Francis Bacon and the Art of a Dark Portrait

A major chunk of Francis Bacon’s art was bred from a passionate, yet dysfunctional love story. The Irish-born painter was an admitted masochist, and in the 40+ works he painted of his lover — George Dyer — it’s clear how it simultaneously exhilarated and pained him to tackle the subject of his love. The brazen stroke of his brush was dictated by his nihilism and melancholia, forming the grotesque images sprung from his monstrous imagination. This earned him the reputation of being a maverick among his contemporaries.

Study for Henrietta Moraes (1969)

Instead of having subjects model for him, Bacon preferred to adapt his paintings from photographs of people, where he would (in his own words) “injure” their likeness on his canvas. He once referred this kind of portrait work as “recording the fact” of his subjects. He said: “If you want to convey fact, this can only ever be done through a form of distortion. You must distort to transform what is called appearance into image.” (as quoted by H. Davies and S. Yard, New York, 1986)

By ‘fact’, Bacon refers to his subject’s personal damage. He had an uncanny ability to see the darkness in others and portray them in a meaningful way. As a journalist, this is an essential skill for me to develop, but in Bacon’s case, it was a blessing and a curse. It made him vulnerable to the darkness he engages in his subjects, especially in that of George Dyer. We could say that he, similarly to the likes of Van Gogh, was an embodiment of the tortured artist; however, in a way he maimed his subjects just as much as he maimed himself.

In the first half of his career, Francis Bacon was better known for his macabre depictions of crucifixions and popes. Yet in the few years since I’ve engaged in Bacon’s works, I became more drawn to his latter works from the 1960s and onwards. This was when he started painting portraits of his close friends from London’s SoHo district. This included fellow artist Lucian Freud and model Henrietta Moraes. The most significant of his subjects was the aforementioned George Dyer, who is considered one of art history’s most significant muses alongside the likes of Picasso’s Dora Maar and Warhol’s Edie Sedgwick.

Francis Bacon (L) and George Dyer (R) at a restaurant in SoHo

The Ballad of Francis Bacon and George Dyer went like this:

The artist met the thief in 1963. Bacon once claimed that their chance encounter resulted from him catching Dyer breaking into his flat in SoHo. Handsome and rugged, young George Dyer was a petty thief hailing from a family of criminals in London’s East End. The younger man’s reckless ‘bad boy’ demeanor played right into Bacon’s fancies and the two began their intense romance. Dyer would become the subject of plenty of Bacon’s most noteworthy masterpieces.

As the years passed, their relationship turned bitter and destructive. Dyer was an outsider to Bacon’s artistic circles and he grew insecure for being known solely as Bacon’s lowbred paramour. Dyer was also a heavy drinker and his neediness grew to the point of framing Bacon to the police for marijuana possession. The relationship took a downturn as the two men grew apart.

Bacon took on other lovers, but nonetheless he maintained contact with Dyer. On a fateful night in October of 1971, Bacon invited Dyer to his grand exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris. A mere thirty-six hours before the showcase, he would find Dyer dead by his own hand on the hotel room floor.

After Dyer’s suicide, Bacon would create what are arguably his most emotional and poignant pieces, known as ‘The Black Triptychs’ in memory of his tragic love. Compared to the overt violence he depicted in his early paintings, the works leading to Bacon’s death in 1992 posed a more serene and sentimental quality born from grieving the deaths of Dyer and many of his friends. Thus ended the astounding career of an eccentric and passionate soul — one of the great existential painters who graced our history.

Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer (1963)

The first painting I ever saw of Francis Bacon’s was Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer (1963). It was actually his first portrait of Dyer, painted several months after they met. We find Dyer’s facial features distorted, as if his face was being consumed by the dark background. This was adapted from photographs taken by John Deakin, one of Bacon’s close friends from the SoHo district. I remember thinking it bore a resemblance to The Picture of Dorian Gray — a novel by Oscar Wilde about a young man who achieves eternal youth, but in exchange, must house a portrait of himself that illustrates the ugliness of his soul. Of course, George Dyer’s soul is not the same as that of a depraved fictional character as Dorian Gray, but I found it interesting how both Francis Bacon and Oscar Wilde dissevered the pristine demeanor of their young subjects.

I’m still fascinated by how he was able to twist an image of his lover and turn it into a rather demonic figure. I was immediately able to sense how complicated their dynamic was. All of the Dyer portraits, in fact, give off fused senses of pain and pleasure. And it made me realize, a portrait like this can only be born out of intimate familiarity.

This got me thinking about how I perceive people around me. I ask how willing are we to look beyond a person past what’s at face-value. Especially if it means uncovering the unflattering and terrifying parts of their personhood. When Francis Bacon painted George Dyer, especially in the works after the latter’s death, we can only get overwhelmed by the many possible layers of complexity that developed throughout the course of their relationship.

Triptych, August 1972

Many argue that Bacon’s works after Dyer’s death pertain to a narrative of him coming to terms with his loss. However, despite how he himself admitted that it was the closest he’ll ever come to creating a narrative in his artwork, he was never one to make things go full circle. When I look at Triptych, August 1972, for example, I see a static story. It has Dyer as the man on the left panel, Bacon on the right panel, and the central panel shows their two abstract figures engaging in aggressive love-making. The right panel shows Dyer, head high and disappearing into the darkness in the background, while the left panel shows Bacon in solemn contemplation, in union with the spirit to his back. He is left haunted by his loving and tender memories of Dyer, his head down as his crumbling figure remains to the foreground of the scene. It conveys how loss leads to no end, and how you’re left to recall what’s behind you.

The genius of Francis Bacon is his aversion to narrative candor. He suppresses overt storytelling, even with his methodology of using triptychs (three-panel paintings) and diptychs (double-panel paintings). Instead, he would portray his subjects as enduring long periods of no storytelling significance. What results is an examination of the subject, which he ironically achieves by distorting their true likeness. In a 1980 interview with David Sylvester, he says that he aimed to “distort the thing far beyond the appearance, but in the distortion to bring it back to a recording of the appearance.” And so he does. While it’s negligible that his portraits could act as a mirror to one’s soul, it allows him to connect with his subjects existentially, and that makes his artistic vision interpersonal and humane.

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Ali Pitargue

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