Queer Francis:
Life, death and anguish in the work of Francis Bacon

Written and curated by Emmanuel Cooper.


Paradoxically, both the life and work of Francis Bacon is both highly conventional and iconoclastic.
As an artist he painted on traditional easel canvases - though preferring the roughened untreated back to the smooth front - using oil paint, and demanded that his work when shown in galleries be given respectful gilt frames. At the same time there was a powerful subversive element in his compositions with much of his chosen subject matter searingly autobiographical. These often dealt with his own homosexuality, his intimate and often anguished relationships, and his own uneasy association with the world in general. Although Bacon may have described himself as queer in the old-fashioned sense he can with some justification be described as a queer artist, using Philip Derbyhire's concept of "this violent rejection and despoliation of the norm by the exiled."

The death of Francis Bacon at the age of 82 in 1992 stands as a significant moment, a turning point, in our understanding not only of the concept of queer, but of how artists felt able to operate if they were to be both true to themselves yet find a measure of acceptance in a society by and large hostile to homosexual expression. Margaret Thatcher, Tory Prime Minister, reflected a popular view when in reference to Francis Bacon she described him as "that artist who paints those horrible pictures." A well known philistine - Thatcher's artistic interests seem to be limited to collecting pretty ceramic figurines - the remark could be read as referring to both Bacon's often violent style of painting and to his usual subject of the interaction between two men, which in Bacon's view was neither affectionate nor relaxed but turbulent and traumatic.

In terms of critical writing about his work, Bacon's death signaled the end of the traditional school of politeness, and the start of a new, fresher appraisal. To all intents and purposes Bacon often appeared like a latter day Edwardian gentleman. As a young man he was handsome and despite what is reported to be a heavy social life of drink, he retained (and tinted) his hair and striking looks. Invariably in public Bacon the bachelor was smartly dressed, appearing wealthy, debonair and vaguely aristocratic; he was fond of booze, food, gambling and sex. His success as an artist enabled him to lead a privileged, and despite massive publicity in recent years, a remarkably private life. The media, public and friends conspired with the artist to ensure a veil of secrecy was cast over the stormy events of his life, and on any specific queer reading of his work.


Anxiety of Analysis

Bacon's death was a significant moment, a turning point, the end of a convention in which respected writers and experts on Bacon's work such as Michel Leris and David Sylvester felt able at last to address major issues around his work and life. Hitherto the life of this highly acclaimed artist was discreetly passed over in favor of the discussion of form, use of color, historical precedents and such like. On his death the floodwaters, pent up for years, broke, and a spate of obituaries, and biographies were only too ready to give graphic, often explicit details of his life and loves of which there had previously been little more than hints and nods. [note 1]

Discussion of Bacon's life - and death - is important not only because of the queerness of his art in subverting and making the fact of homosexual desire a real if often highly coded presence in art, but because of the often fabulous claims made for his status. In his tribute to Bacon after the artist's death, Grey Gore, later a respected Chairman of the Arts Council, described Bacon as "the greatest living painter and greatest British painter since Turner," a view endorsed by many critics, artists and writers. Nicholas Serota, Director of the Tate Gallery, though more circumspect, was still fulsome in his praise, saying "Bacon was not only the greatest British painter of his generation, but also recognized as one of the outstanding post-war artists." More recently such extravagant praise has become more muted. The catalogue for the latest exhibition of Bacon's oeuvre of works on paper (Tate Gallery, London, February 1999) describes Bacon as "one of the most important painters of the figure in the second half of the twentieth century" -- a far more modest though not unsubstantial claim.

Within the art world glowing praise is rarely offered lightly, and seems even more surprising given that in many ways Bacon was an old fashioned and very conventional easel painter. Although Bacon preferred to work on the back of the canvas because he liked its raw, untreated surface (and I also suspect because it carried a frisson of difference), he used the traditional materials and form of the artist, working in oils. His insistence on expensive gilt frames gave the work status, suggested worth and the conventional - all important facets of combining subversion with respectability. Bacon also liked to have his paintings shown under glass, which whether intentional or not, often resulted in the viewer's own reflection being mirrored in the image and thus involved in the action portrayed.

Almost as significant as the presentation of Bacon's work was his use of academic composition. Generally he restricted himself to a limited range of colors with black and red predominating (maybe a hang over from his days as an interior designer in the 1930's), with the paint often being used to suggest form as much through line as solid color. The figurative compositions, however widely interpreted, meant that Bacon resisted abstraction, drawing for ideas on artists as diverse as Valesquez, Van Gogh and Picasso, often for their bold, confrontational choice of subject matter.

As the artist aged so respect for his work increased. Prices for his paintings rose dramatically, prompting many critics to devote many column inches to his work and his often enigmatic utterances, leaving journalists to focus on his dissolute but exciting life of drinking and gambling rather than his affairs with men. Press attention increased as he approached his 80th birthday. Bacon showed little reluctance to be photographed, invariably appearing in a smart leather bomber jacket and posed, like the phoenix, amongst the piles of detritus in his studio, or in his favorite Soho drinking hole, the Colony Club. Melvyn Bragg's now infamous South Bank Show, broadcast on British television in 1985 did eventually make Bacon's sexual interests clear if viewers were paying attention when the artist pointed out that as far as models went his taste lay in the direction of his own sex.

While in later life Bacon generally claimed that his sexuality was public knowledge, and that it was no secret, the press had severe problems dealing with his private/public life; some journalists even managed to come up with conflicting views in the same article. The greatest difficulties have been over the exact nature of Bacon's 'private life,' and the extent to which he had, or had not gone public about his homosexuality, and the 'content' of his art. Caroline Lees, reporting on the beneficiary of Bacon's will, claimed that Bacon "made no secret of his homosexuality," while adding in the same article that "the artist's reluctance to have his personal affairs discussed in public was legendary." She presumably did not see the two statements as contradiction. In a report on his death the Daily Telegram described Bacon dismissively as "the homosexual artist," an identification in terms of sexuality they would never dreamt of running before his death.

Homosexuality lay at the heart of the enigma about Bacon. While his sexual preferences were a fact well known within the art world and a small coterie of friends and acquaintances with whom he drank and gambled, it was not placed within the public domain until Bacon was well into his 70s, and even then in such understated ways that would be easy to miss. There seems to be two aspects to this decision. One was Bacon's own contradictory attitude towards talking about his work. "If you talk about it, why paint it," was a favorite diverting device; if that did not seem sufficient, he often presented a fatalistic view, saying "We live, we die, and that is all." The other aspect was Bacon's own attitude towards, and understanding of, his homosexuality.

Two of his often told anecdotes were about his childhood and homosexual adventures as a youth in Ireland. Eventually he was banished from his home by his brutish father (who also had him beaten) after being caught dressing in his mother's clothes, and also discovered having sex with the grooms who managed his father's stable. Apart form these melodramatic incidents, Bacon said little in public about his sexuality, and the obituary notices had few direct quotations from the artist on the subject.

In his obituary in The Guardian, Lord Gowrie wrote:

He told me that he (Bacon) had come to the view that homosexuality was an affliction, that it had turned him, at one point in his life, into a crook. The crookishness, not the sex, was a source of shame and if he talked at all, it was his nature to tell everything. We both liked Proust and agreed that the beginning of Cities of the Plain [note 2] said all that needed to be said about being homosexual.

In an interview in 1991 with art critic Richard Cork shortly before his death, Bacon was more blunt and direct about his sexuality, when, commenting on the public reception of his work in this country, said

Oh they don't like my work here at all. Maybe it's the savagery they find in it, or maybe it's the homosexuality which I suppose is in my work. I don't go about shouting that I'm gay but AIDS has made it all much worse. People are very, very odd about it.

As important as Bacon's own ambiguity towards discussing his work was the difficulty the art establishment had in acknowledging Bacon's subject matter. This was partly because critics did not want to see what was implied by the work, and partly because, just as in the work of David Hockney, they did not have an established language to use. Modernist orthodoxy had put forward the view that to be meaningful art had to be abstract, that it should avoid depicting particular events or people, but had to seek out some essence which could be conveyed as much spiritually as literally. Clearly Bacon's work presented a dilemma. It was self-evidently about particular events depicted with violence and passion, and while the emotional impact of the work could be acknowledged, the specific subject matter was more problematical.

Peter Lennon could only hint at Bacon's subject matter saying "what painters and poets do for you is unlock the valves of sensation and bring you nearer to a kind of reality." It was not a reality Lennon chose to identify. Nor was this acknowledged by Michel Leris, the distinguished chronicler of Bacon's work, who comments that Bacon's 'searing' paintings express the human condition as it truly and peculiarly is today; man dispossessed of any durable paradise." [note 3]

For the painter R. J. Kitaj, such generalizations would not do. Quoting Picasso, he wrote that "It is not sufficient to know an artist's work. It is also necessary to know when he did them, why, how, under what circumstances," adding "Bacon might not agree with that, but I do." Ironically perhaps, Picasso was one of the few artists whose work Bacon openly admired, and like Picasso he invariably worked from memories of people (or photographs) rather than from actual life.

'Why, how and under what circumstances,' are aspects of Bacon's work which have been thoroughly raked over in the flood of biographies and articles published since the artist's death, though none have been incisive about the artist's close involvement with his subject matter. For Bacon's retrospective at the Tate Gallery in London in 1989, he collaborated in the preparation of a commentary on each painting, giving background information and any relevant autobiographical details. In the event, the artist withdrew this material at the last moment and sadly the commentary has never been issued.

Deprived of, or choosing not to acknowledge the 'facts' which inform particular pieces of Bacon's art, critics have been only too ready to fall back on generalities which reinforce the mystery and mysticism of the work, rather than offering any real analysis of it. For example, Brian Morton, writing in The Times Educational Supplement said that his painting "communicates a tremendous physicality, both of paint and its image," and that "much of his work has had to do with the uneasy relationship between the physical body and the spiritual nature," while the plastic qualities of paint are "thoroughly humane and wholly sympathetic." A convenient ploy to suggest that this is all there is in Bacon's work, which, under a veneer of art historical generalizations, subverts a closer discussion of the sort of tremendous physicality, with which the artist grappled.

The late Peter Fuller, always a controversial critic, had little sympathy with Bacon's subject matter which he slightingly parodies as "lonely figures still throwing up in lavatory bowls beneath naked light bulbs, (who) occasionally...hunch together on couches for some barbarous act of congress, or be sprawled disgorging their abdomens." Nor did Fuller admire Bacon's use of paint, saying that he "applied pigment as if he hated the stuff, dragging it across the raw, unsized canvas which drains it of beauty and of all semblance of life." Lest we feel the homophobic boot is not well and truly slammed home he added, "Bacon's technical inadequacies seem to me to be inseparable from his spiritual dereliction."

Fuller's rejection of Bacon's art and, I suspect, all that Bacon stood for, was a view not shared by other critics. More problematic is how Bacon, and the critics, regarded Bacon's homosexuality. At least the art critic Tim Hilton acknowledged the sexual dimension of Bacon's art, writing in purple prose that "Bacon's art is about risk, catastrophe, murder and an abandoned but private sexuality." Cautiously, he made no attempt to identify what the 'private sexuality' referred to. Richard Cork was less ambiguous, writing grandly "With characteristic honesty, Bacon has never made any attempt to hide his homosexuality. Some of his finest and most erotic paintings depict male figures embracing and making love," something of an understatement for the energetic and often violent actions pictured.


Queer

Francis Bacon was a queer artist in the old fashioned sense when queer was a term of abuse, a recognition and disapproval by society of divergent sexual tastes. In his own words he was not gay - he disliked the word - and preferred to be labeled queer. There is little indication to suggest that he was touched by the ideas and concepts of gay liberation, but rather that the movement brought an unwelcome intrusion in what he regarded as his private life. At the time of the Stonewall riots in 1969, he was nearly 60 and his lifestyle was resolutely pre-liberationist in style and attitude. To change this would have involved great effort on his part. 'Going public,' would not have seemed the thing to do at a time when his international reputation was well established. Yet by the late sixties Bacon had completed some of his queerest paintings. The relatively straightforward image Study from the Human Body, (fig 1) of a naked man behind a transparent curtain is sensuous and enticing, offering a glimpse of some quiet, personal moment.

Contrast the intense privacy of this Study, with a number of paintings depicting two men on a bed, such as Two Figures, 1953, (fig 2) which is based on a photographic study of wrestlers by Eadweard Muybridge. Surrounded by a cage-like structure that both protects and entraps, the two naked figures who appear more male than female, grapple and engage, thrown into sharp silhouette by the whiteness of the sheets and the darkness of the background. The exact nature of their physical closeness may be enigmatic, possibly part of a struggle, perhaps an expression of sexual desire, but the intimacy and vulnerability remains undisputed. It, and such later images such as Three Studies of Figures on Beds, 1972, (fig 7) are very queer paintings.

There is a similar ambiguity in Two Figures in the Grass, (fig 3) carried out a year later. Here the two naked bodies, again more male than female, are engaged in some intimate activity, some wild abandon in which decorum and pose are far less significant than energy and emotion. Whatever they are doing they are doing it with great passion and involvement. The grass suggests an outdoor pursuit, but the caging and framing could just as easily be inside some sort of cage - suggesting animal-like behavior. Nature is also a powerful component in the composition Figures in a Landscape, 1956/57 (fig 4). Here it is difficult to see exactly what the involvement is between the two figures, but the sense of interaction is powerfully expressed.

As much as any artist and more so than most, Bacon poured his emotions and feelings into his art, often basing them on specific incidents in his life. His love affairs were often stormy, and frequently ended in violence. One of his former lovers, Peter Lacey, an ex RAF pilot who played the piano in Dean's Bar, Tangier, died on the opening day of Bacon's 1962 Tate Gallery show. Undeterred, Bacon attended the opening and publicly at least acted as though nothing untoward had happened. There was a similar catastrophe some 10 years later when Lacey's successor, George Dyer, also died a violent death at his own hand on the day of Bacon's larger and even more important retrospective which opened at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1971.

While Bacon, the urbane and ultra-cool artist, acted out his part, his paintings continue to offer some idea of his inner turmoil and anger. His paintings of Dyer regularly present his lover as twisted, distorted and virtually disembodied. The Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror, 1967-68 (fig 6) shows Dyer sitting in what looks like a swivel office chair, his disembodied face, split down the center, reflected in a lectern-like stand. On the painting are two splurges of white paint splashed across the surface reminiscent of semen defacing the image. Whether indicative of the sexual dimension of their relationship, or of the need to assert a particular personal expression of possession, even in an image, it was Bacon going public on a profound and deeply important aspect of his emotional life.

Bacon could almost have said, as his acknowledged mentor Picasso had claimed some time before, "My work is like a diary. To understand it, you have to see how it mirrors my life." Without any precise commentary by Bacon to point us in the right direction we need to have to relate the events in the artist's life with the scenes he creates in his compositions. In some there is a suggestion of the body twisted and tortured, a dream-like state in which the reality of the flesh and the odder corners of the imagination seem to have full sway. In Triptych, 1973 (fig 8) there is an element of self-portraiture, of a figure looking critically at himself, at who and what he is. Although such powerful paintings are highly personal, they suggest a great deal about the 'human condition' in general. Observing the figure as it sleeps such as in Sleeping Figure, 1974 (fig 9) imbues the viewer with some of the power of the artist. We can observe without being seen, we can scrutinize the body, note it's form with an admiring or critical eye, secure in the knowledge of anonymity.

Certainly the starting point for any real assessment of Bacon's queer art - art which for all it's establishment form, continued to explore deviant, highly personal and transgressive emotions - is the work itself and a knowledge of his life. But such work is only effective if it succeeds not only in communicating the artist's own feelings and emotions, but in conveying a meaning to which we all can relate, and to recognize the sort of language being used. However reticent Bacon was in disclosing the specific subject of his work, he was totally uncompromising when he came to putting it on canvas. It is there to be seen, and from it we get not only an indication of the turbulent emotional life of the artist, but more importantly an insight into our troubled times.


Emmanuel Cooper is a writer, critic, potter and broadcaster. He is a regular contributor to a wide range of journals. His books include Henry Scott Tuke, A Monograph, GMP: The Sexual Perspective: Homosexuality in Art in the Last 100 Years, Routledge, 2nd edition: Fully Exposed; The Male Nude in Photography, Routledge, 2nd edition (1995): People's Art; Working Class Art 1750 to the Present Day, Mainstream. He lives and works in London.

"Queer Francis," is based on "Queer Spectacles," which appeared in Outlooks: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities and Visual Cultures, edited by Peter Horne and Reina Lewis, Routledge, London and New York, 1996.


Notes

[1] The first biography was by Daniel Farson, a long-standing friend of Bacon's, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, Century, London 1993 which drew on his friendship with the artist and his intimate knowledge of Soho. Andrew Sinclair's Francis Bacon: His Life and Violent Times (Sinclair-Stevenson, London 1993) is a more serious and detached study. [return to essay]

[2] Marcel Proust Remembrance of Things Past: Cities of the Plain Trans C. K. Scott Montcrief and Terence Kilmartin, Vol. II, Penguin, London 1983 pp623-656. This incident describes a casual sexual meeting between M de Charlus 'whose ideal is manly precisely because (his) temperament is feminine,' and Jupien, a tailor. The 'objective' account identifies the sort of sexual signals involved and the (often) crossing of social boundaries. Proust goes on to identify different sorts of homosexual liaisons, though the overall picture is distanced and objectified. [return to essay]

[3] Michel Leris Bacon Phaiden quoted in Peter Lennon The Times 15/9/83. [return to essay]


List of Illustrations
  1. Study of the Human Body, 1949, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
  2. Two Figures, 1953, Private Collection
  3. Two Figures in the Grass, 1954, Private Collection
  4. Figures in a Landscape, 1956-7, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery
  5. Three Figures in a Room, 1964, Muséé National d'Art Moderne, Centres George Pompidou, Paris
  6. Portrait of George Dyer, 1967-8, Fundacion Coleccion Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
  7. Three Studies of Figures on Beds, 1972, Private Collection
  8. Triptych, May-June 1973, Mr. and Mrs. Saul P. Steinberg
  9. Sleeping Figure, 1974, A. Carter Pottash
 

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