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The Turbulent Life of Francis Bacon

Bacon’s contradictions make him the rare artist who warrants an infatuated 900-page biography.

Francis Bacon in his studio at Overstrand Mansions in Battersea.
Courtesy of the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive/Sotheby’s

The same day that Francis Bacon’s landmark retrospective opened at the Grand Palais in Paris, in 1971, his longtime boyfriend and muse George Dyer died on the toilet in their hotel. It was unclear whether the cause of death was an accidental overdose of sleeping pills or suicide. The day before, Bacon had returned to the Hôtel des Saints-Pères to find Dyer drunk in bed with a young man. The couple argued. Bacon stormed out to spend the night in another room. Faced with the prospect of Dyer’s death overshadowing his triumphal exhibition, Bacon asked the hotel manager to postpone notifying the authorities—an amenity apparently available only to the famous. The bathroom where Dyer’s body still slumped on the toilet was discreetly locked, and Bacon went off to be feted by France’s cultural elite. 

Francis Bacon: Revelations
by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan
Knopf, 880 pp., $60.00

This episode suggests ruthless careerism, but as the Pulitzer Prize–winning critics Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan write in their new biography, Francis Bacon: Revelations, the reality turned out to be more haunting. Beginning in 1972, Bacon regularly checked into the hotel room where Dyer died. He slept in the same bed where Dyer had cheated on him; he sat on the toilet where Dyer took his last breath. Bacon wasn’t spiritual, but these private rituals, which could last up to two weeks, had the intimacy of a séance. It was the closest Bacon came to sentimentality.

There’s a dreamlike gravitas to Bacon’s art that matches his do-it-yourself ghost hunt. He gave to the twentieth century a visual repertoire—screaming popes, deformed heads, distended bodies, crucifixions—that symbolizes a universal if often inscrutable anxiety, while still imparting the psychic drama of Bacon’s own self-contradictions. “What I’ve always wanted to do is to make things that are very formal yet coming to bits,” he once said, and the tension between control and breakdown is the subtext of his life and paintings. The Bacon who emerges in Stevens and Swan’s biography has the clammy decorum of a proper Englishman cut with the tragicomic wit of the Irish. He erased or denied parts of his history he didn’t like; he destroyed canvases that fell short of an impossible perfection; he couldn’t speak about himself without getting drunk first. He was an S&M enthusiast who lived with his childhood nanny. He painted disturbing vignettes but was an effervescent fixture at London bars. His states of betweenness, of paradox, make him that rare artist who actually rewards 900 infatuated pages.

Bacon was born in Ireland in 1909, descendant of an illustrious bloodline of military adventurers and rich industrialists. His parents were recent arrivals from England. “When I think of my childhood, I see something very heavy, very cold, like a block of ice,” Bacon told an interviewer. There was much to detest in his early years: the asthma that confined him to a sickroom and necessitated medicinal candles and occasional hits of morphine; his father, an ex-soldier and horse trainer disappointed by his weakling son; the outbreak of World War I, which drove the family back to England (Stevens and Swan suggest that searchlights may have inspired the “ghostly white” stripes that appear in some later paintings); and, after the war, the Irish Republican Army, which terrorized aristocratic families like Bacon’s. “It was both magical and unnerving—thrilling and dreadful—to go to bed knowing that somewhere in the dark field beyond the window there might be strangers waiting and watching, phantoms who lit flares and sang songs,” Stevens and Swan write, noting that “watchers would appear decades later in many of Bacon’s pictures.” (“Thrilling” and “magical” perhaps overstate the whimsy of partisans threatening to torch the neighborhood.)

There was also the matter of Bacon’s burgeoning homosexuality. Like many young gay boys, Bacon was conflicted by an attraction to his own father. He also—facetiously or not—claimed to be aroused by the smell of horse manure, which would have been in rank abundance given his father’s profession. When he was 15, Bacon was raped by a groom in his father’s stable, a story Stevens and Swan treat skeptically. Many of Bacon’s claims buttressed a self-mythology designed to make him seem more feral and less calculated than he actually was. He later said he didn’t read serious books or take art classes, although each assertion was a lie. He alleged that his father kicked him out of the house after he discovered Bacon wearing his mother’s panties. Whether the anecdote is true or not, it’s the kind of tawdry provocation Bacon relished. “What was certain,” Stevens and Swan write, “was that some unstable sexual compound—father, groom, animal, discipline—gave Francis a physical jolt that helped make him into the painter Francis Bacon.”

In his late teens, he drew inspiration from the “gilded squalor” he found in London, Berlin, and Paris. A visit to Berlin in 1927 introduced him to Europe’s sexual and artistic vanguard: prostitution, drag shows, sex clubs, and drugs. (The trip may have also kindled his connoisseurship of seedy bars and lowlifes, a taste he shared with his friend William S. Burroughs, another intermittent expat who rejected his family’s bourgeois pieties.) Bacon may have first seen Battleship Potemkin in Berlin; his fascination with mouths and screaming subjects can be traced to the film’s “indelible image of the nurse caught in the massacre on the Odessa steps ... her pince-nez bloodily shattering as she opens her mouth in a scream.” 

It was in Paris, though, that Bacon the artist first emerged. His discovery of Picasso in the late 1920s was an “epiphany.” Although Bacon sometimes downplayed Picasso’s influence, the older artist’s biomorphic figures and scrambled anatomies are an obvious precursor to Bacon’s figures. In a pattern that was consistent throughout his life, Bacon also rebuffed other artists with whom he was certainly familiar and by whom he was perhaps even inspired, including Otto Dix and Chaim Soutine. Dix’s elongated bodies and harsh figuration and Soutine’s garish expressionism are natural referents for Bacon. Equally important were the illustrated books Bacon bought from dealers along the Seine—books about diseases of the mouth, big game animals, supernatural emanations, and other esoteric subjects. (His library of oddities eventually totaled more than 1,200 volumes.) Later, he was drawn to the motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge and to Nazi propaganda.   

In the early 1930s, Bacon found a creative outlet in rug and furniture design. Encouraged by several women—including Madge Garland and Dorothy Todd, the powerhouse lovers who led British Vogue—Bacon envisioned a career creating modernist decor. His prospects were buoyed when he met Eric Allden, a bureaucrat 23 years his senior who became Bacon’s first male companion. (Peter Lacy and Dyer were Bacon’s two other great loves; both died on the brink of major Bacon exhibitions.) Allden spoiled the young artist with expensive haircuts and tailored clothing, and with outings to the theater and museums. With Allden’s help, Bacon opened a design showroom in London, with living quarters in the back for the two men and Bacon’s nanny, who served as cook and housekeeper.

Despite his modest success as a designer, Bacon was determined to be a serious artist. “A thing has to arrive at a stage of deformity before I can find it beautiful,” he told his cousin Diana, and in his early canvases he not only depicted deformed subjects—the crucifixion was an obsession—but also deformed the paint itself: “He added … whatever amounts of oil, water, and probably dust he thought might awaken the flesh or help generate a powerful image,” Stevens and Swan write. A crucifixion from 1933, showing a spindly ectoplasmic figure with raised arms against a black background, remains one of Bacon’s eeriest works and is a thematic rehearsal for his later notable triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. 

Three Studies of Lucian Freud, 1969
Copyright the Estate of Francis Bacon, 69-07. All rights reserved.

Bacon’s career through the ’30s followed a jerky trajectory of acclaim and failure. He made an uneasy companion to the other stalwarts of British art at the time: Henry Moore, John Piper, and, especially, Graham Sutherland. Bacon and Sutherland had a competitive influence on each other, although Sutherland was fundamentally more provincial than Bacon and championed the English tradition—and Englishness as a virtue—in a way Bacon never did. (Bacon and Lucian Freud had a similarly fraught relationship.) As Stevens and Swan write, Bacon’s art was torn between opposite impulses: “Explosive or restrained; bestial or civilized; naked or revealed; raw or cooked.” He wasn’t a surrealist, although his desolate geometric architecture and nightmarish creatures recall that movement’s dreamlike juxtapositions. Nor was he a cubist, despite his discordant faces. He didn’t seem to belong to any school or ism of contemporary art. Stevens and Swan invoke a lineage of old masters such as Rembrandt, Titian, and Velázquez, and Bacon himself aspired to such grandeur. 

Yet he also understood the essentially moral, Manichean universe of the old masters as a farce. Bacon isolates and aestheticizes the human condition—a phrase he would have mocked—as a series of elemental traumas. Head I, from 1948, presents a necrotic head disintegrating into yolky runoff, the exposed teeth reminiscent of certain deep-sea predator fish. “Human control, vested in settled human features, is an old-master illusion,” Stevens and Swan write of the painting. The same can be said of one of Bacon’s most iconic works, Study After Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, from 1953, which remakes Velázquez’s original as an eruption of luminous distress. Velázquez’s pope is regal and indomitable; Bacon’s looks as if he’s mid-sizzle in an electric chair. Head VI, from 1949, also reworks the Velázquez, this time framing the pope’s screaming head behind both a phantasmal cube and a gauze of oxidized drapery. The artist Lawrence Gowing wrote that “the paradoxical appearance at once of pastiche and iconoclasm was indeed one of Bacon’s most original strokes.”

Stevens and Swan extend that idea to the literal presentation of Bacon’s art. By putting his canvases in heavy gold frames, Bacon employed a “kind of satirical costume—the old masters in drag.” Bacon was a deadly serious artist, but not humorless. There’s a whiff of camp in his bombast and even in his public persona—the suit and glossy leather jacket that gave the impression of a gentleman fetishist. The notion of a gay, irreligious man painting flamboyant popes and crucifixions, and then framing them in a way that self-consciously evokes the canon, is more amusing than most critics acknowledge. (John Berger initially and unfavorably compared Bacon to Walt Disney.) For Bacon, the sober traditions of Christian iconography and Western art were suitable subjects for art but never for veneration.

Stevens and Swan’s biography is also the story of interwar and midcentury gay British culture: discretion and code-speak, confirmed bachelors rooming together, followed gradually by the sordid vivacity of Soho nightlife. The book paints a vivid portrait of the Colony Room, the bar in London where Bacon (and Dylan Thomas) spent many obliterated hours. The place was presided over by Muriel Belcher, a mordant lesbian who lingered “like a musk” amid her regular gay clientele:   

The freedom inside the bilious green room, while naughty, funny, and subversive, also included the darker liberties. You could wound and be wounded. You could choose to drink yourself to death. Veneers were stripped; masks were picked up in pieces. Sloppy drunks often fell down the narrow staircase. By the next day the performances were forgiven or forgotten—or perhaps not.

Queer life was still scandalous in that era. In the 1950s, police routinely cracked down on gay offenses: In 1952, the code-breaker Alan Turing was convicted of gross indecency and opted for chemical castration instead of prison. (He committed suicide two years later.) The 1954 trial and imprisonment of conservative politician Edward Montagu, landowner Michael Pitt-Rivers, and journalist Peter Wildeblood became a cause célèbre. Homosexual acts remained officially illegal in Britain until 1967. In this environment, circumspection was the rule, although Bacon pushed both his romantic life and his art to the edge.

“Until late in his life Bacon was attracted to beautiful but suppressed men in whom there lay—somewhere between weakness and power—a seductive but dangerous line that he could test,” Stevens and Swan write. In Peter Lacy, a former fighter pilot, Bacon found the perfect collaborator. Lacy beat and raped Bacon, and once threatened to chain him up in a corner, where Bacon would have to sleep and shit on a bed of straw. During one particularly violent exchange, Lacy threw Bacon through a window. 

This hard-knock eroticism pervaded some of Bacon’s paintings, as well. Two Figures, from 1953, depicts two naked men grappling on a disheveled bed. The men’s skin has the mottled plum undertones of a bruise, while their faces are mostly blurred, almost rinsed out, aside from one man’s bared teeth. It’s an ambiguous image that suggests both rapture and violence. (Lucian Freud hung the painting over his bed and refused to ever lend it to museums.) Bacon explored similar themes in Two Figures in the Grass, from 1954, and The Wrestlers After Muybridge, from 1980. 

Bacon’s Men in Suits series may be his most cohesive rejoinder to the stifled sexuality of British culture. In 1954, Bacon lodged at the Imperial Hotel in Henley-on-Thames, about an hour west of London. It was a faded pit stop for businessmen and commuters, some of whom were there to drink their lunch and some to have hurried trysts, and some of whom agreed to model for Bacon. The resulting series is a monochromatic blue-and-black frieze of solitary men seemingly trapped inside spectral cages. Stevens and Swan argue that the figures are stand-ins for “the tormented everyman of postwar corporate culture.” The figures also represent a performance of masculinity—broad-shouldered, hefty, on a payroll—alienated from itself. The unanimous darkness of the backdrops evokes the darkness of the closet. The paintings suggest how isolating queerness can be, and also how banal its self-deception is, symbolized here by conformist wardrobes and dreary routine.   

Performance is the flip side of homosexuality, and for Bacon, that meant playing the roles both of bitchy bon vivant—heir to the tradition of his fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde—and of dissipated artist. Neither role was a perfect fit. “It was Bacon’s secret that he was not just a radical master of the twentieth-century stage who exulted in the dark arts,” Stevens and Swan write. “He was simultaneously an Englishman suffused with longing for the ordinary patterns of joy and solace denied him as a child and young man.” Bacon was a conservative at heart—when drunk, he’d sometimes lambaste poor people for their supposed weakness—but his art, as channeled through his queerness, cast a critical, if oblique, eye on the prevailing culture. Bacon understood life as a zero-sum proposition: There are no winners except death; we are all meat; in a world without meaning, you might as well do what you want. He once observed about the Nazi imagery that riveted him, “Amid the clatter of Hitlerism you saw shadows in the process of becoming substantial.” The opposite is true of Bacon’s art; there you see once substantial figures in the process of becoming shadows.