Francis Bacon, one of the most important twentieth-century artists, was fascinated by Vincent van Gogh throughout his life. One picture, in particular, occupied him for a long time: The Painter on the Road to Tarascon. This painting from van Gogh’s late phase (it stems from the year 1885) is one of his numerous self-portraits and shows the painter with his easel before a summery wheat field, facing the viewer. Until 1945 it was in today’s Kulturhistorisches Museum Magdeburg, and has been lost since the end of the war.
In David Sylvester’s Interviews with Francis Bacon, the artist provides information about his obsession with van Gogh. Bacon knew The Painter on the Road to Tarascon only from reproductions. In 1957 he created a total of six paintings inspired by it, paintings which transformed van Gogh’s composition in a personal manner. Painting number III is particularly impressive. The ground appears here partially colored in blood red, the dark shadows vastly enlarged, and when one takes a closer look at the painter’s black face, one seems to recognize a skull. Van Gogh’s life ended tragically two years after he created The Painter on the Road to Tarascon. The exact circumstances of his death are mysterious, the official cause of death has always been suicide. However, there has been legitimate doubt about this theory for a number of years (there is some evidence that van Gogh was shot – possibly after a dispute and unintentionally – by a young person), it is undeniable that the painter had become weary of life – in any case, his last utterances on his deathbed clearly confirm this.
In the years before the composition of ... auf dem Weg ... I concerned myself intensively with both van Gogh and Francis Bacon. When I first saw Bacon’s Study for a Portrait of van Gogh III, the Dies Irae spontaneously came to mind.
The well-known Gregorian Dies Irae sequence also forms the basic material of my composition. All the harmonic and melodic developments are based on it. One could therefore describe the structure of the piece as a series of variations. At the same time, the Dies Irae theme appears as the foundation for often unclouded diatonic chordal structures (a rare occurrence in my works up to now), but also in various “chromaticized” variants.
In order to expand the tonal space a bit, the C strings on the sixth and seventh violas are tuned down to B-flat.
The piece is divided into two movements. The first movement is slow and juxtaposes the first viola, as solo instrument, with a “choir” of the other six violas playing with mutes. The character is by and large elegiac and cautiously forward moving; only toward the end is there a first, dense outbreak.
The second movement is in a faster tempo throughout and based on a continuous sixteenth-note motion, which at the beginning seems to evoke the shimmer of the summer heat.
The mood oscillates between euphoric ecstasy and erupting inner conflicts:
a psychogram of the manic-depressive artist.
At the high point of the piece, the until now rather hidden basic material, the Dies Irae theme, is finally revealed and presented in its original form. An intensive, “ecstatic” coda concludes the piece.
Bernd Richard Deutsch (2019, translation: Howard Weiner)