Bringing Bacon Home: collection of Francis Bacon letters shows the painter in a new light

  • by Robert Brokl
  • Tuesday May 14, 2024
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(L) book, (R) Francis Bacon's 'Sleeping Figure,' 1974 (Courtesy Thames and Hudson USA)
(L) book, (R) Francis Bacon's 'Sleeping Figure,' 1974 (Courtesy Thames and Hudson USA)

Edited by critic/curator Michael Peppiatt, with a forward by novelist Colm Toibin, "Francis Bacon: A Self-Portrait in Words" (Thames and Hudson USA) arrives at a propitious moment. Bacon's paintings have set world record breaking prices at auction ($142 million for a Lucian Freud triptych portrait), and biographies and reports describing his rather scandalous affairs and lifestyle are old news.

The time may be right for a more measured examination of his friendships and relationships. Peppiatt, a longtime friend, has done a painstaking job of compiling Bacon's side of letters to friends, dealers, and other art world figures, with helpful notes providing context.

The book is supplemented with photographs, images of artwork, the rare statements Bacon provided about his work, even some conversations, including a garrulous one between Bacon and William Burroughs. Consider adding this to your Bacon library, a companion to more lurid accounts like the "The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon" by Daniel Farson.

Francis Bacon's 'Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X,' 1953 (Courtesy Thames and Hudson USA)  

In the post-WWII era, after the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, nuclear bombs, and carnage, Bacon's signature screaming Popes and figures paired with slabs of raw meat struck an existential chord. His paintings combined somewhat aestheticized backgrounds of bright, decorator color, often with the suggestion of glass boxes or cages, evoking Adolf Eichmann on trial in Jerusalem.

Bacon was an unlikely candidate for art world stardom. The effeminate son, born in Dublin, of an English/Australian Army captain and race horse trainer (Bacon was allergic to horses but attracted to his father's "masculine beauty" in general as he put it later) and a mother who was heir to the Sheffield steel fortune.

Bacon was on his own from an early age, evidently thrown out after being caught by his father wearing his mother's undergarments. Bacon didn't start to paint until his late 20s, after a stint as an interior designer. He had no formal art education, and his oil paintings on raw canvas are, per his instructions, displayed under glass, providing sheen without technical processes of glazing.

Francis Bacon and Ahmed Yacoubi in Tangier, 1956 (Courtesy Thames and Hudson USA)  

An example of Bacon's difficult, even toxic, relationships is that with Denis Wirth-Miller, a figurative painter, and Richard Chopping, a writer and illustrator, a gay couple. As Peppiat explains:

"The mercurial character of their friendship is well evoked in the constant apologies and details of nights gambling and drinking in Bacon's letters... It is clear from the extracts that Bacon is more tempestuous in person and over the phone than when he was writing. He often uses letters to communicate in a calmer manner and make up for his early behavior."

Their "unfathomable threesome" had its ups and downs, and "Bacon publicly humiliated Wirth-Miller in 1978 by publicly mocking his work at his solo show," after which he "appears to have given up painting."

But Bacon was also generous and kind on occasion, paying the medical bills of his friend Sonia Orwell, with limited means and brain cancer, and promoting Moroccan painter, Ahmed Yacoubi, arranging for him to show at his gallery.

Letters by Francis Bacon (Courtesy Thames and Hudson USA)  

Like a more ribald Bloomsbury, Bacon's circle was stellar. He maintained a long friendship with Freud, the painter and grandson of Sigmund. It's unclear why they drifted apart, or what happened to correspondence from Freud, another instance when the reader misses the back and forth of letters.

He made frequent visits to Morocco, linking to the Tangier circle of gay writers and ex-pats like Paul and Jane Bowles. Burroughs was also a lifelong friend, Pappiat quotes him saying: "Bacon and I are at opposite ends of the spectrum. He likes middle-aged truck drivers and I like young boys. He sneers at immortality and I think it's the one thing of importance."

Bacon was as hard on his own work as he was on others. "Nine out of ten paintings I see, I hate, including my own. I don't really like most of what I see, and I think if people do one or two extraordinary things they've done a lot..."

These were remarks recorded by the photographer Peter Beard, who befriended Bacon. Beard was gloriously handsome, and his appearance seems have intimidated Bacon; his portrait of Beard is mannerist Bacon doing Bacon.

Francis Bacon in his studio, 1971 by Henri Cartier-Bresson (Courtesy Thames and Hudson USA)  

Another provocative, if arguable statement from Bacon from 1984:

"... it is a real pleasure if another painter happens to like anything one does—I believe in the first place people working in the same medium are the only real judges even if it is not the type of work they like they know the good from the bad."

Bacon was unimpressed by David Hockney's artwork. While "lik(ing) him very much... I have never liked Hockney's very sub-Picasso drawings or any of his work for that matter I suppose it is so thin and bland that it is so popular."

Bacon's most profound work may have been triggered by the alcohol and sleeping pill-induced suicide of his lover, George Dyer, two days before the opening of Bacon's Paris retrospective at the Grand Palais in1971. Dyer was rough trade working class, a petty thief and burglar. Bacon had taken him in, providing financial support even as the relationship deteriorated, Dyer even planting drugs in Bacon's flat resulting in his arrest.

Francisc Bacon with William S. Burroughs (Courtesy Thames and Hudson USA)  

But his despair over the death resulted in several major triptychs and an even gloomier world view: "Everyone I've ever been really fond of has died. They'd always been drunks or suicides. I don't really know why I seem to attract that kind of person. There is nothing you can do about those things. Nothing." Legacies are enhanced by cinematic accounts: "Love is the Devil," based upon the Farson book, starring Derek Jacobi ("I Claudius" fame) as Bacon and Daniel Craig, in a pre-James Bond role, as the doomed Dyer.

With Bacon it's warts and all, but the comments reflecting self-loathing and cynicism are rather depressing, and dated: "...growing old is much more difficult for homosexuals. Because homosexuals are always obsessed with looks...Most of the time I meet only brutes. I'd love to be with someone I could really talk to—but I've never been able to talk to the people I've been obsessed by."

Some of Bacon's best paintings will outrun and outlive the notoriety and auction prices, and Peppiatt's book is an honest, de-sensationalized attempt to illuminate the life of an important, if uneven artist. In a homage that Bacon might have enjoyed, his squalid longtime studio in London was dismantled, documented, and reassembled at the High Lane Gallery in Dublin, Bacon's birthplace, on permanent display.

'Francis Bacon: A Self-Portrait in Words,' edited by Michael Peppiatt, Thames and Hudson USA $50, 480 pages.

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