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Francis Bacon: A Self-Portrait in Words by Michael Peppiatt review – glimpses of a demon-driven genius

Francis Bacon: A Self-Portrait in Words by Michael Peppiatt review – glimpses of a demon-driven genius

Francis Bacon composed his autobiography in paint, not words. His portraiture laid bare the skull beneath the skin, the beast pregnantly housed inside the human form, and all of the figures he painted – copulating men, hybrid monsters, bystanders at a crucifixion, many of them trapped in chrome cages or sadomasochistic cellars – were fractured images of himself. The verbal self-portrait that Michael Peppiatt has assembled could never match that lacerating self-scrutiny; in his correspondence, his scrappy memos for paintings and his repetitive interviews, Bacon hid behind evasive banality or wilful obscurity.

Descended from Irish gentry, he took a snobbish pride in his lack of education, and his writing is clumsy, unpunctuated and whimsically misspelled. His greatest works were triptychs, profane versions of religious altarpieces; he habitually referred to them as “tryptichs”. In an exchange that lasted for decades, he always addressed his close friend Denis Wirth-Miller as “Dennis”. In addition, as Peppiatt admits, Bacon lacked “epistolary fluency”. The volume contains dozens of postcards from Monaco or Morocco in which the laconic messages consist of weather reports, while another terse and entirely insignificant note asks his London cleaning lady to come on Monday.

More eloquently, the young Bacon writes to patrons begging for loans, usually to pay off debts to the casinos where he gambled in an existential frenzy, outfacing fate in every accidental roll of the dice. He also frequently sends apologies for his inebriated antics the previous night, or explains that he missed an engagement because he had been blacked out in an alcoholic stupor. This tippling befogs his interviews. “I’m drunk today and I don’t talk very clearly,” he tells a frustrated curator. Another dialogue is filmed in a fish restaurant, where the manager agrees to write off Bacon’s unpaid arrears of £1,500 in exchange for publicity on television; the uninterrupted supply of free champagne and oysters merrily but vacuously loosens the old devil’s tongue.

Revelations sometimes glint through the groggy haze. It’s good to know about Bacon’s veneration for the “saintly life” of Marcel Proust. He shared Proust’s determination to leave a “profound record of his time” at no matter what personal cost, but whereas Proust sealed himself in a cork-lined room, secluded from the society he chronicled in Remembrance of Things Past, Bacon haunted gambling dens and lewd Soho dives, taking delight in his exile from tame normality. “I was completely distorted,” he says when contentedly recollecting his adolescent immersion in the sexual stew of pre-Nazi Berlin.

Bacon’s comment on one character in Proust’s novel is particularly incisive. Describing the collapse of Charlus, the decadent baron who pays to be flogged in a male brothel, he remarks that this pompous grandee is “really reduced to nothing”. Bacon shared the predilections of Charlus, but with his dyed red hair, his cosmetically retouched face, his tight leather jackets and his frilly female underwear, he fended off annihilation by constructing a defiantly deviant persona. “I’m probably the most artificial person you’ll ever meet,” he boasts to Peppiatt. He claims that mere vanity made him decide to be a painter; advancing from the reclusion of Proust to the outlawry of Jean Genet, he adds that he could equally well have been a prostitute or a criminal, and these were alternatives that he explored by picking up East End thugs or fraternising with the gangster Ronnie Kray.

Bacon guarded his technical secrets by pretending that he randomly “sloshed” paint on to canvas. Stray verbal echoes in Peppiatt’s book tell a different story, explaining the raw carnality of the work. When an image coheres, Bacon says in an interview that it does so in a “coagulation”, which likens it to clotting blood. He extends the metaphor by defining his subject as “the human cry”, an outburst that is “the coagulation of pain and despair”, made visible when his version of Velázquez’s Pope Innocent X emits a primal scream. The aim of his images, Bacon repeatedly insists, is to “unlock the valves of sensation”. As well as assailing our nerves, his paintings with their ridges of pigment and their dirt-roughened texture merge with what he called “the great compost heap of the world”. He recreated that fertile, decaying mound on the floor of his South Kensington studio, which was piled high with a surf of litter like the detritus of a collapsed civilisation or the heaped clods of a freshly dug grave. In photographs, he proudly perched on this landscaped mess as if waiting to moulder into it.

In 1972, Bacon contributed to the campaign to block the export of Titian’s Death of Actaeon, in which the hunting goddess Diana, having turned her lover into a stag, watches as her hounds savage him. Bacon thought the painting “magnificent” and “tremendously tragic” because it showed “the tearing of an image, a human image, to bits”. That dismemberment had an intimate, even erotic frisson: using the same phrase, he justified his explosive tiffs with cronies by saying that friends had the right to “pull each other to bits”. For this demon-driven man, both art and life were carnage by other means.

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Source: theguardian.com