Daily Archives: August 9, 2005

Since his death in 1992, Bacon has gone through all the vicissitudes of a modern master – the disputes over galleries and suspect drawings, the ghastly biopic, and, in a muted sort of way, the critical reaction.

claims a character named Jonathan James in a Guardian article given the melodramatically cliched title The Beast Within But I don’t recall the critical reaction ever being “muted.” Michel Leiris was well-nigh delerious in his praise, as John Berger was enraged in his dismissal, going so far as to liken Bacon to Walt Disney. If he cared to read Berger’s words at all (which I very much doubt) Bacon would doubtless been amused, giving forth with that marvelous high-pitched giggle of his — perfectly captured by Derek Jacobi in John Maybury’s marvelous Love is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon, a film clearly of no use to a neo-connie hagiographer like Jones.

I used to really dislike him. When I were a lad, in the 1980s, Bacon was feted not only by museums but at the highest levels of state. Making the pilgrimage to see the show that confirmed Bacon’s masterly status was oppressive. It is oppressive, when you’re young, to be told what to admire.

Poor baby! Quel cross you’ve had to bear! We all know what a bitch adolescence can be — especially when put at the tender mercies of a “liberal arts education” of the sort Jones has obviously been heir to.

More than that, if you believe in a socialist utopia, or any similar faith, as we did when we were students, Bacon’s forsaken forms are as welcome as an accurate account of Stalin’s purges or Saddam Hussein’s attacks on his own people.

What, no Hitler? Oh, I forget — we’re not allowed to mention Hitler anymore. That would be going too far. Likewise we’re not allowed to mention that Saddam’s regime was established by the Reagan administration and promulgated by Bush I.

Bacon is the painter who delivered the worst news about the modern world. His was a terrible century. Fascists killed millions but revolution killed millions more.

Really? Got the figures on that? Or are you just pulling numbers out of your ass? Apparently there was a “Worst Mass Murderer Ever” competition and Hitler lost.

Intellectual honesty was almost impossible in a world where it seemed necessary to take sides.

Don’t think you’re talking only about the past in that regard, cupcake.

In the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, a drawing by Picasso for one of his Weeping Women is a profound tribute to the suffering of Spain in the civil war – but Picasso compromised himself by joining the Communist party, after Stalinists had systematically betrayed Spain. The left is good at self-delusion.

which is why the weaker parts of it have turned into the right. Clearly Picasso should never have painted “Guernica.” He didn’t have the right, you see.

Bacon was an apolitical, good-for-nothing gambler with no principles to blind him to reality. And that is why it fell to him to acknowledge the real meaning of the atrocities whose photographic evidence appeared all over the world with the defeat of Germany.

“Good-for-nothing gambler” is rather mild, dear. He was a manipulative S&M bottom with no real feeling for anyone other than himself. He was, however, unfailingly polite (well-deserved obscenities screamed at Princess Margaret in public to one side) and great fun to be around.

At the time he painted Head I, in 1948,”responsible” people were busy separating the depravities of Auschwitz from accounts of mass murder inside the USSR. Humanism was still the watchword of the left. So here, in Bacon’s appalling painting, is what he thought of humanism: a disintegrated face fused with the baying head of a baboon.

Leads one to wonder what he’d make of the ultra-simian George W. Bush, doesn’t it?

There is little point in wallowing in the brilliance of Bacon if you don’t recognise him as a moralist first and last.

There is little point in speaking of Bacon at all if you don’t recognise him as an bounder, first and last. But ideologues like Jones need Bacon the way less culture-minded neo-connies need South Park. A patina of “hipness” is de rigeur these days.

Why is it a pope who screams in a glass booth, the top of his head missing to leave a purple howling mouth in white scar tissue in his 1949 painting Head VI?

Because Bacon liked Velasquez and Eisenstein, that’s why. Nothing more.

The Vatican had a less than exemplary record of standing up to the Nazis. Even so, it is extreme to have portrayed a pope as a war criminal in a protective vitrine. Bacon puts religion itself in the dock. He was Irish, after all. All that prayer, confession, the fear of Hell – does it make humanity any less of a beast? It just sanctifies cruelties – Bacon’s homosexuality damned him – and in Head VI the Pope knows there is nothing, nothing there.

Nothing but us lumps of meat

And lumps of meat are quite beyond good and evil — though Jones would prefer to imagine otherwise.

Bacon’s paintings of the 1940s and 1950s are essays in nihilism and atheism. God is dead, and so is Marx. But this exhibition also contains portraits – and a portrait is never pure philosophy. It is anecdote – it is a souvenir of someone. Bacon, for all his butchery, found faces worth painting, and repainting; people worth knowing, and, it seems, worth loving.

Oh not really. He desired people for awhile. Many of these phantom desires found their way into his work — which was a lot more interesting to him than mere sentient existence. In the early 70’s when I was working as a guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art I used to see him a lot. He’d haunt the galleries to absorb the art, and cruise for the odd trick. When a show of his paintings was mounted he used visit to the gallieres early in the morning, before the public arrived, and commune with his paintings. He’d spend countless hours looking at them — as if they were executed by someone he scarcely knew.

Largely because of the George Dyer studies the other guards were rather frightened of him. But I found him as convivial as The Count of Montebello, though obviously louche as the Count was (and is) not. While his canvasses were filled with horror and despair Bacon conveyed none of that in the flesh, appearing as bright and at ease with himself as he does in the excellent television documentary hosted by Melvyn Bragg. The last time I saw him was in Paris in the late 80s, briskly striding through St. Germaine des Pres, grinning from ear to ear. One wonders whether this signified happiness in its generally accepted sense, or was merely an expression of animal comfort. Or is there a difference? Bacon would likely have found none.

Objections such as I once held to Bacon’s pessimism resemble the radical theatre critic Kenneth Tynan’s views on Beckett and the theatre of the absurd, supposedly apolitical and bourgeois in its despair, and therefore inferior to Brecht, who died a state hack in east Berlin. Today, Pinter has been so browbeaten by such criticism that the greatest modern writer of English prose has reinvented himself as “political” and publishes doggerel criticising Tony Blair. Now that’s tragicomic.

What’s tragic, and not at all comic, is regarding a genuine moral exemplar named Harold Pinter, a man whose piss Christopher Hitchens is unfit to drink (no matter how much he longs to, as a figure as dismissable as Jones himself.

But Pinter needs no defense from the likes of me. For as he’s quite recently indicated —

“There’s no escape.
The big pricks are out.
They’ll fuck everything in sight.
Watch your back.”

Indeed.