Home Books Francis Bacon: by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan

Francis Bacon: by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan

Francis Bacon is – not quite indisputably – one of the 20th century’s greatest and most defining artists, but until now most of the books about him have tended to either be focussed entirely on his work or, like his friend Daniel Farson’s gossipy 1994 biography, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, on the more tabloid-friendly aspects of his life. But although the artist himself might have argued that all that was to be said about his work was incorporated in the paintings themselves, this superbly detailed biography manages, without attempting to pinpoint meanings in a cause-and-effect kind of way, to demonstrate how intimately his art sprang from and is entwined with the currents of his life and his unique personality. Stevens and Swan are the authors of the Pulitzer Prizewinning biography of the very different artist Willem De Kooning (one of the painters for whom Bacon had a certain amount of grudging respect), so it would be surprising if Francis Bacon: Revelations was anything less than meticulously researched and beautifully written; and, to say the least, it doesn’t disappoint.

Bacon, even at the peak of his international fame in the ‘70s and ‘80s, was never in danger of becoming an establishment figure, and the biography reveals a man whose paradoxical nature was established in his earliest years. Born in Ireland, but not really Irish, intellectual but never formally educated, shy but at times almost an exhibitionist, Bacon’s childhood was marked by a deep sense of loneliness which never really left him. Stevens and Swan paint a vivid picture of Bacon’s unsettled Anglo-Irish background when, as the asthmatic, physically delicate and as it turned out, homosexual child of a sturdy, hyper-masculine, horsey military father, Bacon developed the feelings of rootlessness and isolation that remained the dark side to his generally positive and confident personality. It was only when he moved to London at the age of 17 that Bacon began to blossom and to form the friendships that were to be so important throughout his life. As the authors state, “cities had always provided a refuge for those who felt that they did not ‘fit,’ they were places where outsiders found others like themselves, discovering in the not-home of the metropolis another kind of family” and it was these family-like friendships, though often tempestuous, which were – art aside – the one real constant in Bacon’s life. Shy – until he had a drink at least – he nevertheless took naturally to fame, when it finally arrived, relatively late in his career. As the authors elegantly put it: “celebrity was a light that, concealing more than it revealed, enabled him to slip in and out of his persona.” And that larger-than-life persona; part imperious, intellectual artist, part raconteur and dandy, part queen, depending on who he was talking to – comes through in the pages with the force of familiarity to anyone who remembers Bacon or has seen his TV appearances. And it’s this ring of truth that makes the parts of the book dealing with the less well-known aspects of his life so surprising.

Bacon’s fairly public private life, his sexuality, masochism and drunkenness are by now well established, so thankfully, the revelations of the title mostly concern his career. The most surprising of these comes in the detailed study of his early work – which he often tried to dismiss or even conceal – as an interior and furniture designer. Thinking of his trademarks; screaming Popes, fleshy, malignant-looking mutilated creatures, shadowy distorted nude bodies, it’s almost startling to read of the teenage Francis Bacon with his rugs and desks and his plans to open a modernist furniture shop in London. And in fact by 1930 he was an up-and-coming furniture designer with his own London showroom – but within just two years he abandoned that career to work as a full-time artist. His early development as a painter is difficult to trace, partly because until after World War Two he only had a modest amount of success, but also because of his lifelong habit of destroying – with a certain amount of pleasure – work that displeased him. His early years as an artist are also marked by his first serious relationships, and the authors deal especially well with this aspect of his life. Although known later on for his intense and sometimes alarmingly violent masochistic relationships, early on he was, as the authors put it, “catnip for the closeted” and the reader may well end up wondering if any gentlemanly and sober members of the Conservative political establishment of the interwar years weren’t secretly homosexual. As well as challenging the artist’s own myth that his career began, fully formed with his famous 1944 triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, the fascinating and little-known aspects of his early career tie him into the British and European modernist movement of the interwar period in a way which is not usual. This isn’t a minor detail; much as the artist later had something approaching a phobia of illustration and design in art, it’s the formal qualities of his work that often make its unorthodox elements so powerful. The fact that much of his best-known work is in a triptych format itself underlines how important design remained to him and in fact, this sense of organization and structure doesn’t negate its visceral, emotional impact any more than the constraints of verse forms negate the impact of Shakespeare’s poetry – quite the opposite; it’s the formal qualities of his painting which energize his work by giving it a sense both of dynamism and tension that make his best images, once seen, unforgettable.

Early in his adult life, Bacon became both an inveterate traveler and gambler, and he always remained as at home in France as he was in England – or perhaps more so, since he only really seems to have been able to work productively with the degree of dissatisfaction which marked his life in London. And it was in London too, that he formed the most important relationships of his life, with a pair of men who, both troubled in their very different ways, haunt his art thereafter. Bacon does not always come out well in his relationships with others, but somehow the authors, without whitewashing the cold, harsh and negative aspects of his character, manage to capture what most people that met him seemed to see as his essentially loveable nature. He was snobbish certainly, and in a completely stereotypical way, bitchy too – but despite the nihilism that lay just under the surface of his life and art, he was never misanthropic.

The book, full of fascinating detail about Bacon’s life, is if anything, even better on his art. For the most part, both subjects are – fittingly – treated as one, but there are incisive analyses of most of his major works too. His art, influenced by his reading of Nietzsche and Aeschylus, as well as by photography, Picasso and the experiences of his youth and of World War Two – he was briefly an air raid warden and, unthinkably, visited France on holiday in 1940 – is placed firmly within the context of post-war existentialism and its milieu of spiritual and philosophical uncertainty. But as the biography illustrates, Bacon himself, with his privileged yet precarious existence, often seemed like a refugee from the Edwardian period he was born in. Until relatively late in his life, his finances were at best chaotic – a characteristic Bacon problem was being sued by his tailor – and his aristocratic disdain for money was the cause both of many of his own problems and of the impulsive and sometimes astounding generosity which marked his personal relationships. Bacon was in all senses of the word a funny man; but his art was rarely funny; and the anxieties, tensions and theatricality it embodies are complex and closely related to the inner life of Bacon himself. The authors are especially perceptive on his “Screaming Popes” and the personal way in which his art connects to tradition; “The opulent glazing and heavy gold frames that Bacon continued to employ were, among many other things, a kind of satirical costume – the old masters in drag. The stagy air of performance they gave to his art was not disrespectful, for no-one loves the original more than the drag queen does.”

As the book stresses, Bacon rejected any of the labels that might have led to his inclusion in an identifiable art movement and remained, until his death, a central but oddly isolated pillar of the international art scene. While he tended on the whole – after he became successful – to remain slightly aloof from other successful artists, even friends like Lucian Freud (the aloofness was mutual), there are other figures in the book with whom he shares a closer kind of kinship. Perhaps the best parallel for Bacon’s own life – although an entirely different and much more sober personality; in many ways Bacon’s opposite – was his friend Michel Leiris. Well mannered, refined and somber in person, almost an establishment figure, but in his writings a renegade surrealist-communist with ties to Georges Bataille’s Documents – Leiris was an entirely modern and radical figure, but one with old world manners that Bacon was entirely comfortable with. In capturing both Bacon’s artistic radicalism – for all of his work’s traditional, figurative elements, it relied on an element of surrealist-like randomness and chance for its creation – and both the more outré and conservative aspects of his personality, the book brings the reader a rounded sense of completeness. The art may not be easily explicable, but looking at the reproductions – which are perfectly chosen and of excellent quality, although of course more would always be nice – it absolutely and identifiably belongs to the individual who the book describes to us. The links between an artist’s life and work are always problematic – and the art must be able to stand alone without explicit reference to the life – but it would be perverse to argue that the knowledge of an artist’s life doesn’t deepen the appreciation of the work, and after reading Revelations, Bacon’s work feels more specific, but – understanding something of the wellsprings from where it came – also more universal. Yes, sometimes horrific, sometimes perverse, sometimes mystifying; but always human.

If the book has a deficiency, it’s an understandable one and perhaps unavoidable one, as it concerns the artist’s place specifically within English art. One of Bacon’s first perceptive critics, the authors note, was Wyndham Lewis – “himself a careful painter”. But Lewis was far more than just a careful painter; although the book places Bacon within a kind of post-Bloomsbury orbit, via his early supporter Graham Sutherland, Lewis was the foremost representative of Britain’s most radically avant garde modernist school of the time; Vorticism. Although by Bacon’s day Vorticism was already half forgotten, looking especially at his design work and an early painted screen from 1930, it is Lewis’s work and Vorticism that springs to mind even more readily than Picasso. A major force in English art just prior to and just after World War One, Vorticism had channeled the brief fad for Futurism which swept London, reaching into the worlds of British fashion and design, during the nineteen teens. Bacon’s design work arguably represents the tail end of this fad and, as Bacon later did, Lewis and the Vorticists had struggled with ways to ally almost entirely abstract art with more representational and figurative work.

The authors rightly point out Bacon’s position as an outlier, not just in relation to the traditional British art establishment, but also to the post-Bloomsbury-influenced counterculture, but in fact this is true of almost every major English – specifically English rather than British – artist of the 20th century. Wyndham Lewis, born on a boat to American parents, belonged to England but didn’t; David Bomberg, belonged to London, but as the son of Jewish Polish immigrants also didn’t. Bacon’s friend and enemy Lucian Freud was fascinated by England’s aristocracy, but born in Germany to Jewish parents could never belong to it; Stanley Spencer was devoutly religious in a cynically secular country; David Hockney, working class and northern, felt more at home in LA than England during his most influential years; and so on, right up to the present day with artists like Tracey Emin. Bacon would not have wanted to belong to a tradition, but in English art belonging outside of a tradition is almost a tradition in itself. And the problems that commentators grapple with in Bacon’s art are problems that England – arguably now more than ever – has to grapple with. Conflicting questions of tradition and rebellion, class distinction and individualism, sensuality and convention, conservatism and freedom. Bacon was an artist on the European and eventually on the world stage, but his tensions and paradoxes, while universally human, were also definitively English.

Francis Bacon’s reputation continues to fluctuate – in the last decade, the exhibition Francis Bacon and the Old Masters – which, the biography incidentally confirms, the artist would definitely not have approved of – opened to the same kind of mixed reviews that marked every major exhibition of his work in his lifetime. But ultimately, as Francis Bacon: Revelations underlines, Bacon’s art has survived outworn arguments about the validity of figurative and representational art, and if his work – as mysterious and controversial as ever – confirms anything, it’s that the personal, when it deals with the most fundamental human concerns; desire, love, fear, pain, sex – existence itself, is, in the hands of an accomplished artist, the basis for work that is, if not universal, then endlessly significant. Francis Bacon’s work will always spark debate, but it can never be easily dismissed, and Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan have done the artist a great service in illuminating both his life and his art. In its breadth, depth (there are over a hundred pages of notes at the end), elegance and empathy, it’s hard to imagine a better book about him.

Summary
Stevens and Swan examine the life and work of one of the twentieth century’s greatest artists in a work that is as richly textured as it is finely drawn
90 %
Masterly biography

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