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Bacon Agonistes

Bacon’s passion for belle peinture and his inventive handling of paint would usually but not always compensate for his inept draftsmanship. Though painterliness was a quality disdained by most modernists, Bacon realized this was the element that would enable him to tweak the onlooker’s senses into accepting and indeed enjoying a painful visual shock. To enhance his paint surfaces he tried out additives—pastel and tempera—but in the end stuck to oil paint, which he manipulated with ever more gestural abandon. On an early visit to the studio, I watched Francis experiment. Ensconced in front of a mirror, he rehearsed on his own face the brushstrokes that he envisaged making on canvas. With a flourish of his wrist, he would apply great swoops of Max Factor “pancake” makeup in a gamut of flesh colors to the stubble on his chin.

The makeup adhered to the stubble much as the paint would adhere to the unprimed verso of the canvas that he used in preference to the smooth, white-primed recto. I told him that this effect evoked Rupert Brooke’s line about “the rough male kiss of blankets.” Besides setting his faces and figures spinning, gestural twists endow his portrait heads—to my mind far and away his most powerful and original works—with a dose of his own inner turmoil.

Bacon’s attempts at a conventional likeness usually fail, but when he connects with what he calls “the pulsations of a person,” he usually triumphs, particularly when that person is himself. Instead of working from a sitter, he would have his gay drinking companion, John Deakin, take nude photographs of the women he proposed to paint. Deakin, who on the side would sell the photographs to sailors for ten shillings each, enjoyed mortifying his “victims,” as he called them. Bacon’s favorites were Henrietta Moraes, a drunken Soho groupie who worshiped Bacon and his circle; Isabel Rawsthorne, a desperate allumeuse who had had affairs with Picasso, Derain, and above all Giacometti; and Muriel Belcher, the formidable foul-mouthed fag-hag of the Colony Room. These were women Bacon could empathize with. To that extent their portraits are self-portraits, as are the superb ones of his victim-to-be, George Dyer. Significantly, there is not a trace of self-identification in the twenty or so portraits of Lucian Freud. There was no question of victimizing him.

In 1950, Bacon’s studio would become the focus of attention for a three-day celebration that, in retrospect, was the coming-out party for a new variety of bohemia. In its excess it could also be seen as Bacon’s debut as a star. The occasion was the wedding of his close friend Ann Dunn, penniless daughter of a steel magnate, and Michael Wishart, son of the Communist Party’s publisher. Both were painters, Dunn an exceedingly sensitive one. Two hundred guests were invited; two hundred more gate-crashed.

It was a totally new mix. Although the guests were mostly heterosexual, the ambience was decidedly gay. Francis had painted the chandeliers red to match his maquillage; at the piano an old queen belted out campy versions of popular songs. Same-sex couples embracing in dark corners were not necessarily the same color. A woman known as “Sod” (real name Edomy) Johnson, who lived on the top of a bus, helped to welcome the guests: these included members of Parliament and fellows of All Souls, as well as “rough trade,” slutty debutantes, cross-dressers, and the notoriously evil Kray brothers (gay gangsters Francis was proud of knowing). The bridegroom was a junkie, as were such guests as Sir Napoleon Dean Paul and his beautiful sister, who were both on the Home Office list and thus entitled to an official drug ration.

The consumption of hundreds of cases of champagne would have left Francis, who was as generous as he was extravagant, broke, had he not had the support of a rich and indulgent lover, a merchant banker called Eric Hall. Hall had ditched his wife and family to become a stand-in for the flagellant father Bacon desired and hated. After eight years, this relationship came to an end. A devotee of Proust, Bacon may have identified too closely with that writer’s Baron de Charlus, who, in a memorable scene, complained to his pimp that the brute procured for him was insufficiently brutal.

Hall’s replacement was a demonic lover out of the pages of another of Bacon’s favorite writers, Georges Bataille. A former fighter pilot, Peter Lacy was a dashing thirty-year-old whom I remember playing Gershwin and Cole Porter on a white piano in a bar called the Music Box. He owned an infamous cottage in the Thames valley, where Francis would spend much of his time—often, according to him, in bondage. Alcohol was a major link between the two men. Unfortunately, drink released a fiendish, sadistic streak in Lacy that bordered on the psychopathic. Besides taking his rage out on Bacon, he took it out on his canvases. To his credit, however, he inspired some of his lover’s most memorable works, among them, the Man in Blue paintings: a menacing, dark-suited Lacy set off against vertical draperies inspired by Emil Hoppé’s, and some black rubber curtains Bacon had used as a decorator.

A 1955 self-portrait with a bandaged head seemingly refers to Lacy’s most heinous assault. In a state of alcoholic dementia, he hurled Bacon through a plate glass window. His face was so damaged that his right eye had to be sewn back into place. Bacon loved Lacy even more. For weeks he would not forgive Lucian Freud for remonstrating with his torturer. Mercifully, Lacy moved to Tangier, where he played the piano in Dean’s famously raffish bar. Bacon would occasionally join him. He enjoyed Tangier’s expatriate intelligentsia: Paul and Jane Bowles; Allen Ginsberg, who tried and failed to get him to paint his portrait; William Burroughs, whom he admired and stayed friends with; and the playwright Joe Orton, soon to be done in by his murderous boyfriend. He also enjoyed the torturers in the local brothels. Tangier finished Lacy off. “He was killing himself with drink,” Bacon told Peppiatt, “like a suicide, and I think in the end his pancreas simply exploded…. He was the only man I ever loved.” The artist’s memorable Landscape near Malabata, Tangier depicts Lacy’s place of burial: a threatening patch of ground with a dark humanoid serpent squirming out of it.

On May 22, 1962, when Bacon was fifty-two, his first retrospective opened at the Tate Gallery to an avalanche of praise never as yet accorded to a modern British artist. A triumph, it was also a tragedy: the day before, death had done away with Lacy, his principal source of sensation—mental and physical, but above all pictorial. Some of his friends saw this as retribution, others as a new dawn for British art. Sylvester was quick to grab Bacon’s coattails. In the years to come he would help him transform himself into a superstar. Today Bacon has come to be seen in the blogosphere as a kind of Michael Jackson of art—an anomalous weirdo of divine power.

Those of us who had hoped that the organizers of the recent retrospective and contributors to the catalog would help us to reevaluate this superstar were in for a disappointment. The badly needed deconstruction of the self-congratulatory interviews between Bacon and Sylvester was not forthcoming. True, in her essay “Real Imagination Is Technical Imagination,” Victoria Walsh acknowledges “just how radical their reformatting and editing had been.” In support of this she cites Sylvester’s preface to the interviews. However, no contributor takes this matter any further. Nor was there any attempt to see Bacon in his rightful historical setting: as one of a trio of brilliant young British artists—Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach being the other two—who felt that abstraction was done for and were out to explore new ways of reconciling paint and representationalism.

In an essay coyly entitled “Comparative Strangers,” Simon Ofield sees Bacon with respect to Keith Vaughn, a highly esteemed figurative painter, yet one far too artistically correct for Bacon’s taste, on the grounds that they were both openly gay men in the 1950s. Because the two artists apparently perused “physique magazines” and happened to be working at a time when the Wolfenden Report—the document that led to the decriminalization of homosexual acts between consenting adults—was about to change Britain’s social and sexual landscape, Ofield concludes that “the paintings of Francis Bacon and Keith Vaughn make sense in pretty close proximity to one another.” Actually, Bacon, who was not entirely immune to the allure of Nazi kink, had little sympathy for gay rights—too politically correct. As for gay artists, the only ones Bacon had a kind word for were Michelangelo, Andy Warhol, and the pornographer known as Tom of Finland. About the Wolfenden Report, I remember Francis echoing his nanny: “They should bring back hanging for buggery.” He was certainly not the only gay Englishman for whom guilt was intrinsic to sex.

Compared to Lacy, Bacon’s next great love, George Dyer, was more victim than victimizer, a good-looking thirtyish petty thief from London’s East End who appeared to be a great deal sharper than he actually was. Cockney sweetness and a slight speech impediment (“fink” for “think”) endeared him to Bacon’s friends. Although an alcoholic like Lacy, George was not a sadist. That would now become Bacon’s role. In the course of an evening, his high-camp wit would sour into incoherent malice. Lucian Freud remembers driving a drunken Bacon home and being kept out of the studio because it was full of “victims of my tongue.” Bacon would goad George into a state of psychic meltdown and then, in the early hours of the morning—his favorite time to work—he would exorcise his guilt and rage and remorse in images of Dyer aimed, as he said, at the nervous system. Such images, a woman admirer of Bacon told me, induced “a visceral shudder” in her.

The dynamics of Bacon’s relationship with George were much in evidence in November 1968, when they arrived for the first time in New York to attend a show at the Marlborough- Gerson Gallery. The visit began pleasantly enough with a gallery lunch. Francis was seated next to a handsome young dealer. Averse as usual to the masculine pronoun, he hissed across the table, “Who’s the gorgeous girl they’ve put next to me?” “Jackson Pollock’s nephew,” I hissed back. “You mean the niece of that old lace-maker?” he said, raising his voice. Egged on by the deafening silence, Francis proceeded to dismiss another prominent American artist as “a neat little sewer,” and yet another as “what’s-his-name who does women.”

That evening, some friends and I took Francis and George out on the town. No equivalent of London’s raffish Colony Room was to be found in Manhattan, so we ended up at a friendly, multiracial, multisexual bar around 100th Street. Childishly eager to play the host, George tried to buy us drinks. Francis wouldn’t have it. “Don’t listen to her. She’s penniless,” and he called imperiously for a magnum of champagne, whereupon the bartender suggested we go elsewhere. George stumbled off and the evening soon ended. Around 3 AM, Francis called me. “She’s committed suicide!” He had found George on the floor of their room at the Algonquin, pockets stuffed with hundred-dollar bills, unconscious from having washed down a handful of his sleeping pills with a bottle of scotch. Vomiting saved him. The gallery had the two of them flown back to England first thing that morning.

Two years later, in a pitiful attempt to strike back, George concealed some marijuana in Bacon’s studio and denounced him to the police. Since the artist was asthmatic and virtually never smoked, a jury found him innocent. Instead of ridding himself of George, Bacon took him back, thereby sealing his fate. The goading worsened, the imagery intensified, and there was a further suicide attempt in Greece.

Once again, a major retrospective would coincide with death. The day of Bacon’s greatest triumph—the opening of his exhibition at the Grand Palais, Paris on October 25, 1971, the show that would bring him the international recognition he craved—George succeeded in his third attempt at suicide. As before, he chose to do so in a hotel bedroom in a foreign land and, as Bacon would paint it, on a toilet seat. After the hotel manager telephoned him at the Grand Palais, the dazed artist took President Georges Pompidou around his show and later attended a dinner for several hundred people organized by his distinguished admirer Michel Leiris. “Death can be life-enhancing,” he later commented, and for the next few years would apply this thought to his last great bursts of heartfelt work, in which Dyer often figures.

The hosannas unleashed by the Paris retrospective climaxed in a Conaissance des Arts magazine poll that crowned Bacon the world’s greatest living artist—ahead of Picasso and the members of the schools of Paris and New York. Whether or not he actually believed this claptrap, Bacon was vain enough and insecure enough to derive an enormous boost from the stardom and the huge hike in his prices. Always more Francophile than Anglophile in matters of art, he was elated by the esteem of the French public as well as the intelligentsia, so elated that he rented an apartment in the Marais where he would spend much of the 1970s.

Michel Leiris would be central to Bacon’s life in Paris. This great writer, ethnographer, and hero of the Surrealist wars was the only littérateur left whose judgment Picasso could trust and, to that extent, a rather more prestigious mentor than Sylvester and the boozy habitués of the Colony Room. Although Bacon had no time for Leiris’s communism, masochism and a gay streak constituted a link. Whether Leiris told Bacon that back in the 1920s he had asked a horrified Juan Gris to take a knife and carve a parting for his hair into his scalp we do not know. What we do know is that Bacon was very conscious of the fact that by virtue of being D.H. Kahnweiler’s stepdaughter, Leiris’s long-suffering wife Zette was dealer to Picasso, who was soon to die. Despite the Conaissance des Arts poll, there would be no question of Bacon stepping into the great man’s shoes.

Now that Paris had crowned him king, Bacon’s work developed a slight French accent. Freud, whose close friendship with Bacon had worn a bit thin, was amused at his new-found fondness for the concept of “accident,” the idea that uncontrolled effects would change the character of a painting. Freud likened “accident” to a horse in Bacon’s stable. “When necessary, Francis has ‘Accident’ saddled and takes him out for a canter.” To judge by many of the paintings in the retrospective, there was another horse in Bacon’s stable, its name “Contrivance.”

Accident” takes the form of semen-like white paint that Bacon claimed to “fling” out of the tube at some of his canvases. As for the small red arrows he added to his paintings, intended to draw one’s attention to extraneous details, they strike me as little shrieks for help; likewise, the gimmicky bits of trompe l’oeil newspaper that fail to animate the inert foreground areas of his triptychs. Contrivance also takes the form of shadows that fail to generate light or space. They either look cartoonish (for instance, the Batman shadow exuded by the dying Dyer in the May–June 1973 triptych) or as if someone has spilled something.

Three years would pass before Bacon found a successor to George Dyer. The muscular young East Ender John Edwards was less damaged than his predecessor, and therefore less of a tragic muse. He never learned to read, but was very good at figures. Although homosexual, Edwards preferred adolescents, and his relationship with Bacon was all the less fraught for being platonic, seemingly free of sadomasochistic overtones. This may explain why Bacon’s work lost its sting and failed to thrill. Paintings inspired by Edwards as well as a Formula 1 driver and a famous cricketer the artist fancied (fetishism survives in the batting pads) reveal that in old age Bacon managed to banish his demons and move on to beefcake. His headless hunks of erectile tissue buffed to perfection have an angst-free, soft-porn glow. It comes as a surprise to find that MoMA acquired a major example of these campy subjects to replace the superb early Dog painting they had deaccessioned.

By the late 1970s, as the Met retrospective made very clear, Bacon’s work was becoming glib, trite, and color- coordinated to a decorous degree. From boasting that he couldn’t do it—that was the whole point—he let it be known that he could do it, indeed had always been able to do it. Freud believes that Bacon had also lost “the most precious thing a painter has: his memory,” and forgotten that he had done it all better before. The elegance of the Met’s installation, which worked so well in the earlier galleries, worked to the artist’s disadvantage at the end. Few of the later triptychs pack as much of a punch as the explosive Jet of Water and Blood on Pavement (both 1988), which are refreshingly free of the artist’s formulaic figures. As if to register the extent of Bacon’s decline, the Met enabled us to contrast the artist’s wonderful 1944 breakthrough, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, in an earlier gallery with the garish, red carpet remake of it from 1988, which brought the show to a disheartening end.

This year the hundredth anniversary of Bacon’s birth dovetails with the four-hundredth anniversary of Caravaggio’s death next year, and the director of the Galleria Borghese in Rome is celebrating this double event by setting these two artists, who had both been canonized in recent years by gay filmmakers (Derek Jarman, Caravaggio ; John Maybury, Love Is the Devil), against each other. The museum’s six works by Caravaggio, plus a few loans, have been paired off with an equivalent group by his putative modern counterpart. These pairings are not confined to a specific space, but scattered throughout the museum’s galleries. A handout defines the show’s aim as “an exceptional aesthetic experience”—so much for art history. Bacon would have relished rubbing shoulders posthumously with the greatest of the great. He would also have relished the enormous controversy in the Italian press.

A few months earlier, the Florence Accademia had launched a similar show, entitled “Perfection in Form,” which pitted Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs against “iconic Renaissance masterpieces” by Michelangelo, etc. The show has been so successful that its run has been extended. Setting twentieth-century kinkmeisters against Renaissance masters has evidently paid off, and attracted a vast new public into museums they might not have otherwise visited.

However, wouldn’t it be more useful to measure Bacon against a predecessor of his own stature and genre: for example, Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), someone he went out of his way to denounce and disassociate himself from? (“Banal” was the epithet Bacon used in the interviews with Sylvester; what he probably meant was “illustrative.”)Bacon was determined to prevent people realizing how indebted he was to this Swiss-born Londoner. Fuseli was a somewhat conventional manipulator of paint, but he was also one of the most spectacular draftsmen of the second half of the eighteenth century. And in many respects his neoclassical imagery was every bit as focused on the subconscious, every bit as sadomasochistic and fetishistic as Bacon’s. A master of theatrical effects, Fuseli had the courage to use his perverse sexuality to express a view of life that corresponds in certain respects to his virtual twin, the Marquis de Sade. Fuseli’s obsession differed from Bacon’s in that it involved women rather than men, but their exhibitionistic responses to the imagery of their respective times was uncannily close.

After his death, Victorian prudes saw to it that Fuseli’s work was suppressed. A century would pass before scholars rediscovered it. Following his centennial retrospective in 1925, there would be successive shows in London in 1935 and 1950, at a time when Bacon was formulating his style and moving in the intellectual circles where Fuseli was revered. Another artist who suffered a similar fate was the equally histrionic John “Mad” Martin (1789–1854), whose vast, enormously popular canvasses such as The Seventh Plague of Egypt and The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah had been forgotten, only to be admired anew one hundred years later. Like Halley’s Comet, these exemplars of Romantic agony seem doomed to flash in and out of the darkness of history. Might a similar trajectory be in store for Bacon Agonistes?

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