Arts and Culture

What inspired the immaculately horrific art of Francis Bacon?

ART DE VIVRE - Ricky Toledo, Chito Vijandre - The Philippine Star
What inspired the immaculately horrific art of Francis Bacon?
Posthumous portrait of George Dyer, 1973. Bacon and Dyer’s affair veered between “Study of Red Pope,” 1962, Second Version, 1971. The portrait of Pope Innocent X by Vélazquez obsessed Bacon to no end, recurring in his paintings from 1949 to 1971 in the form of a pope in the act of an eternal scream. In this version, George Dyer, his lover who committed suicide, confronts the gaze of the pontiff.

Flayed carcasses, howling creatures, disfigured heads and tortured bodies of grappling, male lovers. These emotionally charged images dominate the art of Francis Bacon, one of the world’s most important artists who continue to fascinate as seen in the long queues at the opening of “Bacon: Books and Painting” at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. What makes this exhibit even more intriguing is the innovative exploration of the influence of literature in the paintings of the controversial British painter who led a tumultuous life with many violent episodes related to intense relationships and a number of vices that fueled his creations. 

Born in Dublin in 1909 to a racehorse trainer father and a mother who was heiress to a steel and coal mine business, Bacon would describe his childhood as “unhappy” in interviews with photographer Francis Giacobetti from late 1991 to weeks before his death in April 1992. “My father didn’t love me, that’s for sure,” he said as he related how the elder Bacon would be very abusive. With the artist’s emerging homosexuality, his father would even have him horsewhipped by the stable boys who would also be involved in his first sexual experiences. This led to a very complicated relationship with his father: “It was very ambiguous because I was sexually attracted to him. At that time I didn’t know how to explain my feelings. I only understood afterwards when I slept with his servants.”  

After getting caught wearing his mother’s garments, he was finally expelled in 1926, surviving on a small allowance as he lived the life of a vagrant in London, Berlin and Paris. By the late ’20s, settling in London, he dabbled in interior and furniture design until a mentor, Roy de Maistre, encouraged him to study oil painting. Picasso and the surrealists were strong influences in his early work which found success in 1933 when he exhibited “Crucifixion,” a skeletal black and white composition that foreshadowed his later work, both in his obsession with Christ’s Passion as well as a predilection for morbid subjects showing contorted emotion and visceral physicality. This initial success, however, was followed by a series of rejections at galleries, prompting Bacon to destroy a majority of his works before 1943 and to bring him back to his former life of drifting, drinking and gambling. He returned to painting after the war, though, and produced “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” (1944) which he considered the true beginning of his work. This breakout piece placed him in the spotlight leading to his first solo exhibition in 1949.  

By 1952, Bacon began one of his most significant and turbulent relationships when he met Peter Lacy, a dashing, well-bred but self-destructive ex-WWII fighter. Even at their most sedate encounters, Bacon would submit to being tied in bondage at Lacy’s house. This sadomasochistic coupling would be instrumental in producing some of the artist’s fine pieces, according to the art historian John Richardson who describes the aftermath of an incident when Lacy hurled Bacon through a glass window after a drinking spree: “His face was so damaged that his right eye had to be sewn back into place. But Bacon loved Lacy even more. He would not forgive Lucian Freud for remonstrating with his lover.” 

But the most famous of Bacon’s lovers would have to be George Dyer whose suicide he immortalized in a painting in 1971, on the eve of the artist’s retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris. “Bacon would goad George into a state of psychic meltdown 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,” says Richardson. As the goading worsened, the imagery intensified and finally, after an unsuccessful suicide attempt in Greece, Dyer killed himself in Paris. This was a turning point in Bacon’s career, after which his paintings acquired “a precision, clarity and intensity that made them ‘immaculate,’” according to Didier Ottinger, the curator of the current Pompidou show. The exhibit concentrates on Bacon’s career from 1971 to 1992 which, for Ottinger, produced the artist’s best paintings.  For more than 40 years, Bacon was trying to produce that elusive “immaculate” painting, inventing a technique “that would reconcile the intensity and precision with which the technical means of photography and cinema had endowed the modern image, and the delicacy required to render the quivering, the very movement of life.”  

This period of Bacon’s maturity coincided with his relationship with John Edwards which was platonic and seemingly free of sadomasochistic overtones. He turned to books for inspiration, accumulating an enormous library in his London studio.  A major highlight of the exhibit is the inclusion of six rooms that play readings from some of these books in relation to the 60 works of which 12 are triptychs. The authors evoke a common poetic universe rooted in tragedy:  “From the philosophy of Nietzsche to the tragedies of Aeschylus, from the poetry of T.S. Eliot to the novels of Conrad, the writings of Leiris and Bataille, Bacon was interested in authors who shared an implacably realist conception of the world, demonstrating a compatibility of contradictory principles,” says Ottinger.  Nietzsche, for example, analyzed the coalescence of Apollonian beauty with Dionysian excess while Bataille established the fusion of vital energy with destructive forces.  

Bacon’s fondness for stark, tragic stories reflected how he viewed his own life, according to Michael Peppiatt, a friend and biographer of the artist: “He looked for other people who also looked down into the darkness.” Aeschylus was a particular favorite whose verse “The reek of human blood smiles out at me” evoked “the most exciting images” for him. Passages like this helped shape his art:  “I need to visualize things that lead me to other forms or subjects, details, images that influence my nervous system and transform the basic idea.” “Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus” (1981) includes the title of the book but just like his other pieces, it is not a linear narrative interpretation. His guilt over Dyer’s suicide manifests itself, though, in the shape of the Euminides, the Furies who hounded Orestes in the wake of his parricide. “Study from the Human Body and Portrait” (1988) has different layers that reflect Eliot’s “The Waste-Land” with its “fragmented construction and its collage of languages and multiple tales,” says Ottinger. 

Ultimately, artists work with human material, not with colors and paintbrushes. “It’s his thoughts that enter the painting,” said Bacon in the interview with Giacobetti. “But I don’t expect any certainty in life. I don’t believe in anything, not in God, not in morality, not in social success. I just believe in the present moment if it has genius — in the emotions that I experience when what I transmit on the canvas works. I am completely amoral and atheist and if I hadn’t painted I would have been a thief or a criminal. My paintings are a lot less violent than me.  Perhaps if my childhood had been happier, I would have painted bouquets of flowers.”



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“Bacon: Books and Painting” is ongoing at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Visit www.centrepompidou.fr for details. Follow the authors on Instagram @rickytchitov; Twitter @RickyToledo23; Facebook - Ricky Toledo Chito Vijandre.   

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