The received wisdom about artist Francis Bacon’s life goes: He painted like a maniac in his chaotic studio every day, drank like a maniac in London’s seedy Soho neighborhood every night.
There’s an element of truth in that. But it doesn’t take into account Bacon’s surprisingly well-to-do family background, his extensive travels in Europe and Africa, and his odd streak of social conservatism. (“I’m awfully glad I was brought up properly and I learned proper table manners,” he later told his sister — who herself wisecracked, “Not that he always used them.”)
Bacon’s friend Daniel Farson filled in some of the gaps in his aptly titled 1993 memoir, “The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon.” But Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, Pulitzer Prize winners for their biography “De Kooning: An American Master,” have given us a definitive life of Bacon in their hefty new “Francis Bacon: Revelations.”
Stevens and Swan furnish an exhaustive account, painting by painting, exhibition by exhibition, of how Bacon’s wild innovations in figurative art countered the mid-20th-century fashions for both abstract expressionism and pop art. They have great fun, too, as they chronicle Bacon’s wit, charm, extravagance, and cruelty, including some shocking abuses of friends, family, and art-world colleagues. Bacon enjoyed abuse, too, at the hands of his rough-trade boyfriends.
Bacon was born in Dublin in 1909 to a prosperous Anglo-Irish family. As a child he was “exposed to extraordinary wealth and luxury” in the homes of relatives and friends, but chronic asthma kept him mostly homebound. Danger of another kind came from IRA targeting of Anglo-Irish homes. (“The dark and moody atmosphere of the time pervaded Bacon’s early adolescence,” Stevens and Swan write.)
Bacon figured out early on that he, as he put it, “wasn’t normal,” and by the time he was 16, he set off to London, with his mother and grandmother helping him out financially. In London he pursued older men: “He wanted his lovers to seem heterosexual and, ideally, be handsome and powerful,” the authors write. “Not surprisingly, Bacon was catnip for the closeted.”
One of these men (“a real ultra-sadistic sadist”) whisked him off to Weimar Berlin in 1927. Later lovers and friends were more kindly mentors, guiding Bacon as he explored both his sexual and intellectual appetites.
After a false start as an interior designer, Bacon turned to painting, despite having no training or unusual knack for drawing. Unsuccessful at first, in part because “he did not know what his art should look like,” he kept himself going financially as “a gentleman’s companion.”
Eventually, of course, he grew surer of himself. “A thing has to arrive at a stage of deformity,” he declared, “before I can find it beautiful.” Older artists, including Australian painter Roy de Maistre and English artist Graham Sutherland, encouraged him. The critics weren’t so kind.
Then World War Two intervened. With the Blitz, the London art scene shut down. Bacon volunteered as an ambulance driver, but the flame-and-dust-choked city quickly made his asthma debilitating. Retreating to rural Hampshire, he had time to bring the key elements of his art together. By 1945, he was finding his signature style and becoming a name to reckon with.
Heavy drinking, compulsive gambling, and those dubious boyfriends made an anarchy of his life. But under gallery deadlines, he could concentrate and produce — though exhibits were frequently threatened or delayed by his nonchalant destruction of paintings that didn’t satisfy him.
The legendary bedlam of his studio, strewn with “dog-eared books, yellowing newsprint, torn images, beat-up boxes, empty cans,” was integral to his artmaking. “He rubbed dust from the studio into his paint to create texture and modulate tone, as if the studio itself were a partner in his efforts,” the authors write. “The mess became a kind of mulch, nourishing his imagination.”
As that passage suggests, Stevens and Swan are vivid scene setters. They’re also shrewd evaluators of the people in Bacon’s life, including painter Lucian Freud and Bacon’s doomed lovers Peter Lacy and George Dyer. They supply good context for Bacon’s career, noting how unusual Bacon’s commitment to the figure was at a time when abstract art was all the rage, especially in the US.
Figurative art in Bacon’s hands, of course, wasn’t a polite affair. His reinvention of the portrait and his novel uses for large-scale triptychs were simultaneously a response to the horrors of the mid-20th century and an expression of his own instinctively held truths.
Bacon saw the human body as a source for “rage and despair over the fraudulent constructs of civilized life,” the authors write. Yet his work, they add, also highlighted “a tigerish, paradoxical, and sometimes comic joy to be found in tearing off masks, shattering norms, and breaking constraints.” Bacon had no use for highfalutin aesthetic theories. “What I’ve always wanted to do,” he plainly stated, “is to make things that are very formal yet coming to bits.”
As for the man, Stevens and Swan give full due to his mean streak, acknowledging he could be “an exquisite needler, especially when drinking, with a preternatural instinct for where the tender parts lay.” He was a spendthrift gambler, constantly begging for cash from friends and art dealers. When international success started the money rolling in, however, he was wildly generous with it. He even started giving his friends investment tips, a development that prompts the authors to quip, “It must have been an out-of-body experience to receive financial advice from Francis Bacon.”
Occasionally his bad behavior with friends and intimates led to a complete severance of ties. But repeatedly those who knew him testify to qualities of character that kept them coming back to him.
“Francis Bacon: Revelations” does justice to the contradictions of both the man and the art.
FRANCIS BACON: Revelations
By Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan
Knopf, 864 pages, $50
Novelist Michael Upchurch (“Passive Intruder”) is the former Seattle Times book critic.