What remains to tell? “It was Bacon’s secret that he was not just a radical master of the 20th-century stage who exulted in the dark arts,” Stevens and Swan write. “He was simultaneously an Englishman suffused with longing for the ordinary patterns of joy and solace denied him as a child and young man.” It’s Bacon’s kindness and decency the authors take pains to evoke — his beautiful manners, his generosity. He paid the hospital bills of his friends. He was kind to old ladies.
I deflated along with you. What else do Bacon’s relationships, however outré, reveal but wild longing? Hadn’t he laid out those very connections for us? Does the fact that he was interested in abjection, on and off the canvas, preclude him from writing affectionate letters to his mother?
The authors, so frank on de Kooning’s private life, turn prim and almost anthropological when it comes to Bacon — and not even on the rough stuff. I began to hear the sentences in David Attenborough’s voice. On a friend of Bacon’s: “He had the further advantage, in the eyes of some homosexuals, of being remarkably well endowed.” (That fastidious “some”!) On Bacon’s tumultuous relationship with his great love, Peter Lacy: “Sexual violence was not healthy, of course, but ‘healthy’ was not the point for Bacon and Lacy, two homosexuals who grew up in difficult closeted homes.”
Happily, this leviathan of a book (just shy of 900 pages), contains at least a half dozen more profitable arguments. It is the most comprehensive and detailed account of the life, and one that topples central pillars of the Bacon myth.
Bacon cultivated the notion that he’d wandered into painting after a gloriously dissipated youth. In fact, he got his start in design, to his later embarrassment. He would label art he despised as “decoration.” Nor was he as untaught as he claimed; he took classes and learned a great deal from his painter friends. He was talented at seeking out mentors and, above all, a network of protective, powerful women, often lesbians, who opened doors for him in the crucial early years of his career. (As raffish as he was known to be, Bacon lived with his childhood nanny long into adulthood. She slept on the kitchen table and stayed on, even after she went blind.)
Few can parry like Bacon — and he was at his cagiest about his work, speaking abstractly of the importance of “chance” and “accident.” I completed “Revelations” with so many questions intact, about the politics of the man, the real nature of his relationship with religion — this artist who, when asked why he obsessively painted popes, responded that he merely wanted to use purple paint.