Review by David Starkey
Francis Bacon: Revelations is a monumental book: the press release claim that it was “ten years in the making” doesn’t seem like an exaggeration. The notes and bibliography take up 120 pages, and while authors Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan are not acquaintances of Bacon—he died in 1992—they employ secondary sources with a kind of Boswellian ardor, reporting seemingly every colorful event in this supremely colorful painter’s life.
Though his paintings may fetch enormous sums—$123 million for Three Studies of Lucian Freud—Bacon doesn’t have the stellar reputation of Willem de Kooning, the subject of Stevens and Swan’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography. Indeed, the casual museum-goer may be primarily familiar with Bacon’s pope paintings of the early 1950s. Stevens and Swan describe 1951’s Head VI as “a lushly caparisoned pope, splendid in purple, screaming within the confines of a transparent rectangular box in which floats a ghostly gold filigree.” Of the larger 1953 painting, Study after Velasquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, the authors say: “There was no sanctity or dignity about this pope. He appeared open-mouthed with horror, as if he has seen not the Heavenly Father but the devil himself.” As the critic Lawrence Gowing writes, in these paintings, the “paradoxical appearance at once of pastiche and iconoclasm was…one of Bacon’s most original strokes.”
Born in 1909, Bacon was not an immediate success. He began his serious creative life as a designer of furniture and rugs, and spent some time experimenting unsuccessfully with painting until he found his stride with 1944’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. Ultimately, like his good friend Lucian Freud, he turned to people for inspiration. He seems perpetually angry at the human figure: his bodies are twisted and elongated; faces are grotesque, exaggerated and out of focus. And yet, as Gowing suggests, Bacon was often lauded for his sense of art history. Stevens and Swan argue that he “felt the appeal of Western conventions, even as he attacked them, and he often used and adapted old-masterly elements in a slyly subversive manner.” In short, as they observe when summing up critical consensus after Bacon’s death: “Not far below the surface of the polished dandy lay the rough animal.”
Whatever one thinks of Bacon’s painting, his eighty-two years on earth were packed with incident and adventure. His early life, while fraught with anxiety and ill-health, provided him with an enviable “posh social background and dinner-party ‘panache.’” At school, Bacon realized he was “attracted to boys, not girls,” and one of the book’s themes is the way homosexuality—illegal in Britain until 1967—guided many of Bacon’s decisions, both personal and artistic.
While he was by all accounts extraordinarily charming when he wanted to be, on balance, the Bacon of Stevens and Swan’s biography is not an especially sympathetic figure. Take, for instance, his long affair with the hard-drinking George Dyer, whom Bacon frequently painted. Though their relationship seemed to be winding down in the autumn of 1971, Dyer accompanied Bacon to Paris where the artist was preparing for an exhibition at the Grand Palais. One evening, Bacon returned to their room to find “George drunk and incoherent with an Arab rent boy.” Bacon spent the night elsewhere, and the next morning, Dyer was discovered on the toilet by an assistant named Terry Miles: “‘all his color under his skin, as if his veins are all blown up and everything.’”
Bacon and his “minder,” Valerie Beston, asked the hotel manager to postpone announcing Dyer’s demise: “His death would otherwise dominate news of the opening. The manager, like any good hotelier, was discreet. Illicit sex and unexpected death were part of the job. He understood the difficulties the situation presented. Yes, George could wait until morning after the formal opening. The manager went upstairs to lock the room where George sat on the loo.” As unfeeling as this scene plays, it’s made even worse by the fact that Miles is quoted as saying: “‘For all intents and purposes he was dead.’” Stevens and Swan don’t comment on the fact that “[f]or all intents and purposes” isn’t the same thing as actually being dead, but their description of Bacon’s “smiling, polite, effervescent” behavior at the gala held in his honor suggests both their admiration for his savoir faire and their discomfiture at his apparent callousness.
Its horrific ending notwithstanding, Bacon’s romantic connection with Dyer is not atypical. Of his late in life relationship with John Edwards, the authors write: “As usual, [Bacon] fell for a man who did not appear homosexual, or not obviously so. And as usual, Bacon believed he was the one more in love.” Bacon called love “a dreadful illness,” yet he was infected with it until his final day.
Oddly, for a volume about a visual artist, Francis Bacon: Revelations is a bit text-heavy. Granted, the physical book is beautifully designed, with wide margins suitable for annotating. Moreover, there are a number of black and white photographs—many of them casual snapshots—showing Bacon and friends in relatively unguarded moments. However, while there are two stunning full-color gatefolds of Bacon’s triptychs, the number of color plates is limited, and readers may find themselves turning to the storehouse of images online at francis-bacon.com/art.
Nevertheless, whatever minor reservations one might have, it’s hard not to be impressed by a work that is without a doubt an example of the art of biography. A second Pulitzer for Stevens and Swan would not be amiss.