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27 January 2021

How Francis Bacon shunned the traditions of British art

A new book, Francis Bacon: Revelations, shows the painter as he tried to recapture the intensity of wartime when the world turned mundane.  

By Andrew Marr

How great was the work of Francis Bacon? That’s the only question that matters, and it’s still a hard one to answer. Thirty years after his death, he hovers so large over British visual culture – such a vivid, garrulous, flamboyant, theatrical figure – that it is difficult to assess what he actually did, day after day, in the studio.

This large, generous book contains it all: the childhood whippings by his father’s servants, the adolescent flight to interwar Berlin and Paris, the thieving, the cat burgling adventures, the overnight fame, the gangsters, beatings, the postwar Tangier dives and the long-lost nights of Soho in its bohemian prime; the wild, hilarious, bitchy lunches at Wheeler’s – all those oysters, all that champagne – and, of course, the dramatic self-destruction of his two great loves, Peter Lacy and George Dyer, one by whisky and one by drugs. Too much!

Too much, because the story can elbow aside the achievement of the paintings. It’s a jagged, jump-cut biopic spangled with glitter and squalor that dares you to look away. Sex. Death. Glamour. Gossip, gossip, gossip. With all this noise, how can we plant our feet, focus and look levelly at the actual, you know, paintings?

Judgement is not exactly facilitated by Bacon’s own frequently dismissive accounts of his work. We also know he destroyed a huge quantity of paintings for being not good enough. None of that is definitive. Bacon was a posh, self-deprecating man. And since Cézanne, the act of ripping and stamping on satisfactory work has become a complacent signifier of artistic sincerity.

Similarly, we should be alert to a highly intelligent painter’s sense of irony. But Bacon chipped away at his own reputation often enough, almost like a tic, to make one wonder about his private thoughts, particularly as his prices soared. As this book relates, he told friends in Rome, for instance, that his paintings “came to him relatively easily… now that he rolled on the backgrounds in acrylic like any idiot”. Then all he needed to do was to add his “gestural images”, culled from photographs and medical books.

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Cards on the table. It would be idiotic to deny the greatness of Bacon’s most famous wartime and immediate postwar images – the howling lost spirits below the Crucifixion, the umbrella-shadowed bloodied face grinding its teeth below sides of beef, the genuinely terrifying Head paintings and the earliest of the screaming, imprisoned, nailed-down Popes.

[see also: Max Porter’s The Death of Francis Bacon: a novelist takes on the painter’s final days]

Other artists responded to postwar London by emphasising its dinginess, slathering on greys and olive greens, apparently in an attempt to paint boredom. The work of the kitchen-sinkers and social realists was, in fairness, a cry of pain from an exhausted country. But now it merely looks exhausted. Then there were the mincing neo-Romantics, ageing surrealists and, of course, Graham Sutherland, a safe answer to Picasso who nevertheless deserves a rethink these days, but was then thought a titanic figure.

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Against all of them, with no money and no critical opinion behind him, Bacon shunned all British art tradition and directly confronted the horror of the age, a time of political monsters and imminent nuclear annihilation. The detail of his response comes from his own experience of sadism, and its claustrophobia; from the loneliness of a gay Anglo-Irish outsider. Still, it took considerable courage and makes most of the rest of the painting of the late 1940s and early 1950s look pallid, and beside the point.

This is an artist who, after a long period of self-doubt, watching others and thinking very hard, suddenly produces extraordinary work. He is the British painter who, from the beginning, barely seemed British at all. Bacon, who always acknowledged the influence of Picasso (as well as Velázquez, Van Gogh and Ingres), and who worked in both Paris and London, still feels the most continental of his contemporaries. He could be funny and very wounding about the English tradition. The painter to whom he was closest, Lucian Freud, was also a poor fit as a native artist. (Their mutual influence, rivalry and occasional antagonism would be well served by a big Bacon/Freud show before too long. Not all the obvious ideas are bad ones.)

Bacon had a strange blank spot about Matisse, whom he thought too decorative. He disliked abstractionism and had a gloriously contemptuous attitude toward the strutting gods of American abstract expressionism (Jackson Pollock was “the old lacemaker”).

In his best painting there is a seriousness, almost a literalness, rarely found in modern British art. Grey Gowrie, hailing his 1985 Tate retrospective, called him “the greatest painter in the world and the best this country has produced since Turner”. Many would agree. And yet, let’s be honest, Bacon could be a terrible painter, too.

The tropes of the later paintings become repetitive and increasingly irritating – all those endless skewed cage-lines, the framing surfaces, the arty touches of aerosol, the faces distorted in almost exactly the same way. He produced some extraordinary portraits. But often it looks as if Bacon simply jammed his thumb into a phiz and twisted, producing a predictable distortion. Even the celebrated triptych of his lover, George Dyer, overdosing on the toilet, however intensely felt, seems too cartoonishly shocking, too attitude-striking, to be the work of a great artist.

***

At this point, one can reasonably return to the biography because it begins to answer the conundrum. For Bacon, like so many, the Second World War was when he lived, thought and made most intensely. A fire warden during the Blitz, he saw unspeakable things; waiting for Hitler, he had his monsters ready-made. The imminence of death was a tremendous inciter – and out of this came his miracle.

But how do you keep the intensity going when the world turns mundane? As a gay man with a sado-masochistic streak, Bacon found ways of living, shall we say, on intimate terms with imminent disaster. Did this not keep him alive as an artist? He needed the dangerous cruising, and the gambling adventures and even the beatings, to give him the necessary edge.

So, the famous stories aren’t irrelevant. Giving a grand reception for your new exhibition in the heart of Paris, laughing and gossiping with politicians and grandees while your lover is lying dead in your hotel room – and then experiencing a crushing guilt for years afterwards. What’s more calculated to remind you that you are alive, but not for long? In the apparent chaos of his studio, with its snowdrifts of photographs and press cuttings, and the fluff and filth that made its way into the paint, Bacon could fix the mayhem of his outside life in a way that made sense.

But not forever. The problem was that this art relied on a painterly rhetoric that, because it was claustrophobic and deliberately inward, could not constantly replenish itself with the fresh and unexpected world outside. Endless little boxes. Endless torn photographs. Colour that seems to suck the breath out of your body. Much of his later work is simply predictable – as Freud noted dryly, yet another “great” triptych.

[see also: The brilliance and brutality of Lucian Freud]

Now I am in danger of making Bacon sound a little grim. In fact, as memoirist friends like Michael Peppiatt and Daniel Farson show, he was a charismatic, entertaining man, bubbling with brilliant conversation and acts of kindness. Reading about him must be fun.

The authors of this monster biography (more than 700 pages of text), who won a Pulitzer Prize for their biography of Willem de Kooning, do at times bring out Bacon’s winning character, wit and mischief. However, being American critics, they sometimes struggle with milieux that may be more familiar to British writers. There are some passages of solemn explanation which become wooden. But their virtue is they are great completists and cross-checkers, which means they debunk some of the stories and give us a full explanation of who was who.

They are particularly strong on the early years, misted by Bacon-derived myths. It would be hard to imagine a more sensitive portrayal of the early “companions” and sponsors of the 1930s, such as Eric Allden, the former intelligence officer and devout Roman Catholic, or Eric Hall, the married Tory alderman who fell utterly in love with the young artist. Later, Bacon implied that his pre-war life had been a picaresque story of sponging off silly old fools and blundering naively into the art world, as if he were some kind of Irish Jean Genet. In fact, as this book shows, it was a much more interesting and conscious period of searching, working as a respected interior designer, reading and learning which Bacon lived off for decades.

Does this book deserve its bold subtitle “Revelations”? Not really. We have known all the shocking stuff for a long time already. This is a work of real scholarship and seriousness. But London’s bohemia has many fine historians already, people who were there at the time and remember the rhythm and timbre of Francis Bacon in full flow. I don’t suppose those who know their Daniel Farson and Michael Peppiatt will be surprised by anything here. And if that seems a tad ungracious for such a heavy, serious and well-meant book, I can only reply by reassuring Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan that, duckies, Muriel Belcher, the chatelaine of Bacon’s favoured drinking den, the Colony Room Club, would have been ruder by far. l

Andrew Marr’s most recent book is “Elizabethans: How Modern Britain was Forged” (William Collins)

Francis Bacon: Revelations
Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan
William Collins, 880pp, £30

This article appears in the 27 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Lost