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1 July 2024

Francis Bacon’s vile bodies

The fusion of violence and pleasure defined the painter’s life and work.

By John Banville

Is Francis Bacon the most overrated painter of the 20th century? No, surely that dubious accolade must go to Lucian Freud, the artistic Tweedledum to Bacon’s Tweedledee. To say that an artist is overrated is not to say that his or her work is uniformly bad, that he or she is lacking in talent, or is a fraud. Indeed, even a first-rate painter can be overrated, as is the case with Pablo Picasso, whose reputation is so elevated that it might seem he never made an unwise artistic decision or painted a duff picture.

In his brief foreword to Francis Bacon: A Self-Portrait in Words, Colm Tóibín writes that Bacon’s letters “add to our sense of his mystery, his complexity”. It is hard to see the evidence for this assertion – well-intentioned though it surely is – in the couple of hundred dashed-off missives, scribbled postcards and scraps of notes that make up the bulk of this curious ragbag of a book.

The meagre haul of correspondence represents all that the editor, Michael Peppiatt, a long-term friend of Bacon’s, has been able to disinter from the midden of material that the painter left behind. A living, or still-life, example can be viewed at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin, to which Bacon’s gloriously chaotic London studio was transferred, complete to the last daub of paint and squashed cigarette end, in 1998.

The letters do, Peppiatt writes, “fill in all sorts of blanks in our awareness of the artist, however much he aimed at keeping to the bare bones of a message”. Here, Peppiatt is making the best of a sad and, for an editor, embarrassing situation. “It is surprising,” he writes dolefully, “that so few letters to his closest friends have come to light. Where we might have expected caches of correspondence to Isabel Rawsthorne and Lucian Freud, we have found only a handful of hastily scrawled notes,” which are dutifully included here, to the point of absurdity. Consider this – what to call it? – communication with Sonia Orwell:

[no address]                                             [undated]                                     Sonia

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A rich source of insight into Bacon’s personality, Peppiatt laments, “might have been the letters Bacon sent to his lovers, filled with revelations from the heart… But virtually none have been found.” The one scrap of such material we are offered is a note to John Edwards, Bacon’s companion in his later years, apologising for “my outburst the other day”, due to the fact of Bacon’s having been drunk – as so often. These pages are awash in alcohol. A number of the interviews Peppiatt collects descend into hilarious confusion when, after yet another bottle of wine has been broached, the artist, and sometimes the interviewer as well, becomes as incoherent as a newt.

Bacon was a late Edwardian, born in 1909. It is something of a shock to be reminded of this fact, since he seems so much our contemporary, in the flash and shallowness of his public persona as much as in the violent disruptiveness of his artistic style. He loved being rich and famous, and even when he was poor and as-yet-unknown, he still managed to cut a dash.

He had been a sickly child, suffering from debilitating asthma attacks. Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan describe these early afflictions in Revelations, their superb 2021 biography of the painter: “The house smelled of Potter’s Asthma Cure from the smoke of medicinal candles burning in the sickroom. Francis wheezed among the eiderdown pillows, his breath sometimes keening into an eerie whistle.”

His Anglo-Irish parents, who had settled in Ireland only in the early 1900s, were proud of their aristocratic connections, however tenuous. Bacon père could and did claim descent from the original Francis Bacon, the Elizabethan statesman and philosopher, although there is a question as to how direct the line was. His namesake derived mischievous satisfaction from throwing doubt on the matter. As he pointed out, in one of the more bibulous interviews reproduced here, “whatever ‘queer’ means, [Sir Francis Bacon] preferred men to women. There you are. He had no children, so I would be, if I was related to him, I would be a ‘collateral descendant’.”

Our Francis Bacon turned himself into an aristocrat of the spirit, moving happily up and down the scales of the fashionably louche underworlds of London, Paris and Tangiers, where the rough trade was often very rough indeed – to an interviewer he remarked lightly that he had lost all his teeth to his “friends”. Here, he was as likely to be found booing Princess Margaret at a party at the Rothermeres’ as rubbing shoulders, and perhaps more than shoulders, with the Kray twins and other notorious thugs popular with the gratin. Yet in a way, even as one of the most famous artists in the world, Bacon continued to be the boy gasping on a bed, which in time would become, as he wrote in a studio note to himself in 1962, the “bed of crime”.

The most affecting, and distressingly affected, documents in this book are the many letters he wrote to Michel Leiris, the French intellectual and writer who befriended him in Paris in the 1970s and who was a staunch champion of his work for nearly two decades. As Peppiatt writes, “As an original surrealist from pre-war Paris, [Leiris] conferred continental and high-modernist prestige on the predominantly postwar British painter.”

Bacon was an acclaimed artist in his sixties when he first came to know Leiris, yet the reverential, almost fawning tone of these letters is hard to stomach. Was he using him shamelessly to bolster his international reputation? Admittedly, Bacon was writing in French, a language in which he was not entirely fluent, but in any language they would be excessive. Here is an example from 1971, probably referring to an introduction Leiris had contributed to the catalogue for an exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris that year:

“It’s only now in rereading what you wrote for the catalogue have I truly realised what a marvellous text you wrote and you are the only one to have understood and been able to put into words all the kind of things that I have tried to do – I don’t know how to thank you for everything that you have done for me.”

If one were to be charitable, one might see nothing here but the joy of an artist who has found at last a person who not only admires his work but can interpret it for the public, or at least for that intellectually fashion-conscious section of society whose approval can make an artistic reputation overnight.

As to what he has “tried to do”, Bacon, despite repeated claims to be incapable of understanding or explaining his painterly processes and aims, was, from the start, specific in defining what he considered to be the ends of art, his own art in particular. First and foremost, as he said in a 1952 interview with Time magazine, there is “the struggle with the object… Art lies in the continual struggle to come near to the sensory side of objects.”

This leads, over and over, to a defence of figurative art, carried out mainly by way of dismissive attacks on abstraction. In a conversation with Peppiatt, published in 1964, he set out in brief what can be considered his aesthetic: “Abstract art is free fancy about nothing… One needs the specific image to unlock the deeper sensations, and the mystery of accident and intuition to create the particular.” (Italics added.) Yet the particular, “the object”, will have to be subjected to extremes of manipulation in order to distil from it the pure, shining drop which is its essence. “You must distort, if you can, what is called appearance into image,” that image “which unlocks the valves of sensation”.

For Bacon, the object is always the body – the flesh in the throes of pain and of pleasure and of both combined. Many commentators have seen in Bacon’s work an apocalyptic vision of a world in unremitting torment, his figures tearing and gouging at each other in a stylised riot of violence and vengefulness. John Berger, quoted in Stevens and Swan’s biography, had no doubts: “The pitiless world Bacon conjured up and tried to exorcise has turned out to be prophetic. It can happen that the personal drama of an artist reflects within half a century the crisis of an entire civilisation.”

Yet there are other ways of seeing Bacon’s pictures. One way is to regard them as straightforward though powerfully distorted depictions of, and celebrations of, male homosexual congress, in its more masochistic extremes of lavish suffering, pleasure and fulfilment. Bacon was a masochist, and by his own account, frequently repeated, he enjoyed being beaten by his lovers and casual male pick-ups. Even his portraits of women seem to catch his subjects in the instant after they have been delivered a sweeping, disfiguring blow to the torso or the face.

Of course, people are free to misinterpret works of art or read into them all sorts of portentous effects unintended by the artist, but sometimes, as Sigmund Freud remarked, “a cigar is just a cigar”. Bacon was dismissive of his series of popes enthroned in their glass cages, most of them screaming but some laughing – and it may be that the screams are of hilarity – grotesque variations on Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X. There are moments when, looking at these and other richly inventive works of Bacon, one finds oneself wondering with a twinge of unease what exactly the joke is and at whom such savage laughter is being directed.  

Francis Bacon: A Self-Portrait in Words
Michael Peppiatt
Thames & Hudson, 480pp, £40

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[See more: Love, loathing and Lucian Freud]

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This article appears in the 02 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Britain