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

Porter’s tribute to Bacon is a short work, dense with allusions, somewhere between a prose-poem and a play script.

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Francis Bacon was very particular about the way his works were displayed. He chose theatrical gold frames and decreed that the paintings themselves – the brushwork that “slips, slurps, smears, flares, blurs, fades, evaporates, abruptly dematerialises”, as the art critic Tom Lubbock put it – should be seen behind glass.

The glass was there to protect the canvases (usually in a sorry state once Bacon had had his way with them) as well as to bring some unity to the chaotic whole. But the reflective surfaces have another effect: anyone who steps closer, hoping to decipher those slurps and smears, soon comes face to face with their own mirror image. This was the experience of the author, Max Porter, a teenage Bacon superfan, when he went with his mum to see a Bacon exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in 1998, and stood before Triptych (May-June 1973), which depicts Bacon’s then lover, George Dyer, overdosing on the toilet. “I hated the glass,” Porter wrote in an essay on the painting. “How ludicrous, for a sheet of reflective glass to get in the way of me and this challenge. I can see myself, and all I want to see is paint. All I want to see is George.”

The Death of Francis Bacon – which, were we not in lockdown would have coincided with a new exhibition of Bacon’s work, “Man and Beast” at the Royal Academy – is an attempt to get behind that glass, “to hold catastrophe still so you can get a proper sniff at it”, as Porter writes. It’s a short work, dense with allusions, about the painter in his final days. In form, it’s somewhere between a prose-poem and a play script, though Porter refers to it as seven “written pictures”. That is to say he is writing “as painting, not about it” in the hope that his language “stinks… of turpentine and oil and fags”.

Bacon, who was born in Dublin in 1909 to English parents, was a self-taught painter of slaughterhouses and crucifixions, screaming popes and children prowling on all fours. He used jewel-rich colours – burnt orange, opulent purple, midnight blue, flesh pink and blood red – to depict lovers and drinking companions as they writhed on uncosy beds and toilet seats. He was also a bon vivant who led a “gilded gutter life”, brushing his teeth with Vim, dying his hair with Kiwi shoe polish and using his acid tongue to heckle Princess Margaret.

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But while he lived riotously, he died quietly – in a hospital in Madrid in 1992 at 82, lonely and troubled, slowly suffocating from respiratory problems, having travelled to Spain against doctors’ orders to see his Spanish lover, José Capelo. Some reports suggest his final days were spent completely without company other than a Spanish nun called Sister Mercedes. Others – Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan in a new biography – claim Bacon was visited by Capelo. But the idea of Bacon dying without ceremony, in a country whose language he did not speak, proved an irresistible prompt for Porter.

I will admit, I didn’t have the author down as a Francis Bacon fan. Bacon is brutal and unsparing, while Porter is a writer who cherishes human kindness and venerates nature. His debut, Grief is the Thing with Feathers (2015), darted between poetry, fable and drama to tell the story of a crow that butts into the lives of a grieving dad and his two sons. Lanny (2019) was a polyphonic tale of a boy who goes missing in an English commuter belt village, which is also inhabited by a shape-shifting trickster called Dead Papa Toothwort and an eccentric artist “Mad Pete”, who you might see as a gentler, more bucolic version of Bacon.

Lanny, which had a wacky, generous energy, was longlisted for the Booker Prize and, in my view, should have won it. It was ambitious and experimental but never at the expense of its readers, making Porter a unique voice in British literary fiction – funny, chatty, twisted, disruptive. But not twisted and disruptive like Bacon, who I imagine would find Porter a little twee. I sense Porter knows this – hence, perhaps, the urge to prove to the 17-year-old who pinned Bacon’s edict “We are all meat” on his bedroom wall that he is still on the side of the rebel.

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Within the context of the modern publishing industry at least, he might have a point; Porter understands more about its commercial imperatives than most authors. A former bookseller, he rose through the ranks to become the editorial director of Granta but ended up frustrated with the “silo mentality of genre” within the industry. He’s always seemed more influenced by children’s literature, spoken word poetry, music and the visual arts than what Ian McEwan or Jonathan Franzen are up to. To that end, he has argued against the primacy of the novel and in favour of “hybridity”. The forces that keep crime fiction separate from romance or music from literature are “economically determined” and “therefore worth interrogating and mistrusting… as powerfully as you possibly can as a writer”.

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The Death of Francis Bacon is a yet more committed attempt at ekphrasis than his last two books. Each “picture” (ie, chapter) lasts a few pages and opens with the same scene: a dying artist (an atheist) and his nurse (a nun): “one body prostrate/another attending”, a familiar dynamic in Bacon’s work. In between, Bacon’s feverish mind is a freewheeling parade of flashbacks spanning his sickly childhood, champagne at the Colony Room Club in Soho, and his turbulent love life. Meanwhile, Porter tries to capture the texture of Bacon’s canvasses with words like “shplonk”, “scampering”, “squirming” and “spurt”, and recurring images such as teeth, bulls, severed hands, screaming mouths, a “cheek like a chop”.

How to elevate this above try-hard fan fiction? Porter’s answer is to have Bacon reckon with his critics, those who called his work “kitsch”, or “banal” or – worst of all – “illustration”. The critic John Berger claimed Bacon was “a brilliant stage manager rather than an original artist” and you can feel a prickle of excitement as Porter pits one of his heroes against another. In one of his most vivid images, he imagines Bacon, crucified by his critics: “The martyr Francis tilts his rubber jaw to heaven and dies, spurts the viewer with cum and vermilion.”

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Elsewhere, Porter appears to be pitching his book to doubtful editors. “It’s an attempt to express my feelings about an artist I have had a long unfashionable fixation with.” Or is this Bacon talking about Velázquez, or other painters he tried to emulate? One of the problems with the book is that it’s never exactly clear whose thoughts are whose, which makes the project disorienting in the way artspeak so often is. The idea of a mind fractured by pain shouldn’t give a writer licence to baffle their reader. Certainly, anyone unaware that (José) Capelo, Peter (Lacy), George (Dyer) and (John) Deakin were former lovers of Bacon, that Ianthe was his sister, or that Muriel (Belcher) ran the Colony Room Club will curse the lack of a glossary. For a book like this to have a visceral punch, it needs to be self-reliant, not crying out for its own exhibition notes.

There are moments when Porter succeeds in capturing the terrifying charge of the art, such as when Bacon stares at some stained plaster and hallucinates a waxy baby dripping off the ceiling and coming to suck at his nipples. But for much of the book, we see Porter reflected in the glass. The modern artist, Bacon said, must “unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently”, otherwise art is simply “a game by which man distracts himself”. 

The Death of Francis Bacon
Max Porter
Faber & Faber, 80pp, £6.99

Johanna Thomas-Corr is a literary critic and a New Statesman contributing writer

This article appears in the 15 January 2021 issue of the New Statesman, American civil war