I spent part of the day yesterday looking at the Bacon show at the Metropolitan Museum. I plan to return and look at it again.
Francis Bacon is 100 years old this year.
Angry jaundiced British modern painting is now a cliché (take that Lucian Freud!), but once it was new and brilliant in the postwar years. The most brilliant of them all still is the late Francis Bacon, an artist whose work is passionately loved and loathed, even now 17 years after his death.
Francis Bacon and I go way back. He was an early art school discovery of mine. The critic David Sylvester’s book length interview with Bacon was a favorite book of art students back in my day. Bacon was the dark star of art students at a time when our professors wanted us to look at Cezanne or Hans Hoffmann.
Bacon was famously gay with a taste for very rough sex with rough young men. It was art school legend that Bacon insisted on sleeping with all of his male students. And yet, straight boys in art school adored his work. They loved the violence and the scariness of it. It was through Bacon that a lot of them found their way to everything from Velazquez’s portraits to TS Eliot’s poetry to Eisenstein’s movies. Remarkably, Bacon’s candor about his homosexuality only enhanced their affection for him. The visual arts are a lot more hetero than most people assume, but they have always been very gay friendly for as long as I can remember.
With all of my straight boy art buddies, I too fell in love with Bacon’s work, and I’m still in love with it.
Bacon made his career with multiple paintings based on a Crucifixion motif. However, we should not read too much religious content into them. This is definitely not the Christian story. This is the crucifixion of Everyman by history. Bacon takes a traditional religious subject and compositional format, the triptych invented in Northern Europe for altarpieces, and remakes them to suit his own purposes. In the center panel, what appears to be a violently mutilated corpse displays itself to us like a bloody odalisque on a bed. In the right panel, what appears to be a cross between a violated corpse and a side of meat displays itself before a dog; spectacle or food? On the left are the indifferent bystanders, the folks who slow down to look at the car crash and are glad it isn't them. The whole scene is set in bare red oval rooms with windows out onto a pitch black night, mercilessly lit by bright electric lights.
Bacon was an existentialist of the old school. He was a true believing atheist who denied any afterlife, any transcendence, any apparent meaning to life. Like a lot of gay artists and writers, he believed that all claims to legitimate authority were ultimately bogus, and but a fig-leaf for raw power and domination. Artists and writers like Genet, Wojnarowicz, and Foucault come to mind; they shared Bacon’s skepticism about any legitimacy claimed for power. Perhaps this deeply felt anarchism among so many gay intellectuals comes from the experience of having one’s deepest desires criminalized for apparently arbitrary reasons. History, they all believed, was but the biological struggle for survival and domination projected into the social sphere. Bacon painted history as though is was a giant human abattoir. Though I do not share Bacon’s atheism, there is much in this old existential outlook that resonates with me.
Bacon lived through the darkest years of the 20th century. He spent part of his boyhood in London during World War I. His chronic asthma kept him out of military service in World War II, but he sometimes worked in volunteer rescue units during the Blitz. After witnessing, even from a distance, the carnage of the Great War and the rise of Hitler and Stalin, it was hard not to conclude that history was nothing but an abbatoir.
Bacon was an amazing painter, doubly amazing when we consider how little formal education he had, and how much failure and hardship he endured as a young man. He really learned his lessons from the great Velazquez, whose work he studied and paid homage to all his life. Those strokes and scumbles only come together at a distance, as in Velazquez’s work. His technique is a Baroque bravura of the thinnest whispers of scumbles to impasto laid on with a trowel. No other artist captured the harshness of indoor electric lighting better than Bacon (his only possible rival might be Max Beckmann). My little glazes and scumbles look so pedestrian in comparison to his canvases. Bacon could paint a very accurate likeness, and then take a rag and destroy it. He would then paint a line or a few strokes that would turn the mess back into form. His paint application brilliantly suggests everything from raw meat to dead mutilated flesh to a man’s muscular back. His figures can be alternately ghostly and richly physical in the same painting.
Bacon's paintings after Velazquez's famous portrait are among the most famous anti-authoritarian images of 20th century art. Bacon faces down the ogre, and sees the frightened animal behind the ecclesiastical pomp. This painting is a brilliant hybrid of Velazquez, and a still from Eisenstein's movie Potemkin which Bacon may have made famous. The face of the screaming wounded nanny from the massacre on the Odessa steps is grafted onto Velazquez's portrait of the wary and nervous looking Pope.
Bacon was born into an affluent English family living in Ireland. He was born in Dublin, and spent much of his boyhood in County Kildare. His father was a former army officer and racehorse breeder who was domineering and tryannical with his family. Francis' burgeoning early homosexuality became too much for him, so he threw Francis out of the house. At 16 years old, Francis Bacon was on his own, living off a very small allowance from his mother. He wandered between London, Paris, and Berlin into his 30s. He made a precarious living hustling and doing odd jobs. For awhile in the 1930s, he was a moderately successful interior designer. His painting education was through night schools and various free academies.
The wall text and the catalogue at the Met show were very disappointing. They made more literal minded readings into the meaning of his work than I think were there. His homosexuality was discussed, but not exactly candidly. The interpretations seemed to me to be a little too anxiously high-minded, skirting around a central fact of Bacon’s work that hits us in the face as soon as we walk into a gallery of his paintings. So much of Bacon’s work is about men having sex with each other. I think of Bacon as the gay male Picasso. Like Picasso, Bacon tears his lovers apart with his brush and rearranges their bodies according to his desire. An example is the painting above of his lover from the 1960s, a sometime thief and drug addict named George Dyer (who died of an overdose in 1971 the day before the opening of a major show of Bacon's work in Paris). Bacon shows him twice, seated clothed over on the right, and nude in the painting on the left. Like Picasso tearing into Marie Therese Walter, Bacon does the same with Dyer's body, only with even more violence, showing him filleted and literally pinned to the canvas.
The wall text for this painting at the Met dwelt at length on the carnivorous bird in the center panel pecking away at the filleted figure with discussions of Aeschylus and the furies. It could be any figure from Classical mythology getting his innards pecked by a big bird from Prometheus to Tityus. It ignored what I think is so blatantly obvious in this painting, a night of rough casual sex with a piece of trade. That toilet overflowing with blood in the center panel should have been a clue.
In this panel from the triptych, we see a large head in a frame which could be the glowering figure of paternal authority. More likely, it is a photo of the call-boy which merges into the actual hustler himself dressed in a leather jacket and undressed at the same time. An unzipped travel case (which appears in a lot of Bacon's paintings) appears beside him.
Before you go running off to pull down your annotated poems of TS Eliot to make sense of this painting, the title was created by a dealer, not by Bacon himself. Bacon was (amazingly) a fan of Eliot's poetry. What this painting is really about is a furtive and violent sexual encounter between men at a time when that was still a criminal act in British (and American) law. In the side panels we see the lovers, spent with exhaustion in the left panel with lots of cigarette butts on that bed/table. In the right panel, they grapple and merge together in copulation while a figure in the background appears to be calling to complain about the noise or to report the pair to the police.
Significantly, Bacon's paintings of copulating men are based on photos of wrestlers. Like Picasso, Bacon brings out the violence implicit in all sexual desire, and especially the violence (real and imaginary) of sex between men. The center panel shows an apparent bloody aftermath with the open travel bag. Perhaps this was a tryst that ended in robbery, assault, and maybe murder. The sexual encounters in all of Bacon’s work are furtive anonymous trysts. They always take place in a cheap hotel room under harsh electric light. There is always an air of menace and threat in Bacon's paintings, which adds both anxiety and the thrill of risk.
Bacon's scariest paintings, in my opinion, are a series of dark portraits of an anonymous middle aged man in a blue suit, all from 1953. The man is shown seated in what appears to be an office at night or in a dark hotel room. Sometimes, he sits on a bed as in this painting. They were painted at the height of legal crackdowns on gay men on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1950s. The man in the blue suit alternates in roles between a harsh relentless power figure who views us as an insect specimen to be pinned to the wall, or even more frighteningly, as a potentially predatory sex partner. The terror of these paintings is the cop/employer/ bureaucrat/ priest as preying mantis.
These paintings are all based on lived experience. Bacon hustled in his youth, and in his later years was attracted to men from the outer fringes of society who stole, sold and took drugs, and hustled. Many times over the course of his life, he emerged bruised and bloodied from sexual encounters that began or ended in fights.
In Bacon’s work, even at its scariest and most violent, there is real passion for life. The only other artist I can think of who turned alienation and suffering into a real rage to live was David Wojnarowicz. In Bacon’s work, there is the thrill of going through the slaughterhouse of history and coming out alive at the other end. He lived through 2 World Wars and 2 periods of postwar shortages and hardship. He survived disinheritance, poverty, and brutality. That was better than a lot people in those years.