Beyond the artist’s grin

by Mary Kisler / 19 November, 2015
The wild and tragic life of Britain’s most influential modern artist is a revelation.
Francis Bacon
Twisted forms: one of three studies for a Francis Bacon self portrait (1980). Photo/Alamy

This irresistible memoir about writer Michael Peppiatt’s friendship with Francis Bacon is as addictive as the champagne and chablis that seem to lace most encounters between the two. Their friendship began in 1963 when Peppiatt raced down from Cambridge to London to try to score an interview with the famous artist, 30 years his senior. That encounter at the French House was the start of a long, oft times devoted and sometimes tortured friendship. Peppiatt describes Bacon as a father figure, but this parental relationship came at a price.

He records a wide range of encounters with what Bacon described as his gilded gutter life, Peppiatt often staggering home to write down the evening’s conversation while still fresh in his mind. The reader becomes fascinated with the intonations of the artist’s voice, his ideas about art and why artists are driven to paint, the artists he admired (Giacometti and Picasso lead the group) and those he didn’t rate.

Peppiatt is meticulous in depicting Bacon’s courteousness at the beginning of a social encounter, always aware of someone younger or insecure of their place. But he also captures those moments when Bacon slid into drunken cruelty. Few people were immune from these verbal attacks although more than not, Peppiatt seems to leave the scene before Bacon’s depressed, choleric gaze turns on him.

One of the most vivid sections describes Peppiatt’s life in Paris. It becomes his home for a period, during which he relaunched Art International magazine in 1985. The city was hugely important to Bacon and where his success mattered most. At the artist’s request, Peppiatt kept an apartment that Bacon could use on his visits to the city. His descriptions of the extended lunches in elegant restaurants, where a maître d’ might try in vain to staunch the ever-flowing river of wine imbibed by their guests, are riveting.

Francis Bacon BookThis book also has a tantalising array of photos that book-end the text, some of the famously torn and paint-splattered images of paintings and people that triggered many of Bacon’s compositions; two that show the writer and artist, the latter bowed by booze, depression or both; and three self-conscious photographs of the author’s head and upper torso, possibly taken by Bacon.

Although Peppiatt has written formally about Bacon throughout his career, here he interweaves his observations of the wild and often tragic aspects of Bacon’s life with those depicted in the painter’s twisted forms and tortured expressions. He has no doubt that he is a great painter, but Peppiatt also wants to know why. Bacon once told photographer Daniel Frasnay that in his art he tried to give “the grin without the cat, the sensation without the boredom of conveyance”. Francis Bacon in Your Blood brilliantly delves beyond that disembodied grin.

FRANCIS BACON IN YOUR BLOOD, by Michael Peppiatt (Bloomsbury, $45).

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