Artist Francis Bacon’s Conflicted and Creative Life, Illustrated
By Maria Popova
David Lynch has called legendary British artist Francis Bacon (October 28, 1909–April 28, 1992) “the main guy, the number one kinda hero painter.” Like Lynch’s films, Bacon’s paintings compel the way a scene from a nightmare does — a scream piercing the psyche, at once terrifying in its beauty and beautiful in its terror. “An artist must learn to be nourished by his passions and by his despairs,” Bacon once told an interviewer — an ethos he himself very much embodied.
How his passions and despairs fed his art is what British writer Kitty Hauser and artist Christina Christoforou explore in This is Bacon (public library) — another fantastic installment in same series of illustrated artist biographies that gave us This is Dalí and This is Warhol, illuminating Bacon’s influences and infatuations to shed light on his darkly alluring art.
Hauser writes in the introduction:
By all accounts, Francis Bacon had an effect on those he met. He didn’t look like other people, didn’t talk or act like them. “It’s all so meaningless,” he liked to say, “we may as well be extraordinary.” His paintings continue to have an effect on those who see them. They have the capacity to move us, without it being possible to say why. They convey something of how it feels to be human — King Lear’s “poor, bare, forked animal.”
[But] Bacon realized he walked a tightrope of success and failure with every brushstroke, and with every work. He destroyed a lot of paintings. He was aiming high, after all… “My work will either end up in the National Gallery or the dustbin,” he used to say.
The choice to tell the story of Bacon’s life in illustration is an interesting one: In his legendary conversations with David Sylvester — some of the greatest interviews in the history of creative culture — Bacon frequently asserted that his art shouldn’t be explained, because putting words to it would reduce it to illustration, a medium he saw as vastly inferior. But it is also an implicit homage to the contradictions of which Bacon’s character was woven — brilliant and broken, full of idealism disguised as nihilism, in constant oscillation between the public and the private, a man Allen Ginsberg once described in a letter to Jack Kerouac as having the appearance of an English schoolboy but the soul of a satyr.
Even his relationship to drawing and illustration was a contradictory one — all his life, Bacon vehemently denied that he drew sketches before painting and insisted that he only ever painted straight on the canvas, but a wealth of sketches surfaced after his death. Like the famous grandfather of the subject of his most prized painting — Three Studies of Lucian Freud became the most expensive piece of art ever auctioned, sold for $142,405,000 — Bacon was a master of engineering his own myth. An illustrated biography, then, makes many layers of sense.
Bacon never received a formal education in art, which lent him a kind of beginner’s mind that, as Hauser puts it, rendered him immune to “the usual kinds of distinctions between life and art, or between high culture and low.” Instead, he made an art of the art of looking as he amassed a vast bank of images from a wide range of sources — medical illustration, film, art, everyday life — and let them cross-pollinate in his unconscious as a living testament to the combinatorial nature of creativity:
I look at everything. And everything I see gets ground up very fine. In the end one never knows, certainly I myself never know, what the images in my paintings are made up of.
For Bacon, Hauser notes, painting was a struggle that relied in large part on chance — he believed successful paintings “open up the valves of sensation” and bypass the intellect to penetrate “the nervous system” directly, which requires an active surrender to the uncertainty of the painting process.
Bacon was born to a strict and often cruel ex-military father and a steel business heiress mother. As a child, he suffered from severe asthma — a much more serious affliction, Hauser points out, in an era prior to the mass-market availability of proper medication — and grew up in an atmosphere of violence, both at home and amid the cultural context of WWI. When he was sixteen, his father walked in on him dressed in his mother’s underwear and kicked him out — the fate of lamentably many LGBT youth even today. In an effort to straighten out the boy, his father placed him in the uncaring care of a cruel “uncle,” a rough horse-breeder unrelated by blood, who took young Francis to Berlin — a city that had emerged as Europe’s capital of wild abandon, once described by the novelist Stefan Zweig as the “Babylon of the modern world.” Hauser writes:
There were cross-dressing cabarets and transvestite shows whose flamboyance and inventiveness have never been matched.
Eventually, young Bacon made his way to Paris, where he first became exposed to the art of the Old Masters and other cultural influences, ranging from surrealist cinema to postmodernist literary magazines. But it was in the work of Picasso — who famously championed the courage of the creative life — that he first felt the assuring possibility of becoming a professional painter himself.
After a brief bill-paying stint in interior design, Bacon finally got his big break as an artist when his painting Crucifixion — owned today by Damien Hirst, who cites Bacon as a great influence — was included in Herbert Read’s momentous 1933 book Art Now.
Heartened by the recognition, Bacon mounted a one-man show the following year, but it became his first painful lesson in the fickleness of the art world — a dismissive review in The Times so upset him that he destroyed all the work in the exhibition and abandoned painting for nearly a decade.
Among the perplexities of Bacon’s character is one particularly curious biographical detail: He moved around a great deal, but his old nanny, Jessie Lightfoot, continued to live with him until her death in 1951; she would vet the many replies to Bacon’s gay personals, which he published on the front page of The Times, and when times got especially rough, she’d go shoplifting for the duo’s dinner.
When Bacon returned to painting, one image from his voraciously amassed visual bank held exceptional mesmerism for him — Diego Velásquez’s 1650 portrait of Pope Innocent X, which Bacon said triggered “all sorts of feelings” for him. Mashing it up with a visual from another influence that had impacted him greatly — the screaming face from Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin — Bacon embarked upon his haunting series of screaming pope paintings.
Despite Bacon’s resistance to any interpretation of his paintings as cultural commentary, it’s hard not to observe the resonance of this particular depiction. Bacon had come of age in an era when homosexuality was not only considered a sin by the Catholic Church but was also illegal in Britain — so illegal that computing pioneer Alan Turing paid for it with is life, as did Oscar Wilde, whose imprisonment for being gay contributed to his untimely death. Bacon was in his late fifties when the right to love a person of one’s own sex was finally “made legal.”
For Bacon, however, the law was not the greatest source of his misfortune in love — his own self-destructive tendencies were. In 1952, he embarked on a long and toxic love affair with a former war pilot named Peter Lacy — an explosive, often sadistic man, and an alcoholic with no intention of recovery. Even though Lacy had only contempt for Bacon’s paintings and destroyed many of them during their turbulent fights, Bacon later stated that Lacy was the love of his life.
In the late 1950s, when Bacon followed Lacy to the debaucherous city of Tangiers in North Africa — a city frequented by the era’s gay mafia of creative culture, including Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac — their relationship continued its cycles of violence and escalated into heavy drinking. The British consul-general in Tangier grew so concerned about the frequency with which Bacon was found beaten up on the city’s streets in the wee hours of the morning that he increased the number of patrolling police officers.
It is unsurprising, then, that the man who so believed in the creative value of suffering and readily subjected himself to it would make his idol the man who articulated that suffering more powerfully than anyone and succumbed to it more tragically than any other major artist. In the late 1950s, Bacon became obsessed with Vincent van Gogh, the quintessential tortured-artist testament to the link between creativity and mental illness. Bacon studied Van Gogh’s paintings fanatically and devoured his letters to his brother.
Once Bacon made his way to London in 1961, where he would live until the end of his life, his self-destructive pathology manifested a silver lining — he became what is possibly the world’s first professional drinker: he was paid £10 a week to drink at The Colony Room, Muriel Belcher’s private drinking club, in a campaign to drive business. Among his drinking buddies there was Lucian Freud, from whom Bacon was inseparable for years.
It was around that time that Bacon met George Dyer — a petty criminal from London’s East End, who would become Bacon’s lover and the subject of his best-known paintings. Like Bacon himself, Dyer was a man woven of contradictions — as Hauser puts it, a weak character with a fit physique, combining “vulnerability with a gangsterish demeanor.” Bacon had a number of photographs taken of Dyer, which he used as springboards for his sexually charged paintings. Hauser quotes the artist himself:
Even if you’re in love with somebody, everything escapes you. You want to be nearer to that person, but how can you cut your flesh open and join with the other person? … So it is with art.
In 1971, the day before Bacon’s landmark exhibit at the Grand Palais was about to open — “To be taken seriously by the French was a rare thing for a British artist,” Hauser writes, “and Bacon was elated.” — Dyer was found dead from an overdose in their hotel room in Paris. In a supreme twist of fate that would become the grandest of Bacon’s contradictions, the show would become his greatest success, but Dyer’s death would come to haunt him for the remainder of his life. Hauser writes:
There’s an ancient story about the origins of painting in which a young woman traces around the outline of the shadow of her beloved’s profile as it is cast on the wall. The image will be there when he has gone; it will still exist after his death. It’s hard not to think of the story when considering the use Bacon made of [the] photograph of Dyer’s head in profile, of which he had a number of copies. At one point he made a cut-out of his head and used it as a template, apparently pinning it to his canvas and painting around it.
But in his grief and his obsession with mortality, Bacon found the subject of his final and most memorable paintings, perhaps living up to his famous proclamation.
Complement This is Bacon with the painter on the role of suffering and self-knowledge in creative expression, then revisit the illustrated biographies of Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, and Steve Jobs.
Published November 21, 2014