Following Vladislav Davidzon’s recent article on the record-breaking sale of Francis Bacon’s triple portrait of Lucian Freud, British author Robin Saikia recalls meeting the two artists and looks back at their work.
I was on nodding terms with Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud in the mid-1980s, for no other reason than that we frequented the Colony Room, a once notorious and now defunct drinking club in Soho, London. One afternoon I was there in the company of Bacon, the journalist Sandy Fawkes, and the jazz pianist Barney Bates. Each of us had bought champagne, matching the always-generous Bacon bottle for bottle, something of a rarity in those days, as nobody ever seemed to have ready money.
Halfway through the bacchanal, Freud appeared, looking decidedly shifty, unkempt and vulpine—full of what Francis Wyndham euphemistically called ‘eloquent vituperation.’ The latest bottle came to an end and it was my turn to buy the next. I ordered, but in a split second realized I’d run out of cash. Bacon rescued me immediately and paid, peeling off a couple of notes from the many thousands of pounds he always carried about with him for the purpose of gambling. A gauche 24-year-old, I spluttered, temporized, apologized, and squirmed. Bacon turned to me—that ravaged moon of a face, those piercing eyes, that precise, ultra-civilized accent. “The trouble with you, dear boy,” he said, “is that you need to learn the fine art of graceful acceptance.” Freud was less than impressed. “Why don’t you just tell the little bugger to eff off,” he said.
Some might say this story illustrates nothing more than Bacon’s preference for boys, as against Freud’s for pretty girls. Both men were, after all, highly polished Soho sex predators. Nevertheless, the episode reinforced my long-held view that Bacon was infinitely the kindlier soul—but that is neither here nor there. Leaving aside their past willingness or unwillingness to buy me drinks, I’ve always been fascinated by the similarities, rather than the differences, between their work.
The first thing they have in common has less to do with art than with how art is received by the public. Outside the rarified confines of the art world, and despite record-breaking auction results, both Bacon and Freud are actively disliked by the public at large. Margaret Thatcher, whose unerring grasp of popular taste kept her in office for so long, memorably described Bacon as the “man who paints those awful pictures.” And when Freud’s notorious portrait of the Queen was unveiled, the Daily Mirror’s predictable headline was, “You’re no oil painting, Ma’am!” Bacon’s work is widely perceived as macabre and morbid—all those painful distortions splattered with gore, those naked, homoerotic fantasies. Freud’s paintings also provoke revulsion—all that obesity, that warts-and-all eroticism, that uncompromising documentation of the sheer unpleasantness, at times, of the human condition. It seems that most people want ‘beauty,’ not what they see as ‘ugliness.’ ‘Give us Burne-Jones, not Bacon! Fragonard, not Freud!’ is the cry at the barricades.
The second common feature of Bacon and Freud as men and artists was obsession. This, again, won them few supporters among the general public. Nobody feels comfortable in the presence of obsession—and it is what Bacon and Freud communicate as powerfully as they do anything else. In addition to a whole raft of more or less interlocking psychosexual fetishes, they shared an intense preoccupation with the tone and texture—and the beauty and frailty—of flesh.
“I want paint to work as flesh,” said Freud. “As far as I’m concerned, the paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as flesh does.” “When you go into a butcher’s shop,” said Bacon, “you see the beauty of the meat, how beautiful meat can be.” These are unsettling utterances, the words of medieval sorcerers and alchemists, not the sort of table talk you’d expect from the likes of Burne-Jones or Fragonard. Such explicit remarks on the properties of the flesh trigger all manner of negative responses, ranging from basic pudeur to deeply unwelcome intimations of mortality. It is easy to see why, when confronted by all this, many go scurrying back to the less challenging realms of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood or 18th century French genre painting. All of which is a pity, since there is infinitely more to art than either Margaret Thatcher or the Daily Mirror would have us believe. Talking of his own work, Freud said, “it’s all to do with hope and memory and sensuality and involvement.” “Great art” said Bacon, “is always a way of concentrating, reinventing what is called fact, what we know of our existence—a reconcentration—tearing away the veils that fact acquires through time.”
As for me, following that summer afternoon drinking session in the Colony over a quarter of a century ago, I’ve followed Francis’s advice in more ways than one. Every time I look at a work of art, however good or bad, I always begin with the principle of “graceful acceptance.” You always get so much more that way.
Robin Saikia is a British travel writer and historian based in London and Venice. He is the author of The Venice Lido, the first ever full-length historical and cultural guide to Venice’s glamorous beach resort, The Horn Book: A Victorian Sex Manual; Munich: A Third Reich Tourist Guide; and The Red Book: The Membership List of The Right Club, 1939; among others.