Out of decay, immortality
Giles Au ty Iwas having lunch this Tuesday with a painter friend when news of Francis Bacon's death reached us. Bacon was in his 83rd year and was felt by many who knew him well to have been lucky to have got so far. My friend celebrated him for another reason: 'You've got to be grateful to old Francis for keeping the idea of figurative painting alive during those awful years of Pop and abstract expressionism.' Francis Bacon outlived many more art movements than these and in a sense reaffirmed belief in the continuity of art rather than sharing in the idea of modernist schism.
1 first met the artist in the closing months of 1959 when we rented almost adjacent dwellings in St Ives. I remember especially talking with him during a long, sunlit after- noon largely on the subject of Bonnard. The artist was charming, considerate and well-informed. As dusk drew in a male companion of the artist who seemed to me none of these things made his return and I made polite excuses to depart.
I encountered the artist intermittently over succeeding years, once in the restau- rant car of a train. In days when Britain was less affluent, I suspect many users of restaurant cars seldom dined out other than when travelling. There was a subdued hush in the dining car broken only by the tinkle of cutlery and whispered discussions between long-married couples as to whether to order a half-bottle of beaujo- lais. The waiter motioned me to an unoccu- pied seat at a table . . . 'If you wouldn't mind joining the other gentlemen, sir.' Almost as I did so, Mr Bacon's new com- panion, a brawny young man sporting a bright ginger crew-cut, complained very loudly of the heat: `Cor, Francis, it ain't 'alf fuckin"ot in 'ere.' Throwing off his coat, he revealed a short-sleeved shirt, impres- sive musculature and brilliant braces. Sev- eral delicately poised fish knives clattered to the floor.
The artist resisted the idea of a biogra- phy which would probably centre more on his private social habits — notably drink- ing, gambling and intense physical attach- ments — than on his art. A good deal of nonsense has been written about the latter, too, and I expect we must now fear the excesses, also, of his obituarists. Thus I do not share Sir Roy Strong's view, already stated, that Bacon was the greatest British artist since Turner. The artist's unusual life and background probably explain much more in his art than is commonly realised — but it would be strange if they did not do so. Bacon was a weak and asthmatic child sired by a domineering racehorse trainer in Ireland. He had little convention- al schooling and no art training at all. He left home at 16 following a reputed inci- dent of trying on his mother's clothes. Unsurprisingly, his natural milieu became that of Bohemia and the demi-monde in Berlin, Paris and London, where he worked before the last war as a designer of rugs and furniture. At the time I first met Bacon, his rise to artistic fame and fortune had merely begun. I believe the critic David Sylvester was as responsible as any- one for its subsequent acceleration. For years, whenever I remarked on the low standard of coverage on television of the visual arts, colleagues would refer me to a most illuminating interview between Bacon and Sylvester ... 'if only you had seen that'. Not many years ago I did so and was acutely disappointed. Little doubt this footage will be re-run many times in the months to come.
Bacon learned the craft of painting slow- ly but developed subsequent techniques which made his technical shortcomings dif- ficult for most critics to comment upon. At the end of his life he was accused by for- mer admirers of becoming almost too accomplished for his own good: of produc- ing pastiches of his own mannerisms, in fact. For me, perhaps the greatest virtue of Bacon's painting lay in his commitment to the activity itself. To the best of my knowl- edge he never complained of the inadequa- cy of the medium, recognising rightly that if the activity of painting were good enough for anyone from Rembrandt to GrOnewald or Ingres to Goya there was no particular need to look elsewhere.
Bacon's often remarkable painting struck me always as a far more urgent reflection of his own, driven condition than that of humanity at large. His supposed assault on `reality' accords more with vulgar concep- tions of such matters than with the pro- found or philosophical. Paradoxically, there is often a taint of melodrama and senti- mentality about visions of remorselessness, whether written or painted. Bacon's over- insistence on decay and futility may have been an unintended argument for immor- tality. Though his friends may deny this, perhaps he was not such an old, existential romantic after all.