The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Francis Bacon was an elusive figure. A new biography presents novel details of his iconoclastic existence.

“Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards,” 1980, by Francis Bacon. (The Estate of Francis Bacon, 80-01. All rights reserved. Private collection, USA.)

Swollen, distorted, painted in bruised mauves and imprisoned in triptychs, the figures in Francis Bacon’s art are among the indelible images of the 20th century. In a new biography, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan strive to bring into focus the elusive figure of the artist himself.

There already exist pleasurably dishy memoirs of Bacon’s prime by his inner circle. Stevens and Swan, who spent a decade researching “Francis Bacon: Revelations,” aim for a more complete portrait. Bacon himself was tight-lipped about his activities before the exhibition in 1945 of his breakthrough “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.” He actively discouraged biographers. But Stevens and Swan are excellent investigators, presenting novel details of Bacon’s early affairs, his short-lived interior-design career and the two years he spent in Hampshire during World War II, when asthma forced his retreat from London.

The book is bejeweled with sensuous detail. We smell the Potter’s Asthma Cure in the wheezing infant Bacon’s bedroom. We glimpse “phosphorescent liquid” sprinkled on Hyde Park to divert German bomber airships away from populated zones during the Great War. We hear “the screams of men being lashed in blood-spattered cells” in the Irish prisons that young Francis trots past.

This 20th-century painting by Francis Bacon foretold our 21st-century moment

Such flourishes, which, in true Bacon style, speak “directly on the nervous system,” may well have pleased the artist. “I lived through the revolutionary Irish movement, Sinn Fein, and the wars,” he once explained, “Hiroshima, Hitler, the death camps, and daily violence that I’ve experienced all my life.” Occasionally histrionic descriptions of his life and most famous paintings are thus entirely concordant. “The most disturbing aspect of the carnage is the frenzied brilliance of the killing brush,” Stevens and Swan declare about “Three Studies for a Crucifixion” (1962). “Bacon’s painterly freedom echoes the hysterical letting-go of slaughter and blood lust.” Vivid.

Stevens and Swan suggest that Bacon’s childhood — lonely, sickly, violent, not without psychosexual drama — provided the “physical jolt” that catalyzed his art. It seems as likely that his pleasure in deviance was innate. His interest in crime, violent sex and death, all enthusiastically embraced and manifest in his work, often feel more like natural blossoms than the flowers of trauma.

Which is not to say that his life was without trauma. Parental coldness, childhood isolation, the dangers of gay life in an unsympathetic age: all must have affected Bacon. The openings of two major retrospectives were overshadowed by the deaths of lovers. But because tragic events only seemed to confirm his notions of life, one is left with the impression that he rather enjoyed a spot of devastation.

Stevens and Swan are strong on the Aeschylean patterning of Bacon’s life. The overdose of his muse George Dyer on the eve of his 1971 retrospective in Paris was, they say, a “cruel rhyme” with the death of ex-boyfriend Peter Lacy during his Tate exhibition nine years earlier — albeit with grimmer details. After securing a hotelier’s agreement to keep Dyer’s bathroom demise quiet till after the opening reception, Bacon spent the evening at the Grand Palais with Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí and President Georges Pompidou before a painting that depicted Dyer, with dark irony, “slumped over the loo” — the very tableau he’d grimly burlesqued in death. Bacon’s “art no longer seemed an exaggeration. It was the truth, imperfectly concealed by a party.” He later returned repeatedly to the hotel where George had died — a “private ritual of expiation.”

But while his life had “moments of intense melancholy and despair,” merriment went largely uncurbed.

That merriment took place in Soho, where Bacon reigned as demon king, scarfing oysters and drinking champagne night after night. His relationship with Lucian Freud, close till Freud’s sales took off, is examined in depth, as are friendships with subjects Isabel Rawsthorne, Henrietta Moraes, and Muriel Belcher — welcome reminders that his world wasn’t just a boys’ club. Memorable, too, is Valerie Beston — “Valerie from the Gallery” — who, effectively, managed Bacon for years, perhaps saving many artworks from destruction (he was notoriously brutal with his paintings).

A French exhibition of Francis Bacon turns him into that pseudointellectual dude from college

The iconoclastic charm of the artist keeps the pages turning. Breezily, outrageously gay when it was neither fashionable nor legal, here Bacon — whether booing Princess Margaret, declaring his attraction to Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi or bragging that he’d bought the house he’d be murdered in — is truly the nihilist-satyr of legend, “a rush of night air into England’s stuffy room.”

Bacon once said that telling his life story “would take a Proust.” A tall order — though Stevens and Swan do share a Proustian eye for the social whirl and the encroachments of “time and the wrecking ball.”

As an old man, Bacon might even be said to resemble Proust’s sadomasochistic Baron de Charlus, counting off the dead in a society completely transformed in his lifetime. One of the achievements of “Revelations” is to capture this social change alongside the life of its subject. It’s a portrait of vanished worlds, of a 20th-century style of darkness now past. Our fresh horrors await new geniuses.

Charles Arrowsmith is based in New York and writes about books, films and music.

Francis Bacon


By Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan

Knopf. 880 pp. $60

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