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Sacred Monster

On the eve of the Met’s giant retrospective, a critic asks: Was Francis Bacon really the greatest painter of the twentieth century, or just a fascinating mess?


Bacon in 1951, photographed by Cecil Beaton.  

Francis Bacon, whose centenary is being marked by a Metropolitan Museum of Art retrospective opening this week, is the Irish-born English artist whom the English consider their Achilles: a truculent hero rising from the turbulence, an outlaw god. Indeed, the first word of Homer’s Iliad comes to mind when thinking about his paintings and tumultuous life: “Rage.”

Those who knew the artist—some of them his friends—described him variously as “devil,” “whore,” “one of the world’s leading alcoholics,” “bilious ogre,” “sacred monster,” and “a drunken, faded sodomite swaying nocturnally through the lowest dives and gambling dens of Soho.” Bacon was no kinder: He called himself a “grinding machine” and “rotten to the core.” This hasn’t stopped admirers and critics alike from proclaiming him “the greatest painter in the world,” “the best … since Turner.” Never one to spare hyperbole, Robert Hughes wrote, “This painter of buggery, sadism, dread, and death-vomit has emerged as the toughest, the most implacable, lyric artist in late-twentieth-century England, perhaps in all the world.”

For me, Bacon—who may be the only artist sharing a name with one of his main subjects, meat—has always been more of a cartoonist. He’s an illustrator of exaggerated, ultimately empty angst. His early accomplishments are undeniable, and the Met’s survey of 66 paintings and a cache of never-before-seen source material is peppered with high points, especially the signature paintings of the forties and fifties: Canvases with twisted masses of faceless flesh and otherworldly homunculi, creatures of the id posed in living-room wastelands and Stygian prisons. The best of this work shrouds you in a sulfuric gloom where strange powers transform human souls into delirious monsters. These paintings make audiences stare as if they were looking at animals in a zoo, trying to come to terms with these merciless inhuman presences. You’ll see this at the Met: people blankly gaping in wonder.

To understand Bacon’s impact, look no further than the young Brits emulating him. Jake and Dinos Chapman place tortured figures in glass cases; Jenny Saville’s contorted Gargantuas are direct descendants of Bacon’s golems; Tracey Emin works with blood and guts; Sarah Lucas gives us spooks and deformities. Damien Hirst not only makes vitrines straight out of Bacon—he puts meat and carcasses in them. Like Dalí and Munch, Bacon is an artist we love when young. Tantalized by the urgency, angst, weirdness, blood, sex, and bodies, we think, That’s me! That’s how I feel!

You might have reconsidered feeling like Bacon if you’d lived in his skin. His love life is a study in emotional privation and degradation. “We are meat,” he often remarked—understandable, given his adolescence. Bacon, who was given morphine as a child for his asthma (the ailment that contributed to his death in 1992), always knew which way his erotic compass pointed, which is not to say that he approved of its inclination: He called his homosexuality “a defect” and a “limp.” And no wonder. When Bacon was 16, his father—the artist derisively called him “a failed horse-trainer”—caught the boy wearing his mother’s underwear. (“Fishnet stockings were an essential part of the artist’s wardrobe for most of his life,” one biographer notes.) As punishment, the father had him horsewhipped by the stable hands, whom, Bacon later claimed, he then had affairs with. Bacon Sr. asked a family friend to “straighten the boy out” by taking him to Berlin. The man complied—and subsequently bedded the younger Bacon, then abandoned him in the city that W. H. Auden called “a bugger’s daydream.”

Endless liaisons with rent boys and society types followed, until Bacon’s predator-prey notion of love and his “desire to suffer” reached new heights, in 1952. At the age of 43, he met a former RAF pilot, Peter Lacy, in London’s Soho. They spent a lot of time in Tangier, a refuge for gay men looking for freedom. “I’d never really fallen in love with anyone until then,” Bacon said. “Of course, it was the most total disaster from the start.” Bacon couldn’t live with or without him: “Being in love in that extreme way,” he said, “being totally obsessed by someone, is like having some dreadful disease. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.” They experimented with the far reaches of S&M. The end was horrid, too. On the day before his first Tate retrospective opened, in May 1962, Bacon learned Lacy had been found dead, almost surely from drinking.

Less than two years later, Bacon met George Dyer—reportedly when Dyer broke into his studio to rob him. For the next seven years the relationship rocketed up and down, then history repeated itself. On October 25, 1971, the day before Bacon’s retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris opened, Dyer overdosed and died in their Paris hotel room. Bacon, then 61, was again devastated. No wonder he talked about “the destruction” of love.

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