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New ‘Revelations’ in the Life of Francis Bacon, a Master of Darkness and Distortion

The ball was given by a Lady Rothermere, but it was Princess Margaret everyone would remember, in typical, regrettable form. She had gotten hold of a microphone and was belting out Cole Porter, passionately off-key, and trying to dance (“wriggling,” according to one observer). The crowd responded with dutiful enthusiasm — all except one man, who began to loudly boo, until Margaret fled, near tears.

“It was that dreadful man, Francis Bacon,” the writer Caroline Blackwood recalled one guest saying. “He calls himself a painter but he does the most frightful paintings. I just don’t understand how a creature like him was allowed to get in here. It’s really quite disgraceful.”

Bacon was serene. “Her singing was really too awful,” he later said. “Someone had to stop her. I don’t think people should perform if they can’t do it properly.”

It’s a neat encapsulation of the artist and the man: his fearlessness and indifference to outrage; the glint of cruelty and, always, the earnest invocation of standards. His own led him to slash and destroy his paintings, feed them to the incinerator at the local dump, line them up facing the wall like bad children. Above all, this anecdote indicates the electric quality of his presence; everything he did was memorable — his utterances, his parties. Where Bacon went, a story followed.

He died in 1992. His life spanned the century. “The first modern painter of international caliber that the British have produced,” the art historian John Richardson called him. He seemed to explode out of nowhere from the rubble of postwar Britain — an untaught, untamed figure, bearing paintings of flayed flesh and distorted mouths, with an aura of dark ceremony, the scent of incense and the abattoir.

This is the Bacon we know — creature of Stygian charm in dandy’s garb, whose own face was flayed by lovers, who flung him out of windows in the beatings he sought. His influences were Nietzsche and Aeschylus; his mode, “exhilarated despair.”

“A deep-end girl,” he called himself, not one “minnying along the sidewalk of life.”

In their new book, “Francis Bacon: Revelations,” Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, awarded the Pulitzer Prize for their 2004 biography of Willem de Kooning, argue that Bacon discouraged investigations into his life because he still harbored “one big secret.”

I sat up in my chair, too. What remains to be known? “Bacon was exhibitionistically frank about the traumatic adolescent events that would define his role as an artist as well as a lover,” according to Richardson. There exists a shelf of excellent, gossipy accounts of his life, many by his friends, full of Bacon’s stories about his childhood, its isolation and grim thrills.

He suffered terribly from asthma and was kept apart from other children, sent to school very late and regarded as freakish by his father, whose sole interest in life was fox hunting (a practice Oscar Wilde called “the unspeakable chasing the uneatable”). There are various accounts of the young Bacon being raped by the stable grooms, or submitting to thrashings ordered by his father. When caught wearing his mother’s underwear, he was sent away to Berlin, with the first of the sexual monsters who would later become a fixation — an older cousin who raped him repeatedly. Later, there was deep love — many loves, in fact — characterized by longevity, friendship and the ritualistic violence that was the motor for his inspiration.

What remains to tell? “It was Bacon’s secret that he was not just a radical master of the 20th-century stage who exulted in the dark arts,” Stevens and Swan write. “He was simultaneously an Englishman suffused with longing for the ordinary patterns of joy and solace denied him as a child and young man.” It’s Bacon’s kindness and decency the authors take pains to evoke — his beautiful manners, his generosity. He paid the hospital bills of his friends. He was kind to old ladies.

I deflated along with you. What else do Bacon’s relationships, however outré, reveal but wild longing? Hadn’t he laid out those very connections for us? Does the fact that he was interested in abjection, on and off the canvas, preclude him from writing affectionate letters to his mother?

The authors, so frank on de Kooning’s private life, turn prim and almost anthropological when it comes to Bacon — and not even on the rough stuff. I began to hear the sentences in David Attenborough’s voice. On a friend of Bacon’s: “He had the further advantage, in the eyes of some homosexuals, of being remarkably well endowed.” (That fastidious “some”!) On Bacon’s tumultuous relationship with his great love, Peter Lacy: “Sexual violence was not healthy, of course, but ‘healthy’ was not the point for Bacon and Lacy, two homosexuals who grew up in difficult closeted homes.”

Happily, this leviathan of a book (just shy of 900 pages), contains at least a half dozen more profitable arguments. It is the most comprehensive and detailed account of the life, and one that topples central pillars of the Bacon myth.

Bacon cultivated the notion that he’d wandered into painting after a gloriously dissipated youth. In fact, he got his start in design, to his later embarrassment. He would label art he despised as “decoration.” Nor was he as untaught as he claimed; he took classes and learned a great deal from his painter friends. He was talented at seeking out mentors and, above all, a network of protective, powerful women, often lesbians, who opened doors for him in the crucial early years of his career. (As raffish as he was known to be, Bacon lived with his childhood nanny long into adulthood. She slept on the kitchen table and stayed on, even after she went blind.)

Few can parry like Bacon — and he was at his cagiest about his work, speaking abstractly of the importance of “chance” and “accident.” I completed “Revelations” with so many questions intact, about the politics of the man, the real nature of his relationship with religion — this artist who, when asked why he obsessively painted popes, responded that he merely wanted to use purple paint.

Bacon could be viciously self-critical (he later disavowed those popes). Critics love pointing out that he never did learn how to paint hands and had to rely on all kinds of splendid improvisations.

“Revelations” makes use of one splendid improvisation of its own. At the end of each chapter, there is a close reading of one painting. On “Head 1” — a brutal, exhilarating image; my pulse quickens to think about it: “A taut, tasseled line pulls upon the ear, as a schoolteacher might draw back the ear of a misbehaving student, and the exquisite tension of the line seems to release the face from the head, which then no longer appears to be an altogether human face.” Instead of embedding such sections into the life, dully hammering in connections, the work is cordoned off by a little white space. The space is just a line or two, but it makes an argument against automatically using the art to read the life or the other way around. In a book of such ambition and scope, it is finally — and fittingly, for an artist so private about his work — the modesty of this claim, of what can be known, that is its most moving achievement.

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