by: Patrick Gill
Many of Francis Bacon’s paintings are portraits or studies of the body; yet when first seen, the majority of what could be recognized as a human face or form has been abstracted or dissolved, leaving a core, howling and bright toothed, that or what is left on the canvas is a mangled contour of a chin, shoulder and nose pressed together. Sometimes there’s a dripping side of beef, or an almost sinister, perky accent color; often streaks likened to water damage wash down his work—cruel details that instead of destroying, create a new manner of seeing portraits, the people who paint them, and any person who is seen immediately after their encounter with a work. Francis Bacon brought to his work and to the eyes of generations of viewers a quiet and naked rage, a violence both vibrant and edged with black and ash; he worked with a deliberate sneer, boldness, as well as a near inaccessible tenderness.
I imagine myself ripping the gray-white crescents off of my already stubbed fingernails, I believe in that memory. My fingers thudded, plunging, clicking up as I shuffled through websites with images, searching for paintings I might like. I was 16, alone, at the family computer– it wasn’t the clandestine, quick and fearful jaunts of adolescence. There was too much spent rage and need for compassion. In a way befitting a young closet-queen, who would later take “Now,Voyager” closer to heart than anyone should, I was told by the first person I had come out to– by professing my love for him– that he was in love with me too, but just couldn’t; he had decided last week to never date me and really couldn’t go back on it. Also he would still need a ride next Thursday because I was the only person with a car he knew that was reliable. Painful then, hilarious now.
Weighing even heavier on my soft and billowing heart were the following: a recent reading of Oscar Wilde’s “A Portrait of Dorian Gray”–because the betrayal of an earnest heart by a vain youth is definitely on the reading list of For the Bourgeoning Melodramtic Homosexual; my need to not be out, because no matter how progressive your town is faggot is still the best word to wound a boy; my well groomed self-loathing bred from long poisonous stares at myself, tempered by multiple methods of self-harm; and the imperative of High School to present an affably calm front.
The figure in Painting didn’t rear its head in the dark, it was already straight shouldered square to me. It couldn’t stare because the man’s face was only a jaw atop a dissolving an putrid flesh bust, covered by a black coat with a crisp white collar. It was a merry killing floor-come-parlor with pink walls, fuschia shades, and a bloody oriental rug, and opened like wings of a muddied swan was the carcass of a cow. Intestines were hung like bunting at the top of the image. Fixed to the lapel of the figure was a glowing yellow flower, possibly a buttercup. I closed the window in horror and for a moment made myself somehow even more silent.
I then needed to find more, more images like this. I fumbled and scattered my fingers to find the keys. I saw twisting white tubes with incisors, broad shoulders left in blue dust, horrors of the religious, and wrestling men. The orange washes, flourid strokes of gold to be hampered by sooty or gangrenous fields; I thought I was worldly, because every sixteen year old does, believing the emotionally distorted face market was cornered by Picasso. There were fluid lines that lead to jagged thoughts. They were something I knew without ever experiencing.
Bruised, pulled loose, ripped or burnished, I saw this oiled skin as I saw my own. It howled like ice tipped wind ripping over sharp bones and loose lumped piles of gut held up somehow. This was my body, not reflected in a particularly beautiful or positive way, but it was how I believed it to be. There was a silent understanding of pain, that it could be released.
Bacon’s life was riddled with specks and stains of grief and isolation, which he attempted to cover with swaths of hedonism and gulps of liquor at infamous places like the Colony Room. His mother was generous but never noticed him, his father was cold. He was thrown out of his home after being caught trying on his mother’s clothing, at 16. After leaving Ireland, there was London, then Berlin under the care of a man his father thought would masculinize him; he proceeded to take advantage of Bacon. He was left in Berlin to his own devices and managed to return to London. After time as a discreet escort, then a furniture and interior designer, he started to paint. Then came more volatile men, more alcohol, more wild. He built acclaim; traveled, Monte Carlo, Tangier, more angry men, married men. Bacon was dominating the art world with vivid depictions of his friends and self, as well as his reinterpretations of papal portraits, the crucifixion and Picasso. In the early 60s his apartment was burglarized by George Dyer. That night they became lovers, their relationship was a tumultuous to say the least, and ended in Dyer’s suicide. That was the kind of life he lived.
A prostitute, an interior designer, a drunk, a painter, if you added hair dresser and florist, Bacon would have been every stereotype, everything we are told gay men must be. As I found our more facts about him I grinned, but not at his pain. I love these things, because he was so incredibly not them. Bacon seems beyond any concept. He was engorged, past joy and sorrow, like he could reach a new feeling and the only way to make it tangible was his paint.
It makes me want to learn more, to watch the film Battleship Potemkin from which he apparently drew inspiration for facial contortions; I want to figure out why he and I prefer to work in clutter, why it may be comforting. I am not like him; I don’t want to be like him, I don’t think I will be. I just know when I saw the work of Francis Bacon there was an obscure kinship, that I am aware only one of the us knows about. Because of him I want to learn more about myself, my process, my pain, how I live and what that does to my life. When I see a Francis Bacon painting now I do not see myself. Instead I have small moment of bliss—for survival, I cherish what was once dark and painful, I paint it with light and sound.
Patrick Gill is the Co-Creator of In Our Words, as well as the Co-Founder and Host of the queer reading series All The Writers I Know. He is a poet, essayist, short story writer and occasional performer. Patrick writes the column “B*tch, I’m Miley Cyrus” for HEAVEMedia, is an alumnus of DePaul, has developed LGBTQ-centered anti-bullying curricula for CPS schools and is currently working on LGBTQ friendly children’s books. Patrick is doing so in order to be cute and endearing once again. He is a semi-professional word-hustler and a burrito hunter. His mother thinks everything he is doing is a fun thing to do.