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Bacon Agonistes

Francis Bacon: A Centenary Exhibition

an exhibition at Tate Britain, London, September 11, 2008–January 4, 2009, the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, February 3–April 19, 2009, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, May 20–August 16, 2009
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Matthew Gale and Chris Stephens
Tate/Metropolitan Museum of Art, 288 pp., $60.00; $40.00 (paper)

To celebrate Francis Bacon’s centenary in 2009, Tate Britain mounted a retrospective exhibition that was subsequently shown at the Prado in Madrid and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Bacon’s theater of cruelty was an enormous popular success at all of its venues, but especially in New York, where he was hailed by fans as the greatest painter of the twentieth century. However, such clouds of hyperbole were already a touch toxic following the sale in 2008 of a flashy triptych for $86 million, and serious reviews of the Met show were anything but favorable. Also, those of us who care about the integrity of an artist’s work were worried by the appearance on the market of paintings that, if indeed they are entirely by him, Bacon would never have allowed out of the studio.

As a longtime fan of Bacon, I have strong feelings about these matters. My admiration dates back to World War II, when, like many another art student, I was captivated by an illustration of a 1933 painting entitled Crucifixion in a popular book called Art Now, by Britain’s token modernist, Herbert Read (first published in 1933, and frequently reprinted). Read’s text was dim and theoretical, but his ragbag of black-and-white illustrations—by the giants of modernism, as well as the chauvinistic author’s pets—was the only corpus of plates then available. This Crucifixion—a cruciform gush of sperm against a night sky, prescient of searchlights in the blitz—was irresistibly eye-catching. But who Bacon was, nobody seemed to know.

And then (circa 1946), craning my neck to get a look at a large canvas carried by a youngish man with dyed hair on the doorsteps of a neighbor’s house, I realized that this had to be the mysterious Bacon. The neighbor turned out to be the artist’s cousin and patron. I arranged for a mutual friend to take me to see him. Bacon struck me as being exhilaratingly funny—very camp in his disdain for masculine pronouns. Everything about his vast, vaulted studio was over the top: martinis served in huge Waterford tumblers; a paint-stained garter belt kicked under a sofa. The place had famously belonged to the pre-Raphaelite Sir John Everett Millais, but a later owner had left more of a mark on it: Emil Otto Hoppé, the foremost “court” photographer of his time. Hoppé’s grungy hangings had survived the blitz, and so had the great dais where, crouched under a black, umbrella-like cloth (a feature of Bacon’s earlier paintings), he had photographed society beauties in aigrettes and pearls. The ramshackle theatricality that permeated the studio also permeated the three iconic mastershockers—scrotum-bellied humanoids screaming out at us from the base of a crucifixion—that were about to make the artist famous.

Francis’s blind old nanny, Jessie Lightfoot, knitting away at the back of the studio, came as a surprise. Besides helping Francis cook—she slept on the kitchen table—Nanny provided cover for Francis’s shoplifting sprees (groceries, cosmetics, and Kiwi shoe polish for his hair). Nanny also helped him organize the illicit roulette parties that paid for the copious drink and excellent food he served to his guests. The lavish tips she extorted from gamblers desperate to use the one and only lavatory helped pay off Francis’s gambling debts. Supposedly she also vetted his lovers. When she died in 1951, he took against the studio and sold it—a move he would always regret. The space would linger on in his visual memory: many a triptych is set in a photographer’s studio in Hell.

Ultrasecretive about his artistic provenance, Bacon was exhibitionistically frank about the traumatic adolescent events that would define his role as an artist as well as a lover. In the recently published revised edition of his excellent, refreshingly unhagiological biography, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma,1 Michael Peppiatt describes a fancy dress party given by Francis’s parents—the chilly, moneyed mother and the brutal, bluish-blooded father—at Cannycourt, near Dublin, where Captain Eddy Bacon trained racehorses that, according to Francis, very seldom won. Already adept at seducing his father’s grooms, sixteen-year-old Francis had gotten himself up as

an Eton-cropped flapper, complete with backless dress, beads, and a cigarette holder so long it reached to the candles in the middle of the table. Dressed as a curate, his father stared uneasily and said nothing as Francis rolled his eyes [and] shook his earrings.

Unease turned to rage when Captain Eddy caught his son wearing his mother’s underclothes and gave him a thrashing. As a result “I fell sexually in love with him,” Francis said. Years later, he would still slip on his fishnets in the hope of a replay.

To “make a man” of Francis, his father turned him over to a supposedly—though not in the least—respectable cousin for a disciplinary two months in Berlin. To Bacon’s delight, the cousin turned out to be bisexual and, he assured me, “one of the most vicious men I ever met.” Two months in the German capital, at its most depraved, reinforced the boy’s masochistic and fetishistic proclivities. Berlin did indeed make a man of Francis: “Tough as old boots, albeit camp as a row of tents,” an old friend recalled. However, his next stop, Paris—he spent two months nearby at Chantilly—would make an artist of him. His visit coincided with an exhibition of Picasso’s drawings at Paul Rosenberg’s gallery. Ironically, the drawings were mostly classicistic ones set in an ancient Mediterranean world. Bacon would later condemn these works, but at the age of seventeen he was captivated. Picasso would be the only contemporary artist whose influence he would ever acknowledge.

Francis seldom mentioned it, but he was proud of being a collateral descendant of Elizabeth I’s all-powerful chancellor, after whom he had been named. He was especially intrigued that this Renaissance genius—philosopher, cabalist, courtier, Rosicrucian, statesman, as well as a writer so sublime that he is sometimes credited with writing Shakespeare’s plays—had been a flamboyant homosexual. Lytton Strachey had made much of this in his book Elizabeth and Essex, published to wide acclaim in 1928. Strachey’s baroque characterization of his forebear had fascinated him, Francis told me. How could he not identify with Strachey’s view of the Elizabethan Bacon?

Instinctively and profoundly an artist…one of the supreme masters of the written word. Yet his artistry was of a very special kind…. His eye—a delicate, lively hazel eye—“it was like the eye of a viper,” said William Harvey—required the perpetual refreshment of beautiful things.

Francis would also have sympathized with his forebear’s “exuberant temperament [that] demanded the solace of material delights,” expensive boyfriends, “half servants and half companions,” whom he had shod in Spanish leather boots, since “the smell of ordinary leather was torture to him.” The twentieth-century Bacon would ironically mock the family’s motto, Mediocria firma (“moderation is best”), inscribed on the armorial dinner plates he would inherit. His illustrious ancestry and his sense of it might also account for his personal largesse as well as his desperate attempts at grandiloquence, which undermine many of the later triptychs.

Bacon’s earliest paintings were mostly pastiches of Picasso; though attractive, they failed to sell. Since this driven, as yet unformed artist had no desire to be perceived as a pasticheur, he destroyed most of them. He continued sporadically to paint and decorate, but devoted most of his energies to gambling. Successive stays at Monte Carlo—hence the glimpses of Mediterranean vegetation in the early works—financed by a lover, enabled him to become an expert roulette player as well as a canny croupier in private games. He would approach painting in much the same way as he approached gambling, risking everything on a single brushstroke.

Never having attended an art school was a source of pride to Bacon. With the help of a meretricious Australian painter, Roy de Maistre, he taught himself to paint, for which he turned out to have a great flair; tragically, he failed to teach himself to draw. Painting after painting would be marred by his inability to articulate a figure or its space. Peppiatt recalls that, decades later, so embarrassed was Bacon at being asked by a Parisian restaurateur to do a drawing in his livre d’or that he doubled the tip and made for the exit.

After Bacon’s death, David Sylvester, the artist’s Boswell-cum-Saatchi, attempted to turn this deficiency into an advantage. In a chapter of his posthumous miscellany, entitled “Bacon’s Secret Vice,” he proposed an “alternative view” of this fatal flaw: “His most articulate and helpful ‘sketches’ took the form of the written word.”2 The “precisely worded” examples that supposedly demonstrate the linguistic origin of Bacon’s paintings turn out to be a preposterous joke: offhand notes scrawled on the endpapers of a book about monkeys: “Figure upside down on sofa”; “Two figures on sofa making love”; “Acrobat on platform in middle of room”; and so on. Sylvester’s contention that this shopping list constitutes “Bacon’s most articulate and helpful sketches” raises doubt about the rest of his sales pitch.3

Bacon’s own excuse for his graphic ineptitude is more to the point: “[The painter] will only catch the mystery of reality if [he] doesn’t know how to do it”4 is what he actually told Sylvester. This is fine, but only so long as the artist avoids subjects that call for graphic skill, subjects, for instance, that include hands. His celebrated variants on Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X are either magnificent flukes or near-total disasters. In the earliest of this ten-year series, Bacon famously portrays the Pope screaming. He’s good at screams but hopeless at hands, so he amputates, conceals, or otherwise fudges them. At the age of eighty, Bacon apologized for this series to Michael Kimmelman: “Actually, I hate those popes because I think the Velázquez is such a superb image that it was silly of me to use it.”

Infinitely more effective are the versions that Bacon did around the same time of Eadweard Muybridge’s celebrated sequential photographs in The Human Figure in Motion, which record successive stages of various physical activities. Muybridge’s photographs enormously facilitated Bacon’s drawing, literally squaring up the composition for him to transfer to canvas. The finest of them, Two Figures, is based on pictographs of two athletes wrestling each other to the ground. Known with some justice to Bacon’s friends as The Buggers, this work is the more subtle and hauntingly sexual for overtly depicting something supposedly innocent.

Inability to draw might explain Bacon’s initial decision to become a decorator. He had a real flair for interior design. His furniture was chic but brutal—too much for potential clients, and so he became a painter, and hustled on the side to pay the bills. Calling himself Francis Lightfoot (after his nanny), he advertised in the personal column of the London Times. An elderly client accused him of theft. “Probably true,” he admitted later. Unluckily, the client was a relative of the vengeful Douglas Cooper, who had bought a major piece of Bacon’s furniture and arranged for the publication of his Crucifixion in Art Now. Later, Cooper would bad-mouth Bacon in favor of his rival, Graham Sutherland, to the former’s delight and gain.

  1. 1

    1997; Skyhorse, 2009.

  2. 2

    Looking Back at Francis Bacon (Thames and Hudson, 2000), p. 208.

  3. 3

    Sylvester attributes this theory to Brian Clarke, a painter who administers the Francis Bacon estate.

  4. 4

    Interviews with Francis Bacon: 1962–1979 (Thames and Hudson, 1980), pp. 100–101.

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