Extraordinary things occasionally happen to each of us. They can be positive, but mostly they’re not. When these occurrences arrive uninvited into our lives they erode comfortable reality. When we’re in their raucous midst we’re often heard exclaiming ‘I thought this only happened to other people’. FRANCIS BACON’s life was made up entirely of experiences like this. He didn’t seem to mind. They shaped him and they shaped his art. The marks he made on canvas continue to get under our skin and his considerable understanding of the allure of violence still pushes our buttons. He may well be our most individual painter – but I bet he was a better drinking partner.
His worldview and portraits were uniquely unsettling, unbelievably wise. His time for drinking was plentiful and his drinking time was 1950s Soho. England was still letting out sighs of relief, the horrors of WWII absorbing into the mauled fabric of memory. Horrors Bacon avoided fighting in by hiring a German Shepherd from Harrods and sleeping next to it in order to aggravate his asthma on the eve of his army induction. They granted him immediate medical exemption – but not from pulling dismembered bodies from bombed-out buildings or the who-gives-a-flying-fuck attitude of Soho’s dimly-lit dens of iniquity. In these boozers, between fleshpots on a grubby warren-like assembly of back-alleys and streets, bonds were formed and livers were scarred. Drinkers often fell foul of cirrhosis or Sohoitus: a geographic illness causing drinkers to become frayed at the edges and riddled with Bohemian tendencies, dahling. Bacon’s Wrecking Crew was no exception, staffed by a rag-tag collection of aristos, lowlifes, writers, chancers, fighter pilots and career criminals. All of whom lived their lives as theatre, lead characters or walk-ons, beneficiaries or victims of Bacon’s legendary generosity, his precision guile and his character-building put-downs. To be given the nickname ‘Cunty’ in his treasured local, the Colony Room, meant you’d been accepted.
Iconoclastic paintings often reveal as much about their painter as the times in which they were painted. And in much the same way as the work of his friend Lucian Freud, it’s Bacon’s portraits that slosh the truth onto the canvas. The ridiculously good summer exhibition at Tate Liverpool features a wealth of Bacon’s paintings that provoke and jab at the senses, the outcomes of which I’ll not do justice with cod-psychology or highfalutin’ words. It was a familiar feeling: when I left his 2008 retrospective at Tate Britain, I felt as if I’d been watching pure violence from a moving train. Bacon himself said that, “If I could express what I mean with words, I wouldn’t bother painting it.” It remained his life’s desire to capture the human scream on canvas, obsessed as he was by atrocity’s open mouth. It was his belief that he’d failed in this endeavour, and countless scrapped paintings (he estimated he destroyed nine-tenths of his paintings, “very probably the best ones, too”) act as proof of this unwavering ambition. He was careless with these discarded paintings and they often fell into the wrong hands; approaching the height of his fame, one appeared in a London gallery. Bacon bought it for thousands, stamped it to shit on the pavement outside the gallery and then went for oysters at his favourite restaurant. Fuck you.
The new exhibition’s title, Invisible Rooms, refers to the boxes he painted around his subjects: these became an essential part of his painterly repertoire although they were chiefly used to draw his eye. But they have another, far more devious, effect: they trap the subject against their will, perpetually howling for their lives. It is cage-fighting on canvas. Although he never worked on portraits with the sitter present, he always referred to the work he did to their faces as ‘doing them an injury’. Given that he often painted people he cared for, we arrive at an insight: hurting those we love. An accomplished sadist, Bacon believed that true love and artistic aspirations were incompatible: tempestuous is the one word that applies to his affairs of the heart. Two paintings in this exhibition, Study For A Portrait Of P.L, No.2 and Three Figures And Portrait, act as silent biographers of his fondness for turmoil. Both are of significant partners, both of whom died tragic deaths on the eves of pivotal solo shows: Peter Lacy the night before the 1962 Tate Gallery show and George Dyer the night before his show Grand Palais in Paris, 1971. Fuck me.
Peter Lacy was a fighter pilot who fought in the Battle of Britain and was held captive by Sohoitus, precisely where he met Bacon. Lacy was a talented pianist who squandered much of his sizeable inheritance on promoting a pop group. Forever in a pristine white suit and bow tie, he is described by Bacon as quintessentially English with “the face of a poet who has dropped in to remark that life after death is tolerable”. Needless to say, he liked a drink. And he ended up playing in a piano bar in Tangiers, soundtracking the bar’s tyrannical owner stuffing cannabis in the asses of exotic birds he then sold for export. Tangiers at this time was heaving with spies, gigolos, smugglers, countless brothels and proper hedonists. Tangiers made Ibiza look like the Norfolk Broads. William Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch there and Marlene Dietrich, Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall all fell for its badman charms. It was also the preferred playground of the latterly-born English aristocrats; the ones set not to inherit the bulk of the family money. Tangiers was small beer; here they could live like white royalty and behave as such, creating a behind-closed-doors lawless atmosphere in open water in which Lacy revelled and Bacon swam on frequent holidays. Their rows were catastrophic; one such saw the end of 30 paintings, Lacy slashing them in a fit of rage before they could be shipped to New York for his first stateside show. Bacon, ever the nihilist, later confessed he “rather enjoyed” watching him do it. It was that kind of relationship: although Bacon felt privileged to have known him and painted him frequently, they never fully-clicked in late-fifties Soho, and Moroccan distance settled their differences in a way proximity never could. In May 1962 Bacon was in the Colony Room the day after his first solo Tate show, opening wads of praise-filled telegrams from around the globe: he had arrived on the world art stage and the champagne was flowing. The last telegram he opened informed him Peter Lacy had died the night before.
George Dyer haunts plenty of Bacon’s paintings. And there are many myths about their relationship – which is surprising because the truth is eye-watering enough. Despite a genuine affection and an undeniable connection, it wasn’t to be. Dyer was an East End petty crook with old-fashioned manners who (you guessed it) knew the Krays. And it was his air of violence that attracted him to Bacon – he liked ‘em rough. And Dyer was drawn, moth to flame, to Bacon’s assured manner and considerable cultural clout. Before long, Dyer was a kept man; a situation that exacerbated the despair that underlined his savage ways. As so often happens in imbalanced relationships, one half loses their identity as it becomes subsumed by the power of the other. When this unfolded, shit got messy real quick. They were arguing on holiday, screaming ab-dabs and bitch-slaps, when Bacon stormed from the bedroom headed for the hotel bar. Whilst drinking champagne a call came through to say that George had taken an overdose, but that Mr Bacon would be glad to hear he’d been saved by the house doctor. Bacon asked the manager if the doctor was still with him, the manager replied yes: without missing a beat Bacon said, “Then tell him to write another prescription so he can do the job properly.” When they got back to Blighty, George Orwell’s wife, Sonia, hired a hit man to kill Dyer: you really couldn’t make it up. News of the contract skulked around the back streets of Soho and ended up in the ear of Lucian Freud, who wrote to Sonia Orwell instructing her to call Blond Billy the hit man off. He ended the letter, “With friends like you I really don’t need enemies.” Along with a large group of friends including Sonia Orwell, Bacon and Dyer took their caustic dance to Paris for the grand opening of his show at the Grand Palais. At the Hotel St Peres, Dyer was found dead on the toilet: suicide. The news was kept hush-hush but inevitably some of the French dignitaries found out. When Bacon was showing the Minister of the Arts around the exhibition, the first painting that caught the Minister’s eye was a portrait of Dyer on the toilet: a reverberating image of his actual death hours before, blood spilling from every orifice.
Francis Bacon lived what he painted and painted what he lived. Capturing these experiences on canvas was his greatest gift to us: it gives us the luxury of the voyeur without the discomfort of turmoil. His work is the sea milliseconds before the shark attacks, the air turning thick when someone pulls a knife. The paintings in this exhibition are brooding masterpieces, touched by something impossible to explain. His power is undiminished by time. I’m writing this on the day a discarded pair of his paint-splattered gloves sold for £7,000 at auction. They were both left-handed. I’m reliably informed Bacon held his drink in his right. Here’s looking at you, Cunty.