Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma

Michael Peppiatt

Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

GOSSIP, NABOKOV SAID, is the materia prima of literature. Certainly, it is the mainstay of biography. Francis Bacon, the highly readable biography penned by the painter's longtime friend, is no exception: Good dish is its virtue and its vice.

Bacon has been called the greatest English painter since Turner, and anyone who has seen his canvases--depthless dark spaces out of which figures emerge like bloodied specters--will recognize their power if not appreciate their estheticized grotesquery.

Given the disturbing imagery of Bacon's paintings, curiosity about the artist's inspirations is predictable. Peppiatt provides a satisfying autopsy of Bacon's imagery, identifying the sources that inform the work--Picasso, Buñuel, the abattoirs of Weimar Berlin. Behind Bacon's obsession with the human cry, we find "the nurse's bloodied face and terrified scream in the Odessa Steps sequence" of Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin; "a medical book with hand-painted illustrations of diseases of the mouth"; and the scream featured in Poussin's Massacre of the Innocents, which Bacon saw at the Chateau de Chantilly of Madame Bocquentin, who housed the 17-year-old after Bacon's father tossed him out for dressing in his mother's clothing.

Bacon's story is a captivating one. He was in Berlin alongside Isherwood and Auden, and lived in Montparnasse when Hemingway frequented those same cafes. He turned tricks and thieved to make ends meet in his youth ("Morality is a luxury that has come on me with age," Bacon told Peppiatt). Later, he successfully designed furniture in Paris, before trying his hand at watercolors. He lived in Tangiers, associating with Paul and Jane Bowles, and was good friends with William S. Burroughs, though he disdained the Beats.

It is regrettable that Bacon's voice appears so little here; when he steps forward from Peppiatt's interpretive net--like one of his apparitional figures emerging from the gloom--he is as arresting as his paintings: "'My father was a very suspicious man,' [Bacon] recalled wryly. 'He always said: If anyone talks to you, run and get the police. You can imagine what a marvelous preparation for life that was.'"

But attempts to explain an artist's oeuvre through the lens of personal life--a lens most often applied to female and gay male artists--seem insultingly reductive. Bacon lied about his past, fending off precisely those inquiries and interpretations that biographical detail invites. I cannot help but wonder what, beyond the suspect pleasures of voyeurism, posthumous revelations supply. Is it important to know that the artist favored S/M? That he harbored an erotic attachment to his father, and sported women's underwear? It is not, after all, the litter of the artist's life that intrigues, but what in the end he made of it.

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