He often said in interviews that he saw images "in series", and his artistic output typically focused on a single subject or format for sustained periods. His output can be crudely drawn as consisting of sequences or variations on a single motif; beginning with the 1940s male heads isolated in rooms, the early 1950s screaming popes, and mid to late 1950s animals and lone figures suspended in geometric structures. These were followed by his early 1960s modern variations of the crucifixion in the triptych format. From the mid-1960s to early 1970s, Bacon mainly produced strikingly compassionate portraits of friends, either as single or triptych panels. Following the 1971 suicide of his lover George Dyer, his art became more personal, inward looking and preoccupied with themes and motifs of death. The climax of this period came with his 1982 "Study for Self-Portrait", and his late masterpiece Study for a Self Portrait -Triptych, 1985-86. Despite his bleak existentialist outlook, solidified in the public mind through his articulate and vivid set of interviews with David Sylvester, Bacon in person was a bon vivant and notably and unapologetically gay. A prolific artist, he nonetheless spent many of the evenings of his middle age eating, drinking and gambling in London's Soho with friends such as Lucian Freud, John Deakin, Muriel Belcher, Henrietta Moraes, Daniel Farson and Jeffrey Bernard. After Dyer's suicide he largely distanced himself from this circle, and while his social life was still active and his passion for gambling continued, he settled into a platonic relationship with his eventual heir, John Edwards.
George Dyer in the Reece Mews Studio (c. 1964) by John Deakin.
Portrait of George Dyer Talking (1966) by Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon and George Dyer on the Orient Express to Athens, John Deakin, 1965
John Edwards in 1983. Photo: Francis Bacon/© The Estate of Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon with his longtime companion and heir, John Edwards
During his lifetime, Bacon was equally reviled and acclaimed. Margaret Thatcher described him as "that man who paints those dreadful pictures", and he was the subject of two Tate retrospectives and a major showing in 1971 at the Grand Palais in Paris. Since his death, his reputation and market value has steadily grown. In the late 1990s a number of major works previously assumed to have been destroyed, including popes from the early 1950s and portraits from the 1960s, surfaced on the art market and set record prices at auction. On 12 November 2013 his painting Three Studies of Lucian Freud set the record as the most expensive piece of art ever auctioned, selling for $142,405,000.
Bacon met George Dyer in 1964 when, he claimed, he caught the young man breaking into his home. Dyer was about 30 years old and had grown up in the East End of London in a family steeped in crime. He had spent his life drifting between theft, juvenile detention centres and jail.
Bacon's relationships before meeting Dyer had been with older men who were as tumultuous in temperament as the artist but had been the dominating presence. Peter Lacy, his first lover, tore the young artist's paintings, beat him up in drunken rages, and left him on the street half-conscious.
Bacon was attracted to Dyer's vulnerability and trusting nature. Dyer was impressed by Bacon's self-confidence and artistic success, and Bacon acted as a protector and father figure to the insecure younger man. Dyer was, like Bacon, a borderline alcoholic and similarly took obsessive care with his appearance. Pale-faced and a chain-smoker, Dyer typically confronted his daily hangovers by drinking again. His compact and athletic build belied a docile and inwardly tortured personality. The art critic Michael Peppiatt described him as having the air of a man who could "land a decisive punch". Their behaviours eventually overwhelmed their affair, and by 1970, Bacon was merely providing Dyer with enough money to stay more or less permanently drunk.
As Bacon's work moved from the extreme subject matter of his early paintings to portraits of friends in the mid-1960s, Dyer became a dominating presence in the artist's work. Bacon's treatment of his lover in these canvases emphasised his subject's physicality while remaining uncharacteristically tender. More than any other of the artist's close friends portrayed during this period, Dyer came to feel inseparable from his effigies. The paintings gave him stature, a raison d'etre, and offered meaning to what Bacon described as Dyer's "brief interlude between life and death". Many critics have cited Dyer's portraits as favourites, including Michel Leiris and Lawrence Gowing. Yet as Dyer's novelty diminished within Bacon's circle of sophisticated intellectuals, the younger man became increasingly bitter and ill at ease. Although Dyer welcomed the attention the paintings brought him, he did not pretend to understand or even like them. "All that money an' I fink they're reely 'orrible", he observed with choked pride.
Dyer abandoned crime but soon descended into alcoholism. Bacon's money allowed him to attract hangers-on who accompanied him on massive benders around London's Soho. Withdrawn and reserved when sober, Dyer was insuppressible when drunk, and often attempted to "pull a Bacon" by buying large rounds and paying for expensive dinners for his wide circle. Dyer's erratic behaviour inevitably wore thin – with his cronies, with Bacon, and with Bacon's friends. Most of Bacon's art world associates regarded Dyer as a nuisance – an intrusion into the world of high culture to which their Bacon belonged. Dyer reacted by becoming increasingly needy and dependent. By 1971, he was drinking alone and only in occasional contact with his former lover.
In October 1971, Dyer accompanied Bacon to Paris for the opening of the artist's retrospective at the Grand Palais. The show was the high point of Bacon's career to date, and he was now described as Britain's "greatest living painter". Dyer was a desperate man, and although he was "allowed" to attend, he was well aware that he was "slipping", in every sense, out of the picture. To draw Bacon's attention he planted cannabis in his flat and phoned the police, and attempted suicide on a number of occasions. On the eve of the Paris exhibition, Bacon and Dyer shared a hotel room, and Bacon spent the next day surrounded by people eager to meet him.
In mid-evening he was informed that Dyer had taken an overdose of barbiturates and was dead. Though devastated, Bacon continued with the retrospective and displayed powers of self-control "to which few of us could aspire", according to Russell. Bacon was deeply affected by the loss of Dyer, and had recently lost four other friends and his nanny. From this point, death haunted his life and work. Though outwardly stoic at the time, he was inwardly broken. He did not express his feelings to critics, but later admitted to friends that "daemons, disaster and loss" now stalked him as if his own version of the Eumenides. Bacon spent the remainder of his stay in Paris attending to promotional activities and funeral arrangements. He returned to London later that week to comfort Dyer's family.
During the funeral many of Dyer's friends, including hardened East-End criminals, broke down in tears. As the coffin was lowered into the grave one friend was overcome and screamed "you bloody fool!" Bacon remained stoic during the proceedings, but in the following months suffered an emotional and physical breakdown. Deeply affected, over the following two years he painted a number of single canvas portraits of Dyer, and the three highly regarded "Black Triptychs", each of which brutally details moments immediately before and after Dyer's suicide.
In 1974, Bacon met John Edwards, another young man from the East End, with whom he formed one of his most enduring friendships. While holidaying in Madrid in 1992, Bacon was admitted to the Handmaids of Maria, a private clinic, where he was cared for by Sister Mercedes. His chronic asthma, which had plagued him all his life, had developed into a respiratory condition and he could not talk or breathe very well. He died of cardiac arrest on 28 April 1992, attempts to resuscitate him having failed.
He bequeathed his entire estate (then valued at £11 million) to John Edwards and Brian Clark executor of the Estate. In 1998 the director of the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin secured the donation of the contents of Bacon's chaotic studio at 7 Reece Mews, South Kensington. Bacon's studio contents were moved and the studio reconstructed in the gallery. The relocated studio opened to the public in 2001. The entire contents of the studio have been catalogued: approximately 570 books, 1500 photographs, 100 slashed canvases, 1300 leaves from torn books, 2000 artist materials, and 70 drawings. Other categories include artists correspondence magazines, newspapers and vinyl records.
A collection of drawings, some consisting of little more than scribbles given by Bacon to his driver and handyman Barry Joule to be destroyed surfaced in 1998, when Jule, against Bacon's express wish, handed them over to the Tate Gallery. Their artistic and commercial value proved negligible, but they do provide some insight into Bacon's imagination, and how his thought process acts in the early stages of conceiving a finished work. Today most of the works are in the Hugh Lane in Dublin.
Edwards died of cancer in Thailand in 2003, and there was speculation that the Bacon fortune had grown to 30 million. But details of the will show that Edwards, a former barman, spent most of the money on high living and on gifts for friends and relatives, leaving him with a net estate worth less than 800,000 ($2 million).
Francis Bacon: Five Decades
Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: Prestel; Reprint edition (January 25, 2013)
Amazon: Francis Bacon: Five Decades
This decade-by-decade exploration of Francis Bacon's paintings draws insightful parallels between the artist's personal life and the thematic evolution of his oeuvre. In the 1940s Francis Bacon achieved a creative breakthrough that would propel his work until his death in 1992. This generously illustrated monograph opens with the fecund period, then traces subsequent periods of exceptional artistic output, decade by decade, through the end of Bacon's career. Gorgeous color illustrations allow readers to study the artist's darkly expressive palette and powerful imagery through his series of screaming popes, portraits of friends, mourning triptychs, scenes from Greek mythology, and, finally, self-portraits inspired by an awareness of his own mortality. Thought-provoking essays provide further insight into Bacon's world both within and without the studio. The volume includes a wide range of photographs and archival material to round out this penetrating study of one of the most visceral-and influential-artists of his generation.
More Artists at my website: www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Art
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