oedipus. The Erynis is at the same coordinate as the foot of Oedipus, but above. This placement directs the destiny towards which she carries Oedipus, ironically up to the depths of the Underworld.
Everything in this table works to ultimately discomfort the beholder: the lack of nature and, certainly, of humanity in the morphed forms, the violence of color, lines and sudden treatment of key elements such as the faces and the foot of Oedipus. It opposes the work of Ingres, who built a very refined image to respond to a classical ideal, and evokes a modernist imbalance and shocking violence. For Ingres, this scene is only yet a pretext for the representation of the ideal male body, while for Bacon, one is faced with a reinterpretation of the myth which aims to expose and to reflect on the monstrosity of the postwar Man. Ingres presents a perfect past time, whereas Bacon confronts us with a present tense that is in every sense of the word, imperfect.