Francis Bacon, Enigmatic Painter of Howling Popes, Lived a Life on the Edge
From a small London studio littered ankle-deep with source material, bottles of fine champagne, and a cacophony of paint splatters,
But what was this mighty, enigmatic painter’s secret to creating such spellbinding imagery—and, all the while, upholding his status as king of the bon vivants? Below, we pull back the curtain on who Bacon was, what motivated his deeply affecting paintings, and why their sulfurous power won’t be fading anytime soon.
Who Was Francis Bacon?
Bacon was a complex man whose work was informed by a tangled web of intense relationships, art-historical fixations, and a fair number of vices. Born in Dublin in 1909 to a domineering father, Capt. Anthony Edward Mortimer, and his much younger wife, Christina Winifred Firth, Bacon was derided as a “weakling” and, as legend has it, horse-whipped by his father during his youth due to issues with chronic asthma. At 17, he was kicked out of the family home for good when he was discovered trying on his mother’s underwear.
But despite (or perhaps because of) his asthmatic bouts and the abuse he endured, Bacon was strong-willed and resilient, with the constitution of a bull. He drank, ate, gambled, loved, and painted with such voraciousness that he rarely had time for sleep; two to three hours a night was typical. Through this haze of debauchery and hard living, and bolstered by deep friendships and aesthetic obsessions, Bacon produced a cascade of paintings that were not only disturbingly beautiful, but also boldly original. His shocking work galvanized the group of painters surrounding him in mid-century London (the “
What Inspired Him?
After Bacon was jettisoned from his family home, he embarked on a series of European escapades that opened his eyes to art and design, not to mention other earthly pleasures, like sex and wine. Several works he encountered during his travels made a lasting impact on his work and wouldn’t leave his mind until his death in 1992.
While studying French near Chantilly in 1927, he happened upon
The wide-open mouth would later materialize in some of the painter’s greatest canvases: his series of wailing popes, which he toiled over from 1949 until 1971. They show blurred, bethroned men caught in the act of an intense and seemingly eternal scream that, as Bacon biographer Michael Peppiatt has said, might have referred simultaneously to the militaristic orders of Bacon’s father, the raging rows between Bacon and his tortured lover Peter Lacy, or more simply, to a cry of fear or the climax of a body-quaking orgasm. This was the rare power of Bacon’s work: fusing a range of references into a Frankenstein’s monster of a whole, a beast shuddering with frustration, tension, and countless other, subtler emotions.
Bacon’s “Popes” also reveal another influence:
Alongside the many other great artists (
How Did He Work?
Reproductions of Bacon’s inspirations—like the Massacre of the Innocents, along with tattered photos of wild animals, Egyptian talismans, and more—ended up in a soupy jumble on the floors of the many studios he occupied over the course of his career. The exuberant mess was accented with paint and the occasional vestiges of parties he hosted after a long night of carousing through London’s drinking clubs and gambling houses. One of Bacon’s friends, the painter
But for all his decadence, Bacon was also extremely dedicated, with his own brand of regimentation. “You have to be disciplined in everything, even in frivolity,” he was known to have said. “Above all in frivolity.” Indeed, his passion for enthusiastic and prolonged socialization seemed to fuel his work. Without fail, after a late night of partying, he would wake up at 6 a.m. to paint for several hours in the morning light. Then he’d begin dining and boozing about town, liaising with his many friends and acquaintances, from fellow painters
There were some risks to this routine, however. On several occasions, he’d come home late at night, wildly drunk, and decide to “perfect” a painting he’d finished the day before, only to wake up the next morning and discover that he’d ruined it. After one of these episodes, his gallery began collecting his paintings from his studio the moment he finished them.
Bacon’s childhood nanny, Jessie Lightfoot, who lived with the painter until her death in 1951, and his two primary dealers—first Erica Brausen at Hanover Gallery, then Valerie Beston at Marlborough Gallery—also played major roles in helping organize his life and career. When Bacon was struggling financially during his youth, Lightfoot helped him find lovers who would also provide financial support. Brausen became a close friend and confidante; they bonded over their shared homosexuality and appetites for risk-taking (Bacon’s on the canvas; Brausen’s on the walls of her gallery). And starting in 1958, Miss Beston, as she was affectionately called, arranged almost all of Bacon’s day-to-day logistics during his most successful years. She paid his bills, arranged his calendar, made sure his apartment stayed clean, and kept him to his painting schedule. She also kept his canvases out of the trash bin, as he was known to destroy them.
Why Does His Work Matter?
Bacon brought new emotional intensity to the painted figure by representing his subjects—be they friends or mythological figures—as contorted, fleshy, emotionally open masses. He sought to reveal, in all its complexity, what was behind the human facade. “I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail leaving its trail of the human presence...as a snail leaves its slime,” he once said. Indeed, Bacon’s paintings pulsate with the dual energy of human suffering and ecstasy. They seem to unearth, in their blurred limbs and wide-open mouths, our most primal urges. (Scholars have noted that in his canvases from the 1950s, monkeys and men often closely resemble one another.)
In his life and work, Bacon embodied and fed off extremes. “The core of Bacon’s genius,” Peppiatt has said, “lay in his ability to straddle these extreme contradictions and translate (or sublimate) them into instantly recognizable images whose characteristic tension derives from a life lived on the edge.” As Bacon once put it: “You have to go too far to go far enough—only then can you hope to break the mould and make something new.”
Alexxa Gotthardt is a contributing writer for Artsy.