Who's Afraid of Francis Bacon?
An artist, a sage, a gambler, an aristocrat, a male escort, and a bohemian. Francis Bacon, one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, conducted secret affairs with men during a time when homosexuality was illegal in England. He became a prominent cultural hero of the LGBTQ community.
"The Queers" is a new section that introduces you to the pioneers of the LGBTQ community. These proud icons operated outside the closet during the dark days of the LGBTQ community when they were outside the law.
Francis Bacon, London, 1971. Beetles + Huxley
"To live is one of the rarest things; most people just exist." – Oscar Wilde.
Within the depths of Francis Bacon, a profound sense of human existence, vitality, and great love for life rises above the body's surface.
Bacon was one of those creatures that intentionally smeared the chaos with a simplicity that chills to the bone, in the true sense of self,
and not in explanations about it. Francis did not hesitate to express his feelings, neither in his life nor in his work. He is a divided figure in
every aspect of his thoughts and emotions, yet simultaneously very secretive, guarding his personal life as a well-kept secret.
Even his sister didn't know he was gay until she heard it from her husband.
These were the days of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s of the 20th century - homosexuality was illegal in England, and the general atmosphere
around the LGBTQ community was secretive, almost conspiratorial. Nevertheless, Francis Bacon, an eccentric artist, bohemian, aristocrat,
and gay man, had long-lasting and deep relationships with men, which alternated once a decade, marking intimate milestones in his life:
in the 1980s, it was a young Spanish lover named José Capelo; in the 1970s, John Edwards; in the 1960s, it was George Dyer, and in the
1950s, it was Peter Lacy; Eric Hall in the 1940s, and Roy de Maistre in the 1930s.
Relationships with Bacon seem to imply a willingness to approach the fire or at least touch the boundaries of the wild. All the romantic relationships in his life were intense, destructive, and filled with powerful passion. Yet, they gave Bacon a sense of security, order, and stability. His relationship with Peter Lacey was characterized by obsession and their shared kinkiness, and Bacon describes Lacey as a neurotic
type who enjoyed watching Bacon with other men and then engaging with him. Ultimately, Lacey passed away, likely due to excess drinking
and liver failure.
George Dyer, his young lover, a petty criminal who spent some time in prison, was found lifeless in a hotel room in Paris just a day before
Bacon's solo exhibition was set to open. Bacon declared that his former partner had taken his own life. He quoted Oscar Wilde, saying,
"Yet each man kills the thing he loves." Perhaps this duality characterizes Bacon's personality, life, and work.
Artist, Genius, Homosexual
Throughout history, great empires and cultures have imposed their behavioral and cultural norms, with two empires rising above all else, simultaneously condemning the most horrific act concerning sexual tendencies - homosexuality (same-sex relationships).
The first of these empires was the Islamic Empire of the Prophet Muhammad, where laws were established condemning homosexuality
to death by stoning. The second, and perhaps the most dreadful of all, was the British Empire. Ironically, in maps of the 18th and 19th centuries,
you can see regions under the rule of the British Monarch depicted in pink. The British Empire strongly repressed homosexuality and enshrined
it in its laws, which remained in effect until the mid-20th century (and in some of its occupied territories, horrors are still being committed
against LGBTQ+ individuals).
Citizens of the British Empire in the 12th and 13th centuries regarded homosexuality as a "disease" of the French, a common practice of
blaming others for spreading "the disease" in their country. This resembles our modern times, where we hear phrases like "the Chinese virus" or
"it's a Western disease, and we don't need it on Russian soil," attributed to Vladimir Putin regarding homosexuality. While in the Islamic Empire, the penalty for homosexuality was stoning to death, in the British Empire, they burned individuals at the stake while they were still alive.
To explore the forbidden, the sexual, the animalistic, the disturbing
Amidst the tapestry of time, Francis Bacon graced Dublin's streets on October 28, 1909. It was an era where Ireland concealed a clandestine secret, where whispered rumors carried on the winds spoke of a malady – homosexuality, a supposed affliction deemed unwelcome,
to be purged from society's very fabric, or else confined to the shadows, or worse.
He was born into a lineage of English aristocracy; his father, a former military officer turned equestrian sage, presided over the world
of thoroughbred steeds and enforced the rigidity of military ethics. It was a realm of many chambers, stables aglow with noble horses,
subservient attendants, and the unyielding grip of a stern father. From an early age, Francis donned his mother's garments, skillfully embodying the essence of female personas in familial gatherings. Whispers of liaisons with stable hands and estate laborers reached his father's ears.
As a result, he was exiled from the domestic abode. All this when Francis was but a tender youth of sixteen or seventeen.
In his later days, he revealed that his earliest sexual memories revolved around his father, finding it both disturbing and sexually charged. Perhaps the figure of his father, with his sexual aggression and the sense that these desires inherent in all of us were somehow a flaw,
influenced the fabric of his relationships with men during his formative years. It fueled his fascination and desire to delve into the forbidden, sensual, and unsettling.
Little is known of Bacon's life during the 1920s. After being banished from his family home by his father, he settled in London and later
moved to Berlin. He made a living there by selling women's clothing, working as an escort, and engaging in odd jobs. Berlin in the 1920s
was a city of liberation, vibrancy, and color, boasting an exuberant nightlife, avant-garde cabarets, and creative riches that thrilled in theater, cinema, art, literature, science, and architecture. The city beckoned many artists and hedonists who reveled in the decadent delights
it had to offer.
During his Berlin sojourn, Bacon likely encountered the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein. Eisenstein's silent films' techniques and visual representation profoundly impacted Bacon as an artist. In particular, the iconic scene of the "Odessa Steps" sequence from Eisenstein's masterpiece, "Battleship Potemkin," resonated deeply with Bacon. It depicted Russian soldiers descending a grand staircase in a brutal and orderly manner, mercilessly attacking Odessa civilians.
This connection with the works of Eisenstein, marked by their powerful and visual narratives, significantly influenced Francis Bacon's artistic trajectory.
"Human being cannot eat of anything before he has turned it into an object." - Georges Bataille.
Bacon refrained from categorizing himself among the artists of his era but enthusiastically acknowledged the influences of past masters,
such as Aeschylus, Michelangelo, Titian, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Cézanne, and Picasso. Although he was an atheist, believing that "we come from nothing and return to nothing," Bacon found fascination in representing religious and mythical figures in art. His works often straddled the line between abstraction and figuration.
Bacon painted numerous crucifixion and papal works, inspired by and in homage to Velázquez. He sought to go beyond the idea that art was merely a faithful representation or imitation of reality; he believed it should delve deeper and reveal the hidden forces in human existence.
His artistic journey was a profound exploration of this concept.
In Bacon's meticulous self-portraits (and beyond), traces of Rembrandt, the great master of light and shadow, are vividly evident.
Rembrandt's ability to create images with abstracted color symbols, along with the exploration of the ever-changing human figure over two decades, had a profound impact on Bacon. Much like Cézanne and Picasso, Bacon grappled with the appearance of sensation,
embedding it within the corporeal matter. He injected this sensation directly into the viewer's nervous system. Presence and ambiguity, simultaneously.
Picasso, Bacon's idol, demonstrated how only by breaking the rules of representation can an artist delve deeper to unveil hidden truths.
Bacon learned from him the pursuit of truth and how to create art more profoundly than the subject itself. For him, the essence was the emotional core, not the surrounding narrative or planned drama. Using straightforward means, a person, a body, situated in an empty space devoid of symbols or artistic codes, Bacon communicates the feeling of violence directly to the viewer.
"I don't think my pictures are violent; maybe they reflect the violence of life. For this reason, an artist must delve deeper, understand the game's rules, and react to reality with a greater degree of violence." Bacon consistently claimed that his works were nothing more than a direct and personal portrayal of reality as it is and nothing more. He lived through numerous events in his life, which, compared to them, the current
COVID-19 pandemic might appear as a mere triviality: British occupation, the fight against it, the Spanish flu, World War I, the Bolshevik revolution, World War II. In many of his paintings, we see hanging carcasses, screaming mouths, dead flesh, crucifixions, religion, totalitarianism, blood, and murder.
The violence in his works was his response to the conditions of life. Some critics argued that his works were distorted, corrupted, and obscene.
In one of his interviews, he said, "I walked down the street and saw a dog's shit, and I thought to myself, here, these are life itself unless you
make something special out of them."
Bacon reflects (not represents) the pessimistic alienation of human existence. His figures crumble and are engulfed within themselves; they become objects, divested of their humanity, exposing raw flesh and man's spirit. The flesh-human-animal is the given state in all of us, the suffering of human flesh laid bare, just as the animal's meat is revealed in its torment. The fundamental debasement of the human being
but also of the living creature. Whether of the same species or not, killing a living being is a predetermined definition of the living being alive.
In Francis Bacon's world, the human is an animal, and the animal is the spirit of man, with blurred, permeable boundaries. One with the other,
in the most fundamentally human aspect of life – sexual identity. Even in sex between two men, you can feel the sweat, the breath, the physical and sexual contact, the brutal power, the living flesh.
Like a hunter, Bacon seeks to capture emotions to elevate them onto the canvas. It is not a representation or illustration of reality but the capture of those forces at work in our world that evoke feelings like violence, hysteria, solitude, emptiness, escape, and vitality. Bacon's figures are trapped within themselves and simultaneously devour themselves, exposing a profound sense of the temporality and transience of the flesh.
The contrast between the figures and the surrounding background creates a cacophony of silence, where the body tears itself apart, trying to escape itself and merge into the eternal void that envelops it.