Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma

Article excerpt

Francis Bacon is an artist whom viewers have strong feelings about: His work is love-it-or-hate-it kind of stuff. His powerful signature compositions of gnarled, tortured flesh against backgrounds painted in lush, queasy tones aren't exactly pretty. It's difficult, however, to deny this British artist's skill.

Despite the often controversial nature of his work, Bacon's startling paintings have earned him a place as one of the great artists of this century. He was also openly gay. Still, Bacon, who died in 1992, was never the type to flaunt his inner feelings. Particularly not in his art. "Bacon insisted that his painting be viewed in a kind of biographical vacuum," writes Michael Peppiatt in Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, his engaging and often dishy new biography.

Bacon's veiled strategy of distancing his personal life from his art is not surprising given that he was part of a generation of gay men who faced legal persecution for their sexuality, But though his public persona may have been shrouded in secrecy, that doesn't mean he wasn't enjoying himself in private, The book presents him as a generous, erratic, and appealing character with contradictory tastes. Bacon led what he called a "gilded gutter life"--one that included swank gambling sprees in Monte Carlo, lavish art openings, and quick sexual encounters with street studs.

As a longtime friend of the artist, Peppiatt had access to intimate personal details regarding Bacon's life, and he balances them with art historical readings of Bacon's work. The artist's early years are particularly fascinating because his development as a painter was tied to his budding sexuality. At 16 he was expelled from home after his tyrannical military father caught him in his mother's panties. After drifting through London's homosexual underworld, he was sent with an uncle to late-'20s Berlin, where the young artist found an even more vibrant gay scene. As Bacon ended up with various sex partners--including his uncle--he also witnessed the kind of economic inequity and social injustice that may have sparked some of his raging images.

Although Bacon encountered tragedies and low points throughout his life, here his history seems richly layered with experiences of joy and artistic triumph, In his preface Peppiatt quotes Bacon saying, "It would take a Proust to tell the story of my life." It's a daunting message to any biographer, but Peppiatt approaches his subject confidently. If not exactly Proustian, the book is an intimate portrait of the artist as a brilliant and complex gay man. …