Born in Dublin, but a swift exodus through Europe brought him to Poland Street, Soho (the old, distinctly old Soho), to Queensbury Mews West (South Kensington rather than North), to 7 Cromwell Place, finally landing (for good now) on Reece Mews. Francis Bacon. An older London, distinctly old and definitely gone. He would paint many of his major works in the studio, a converted horse stable, on Reece Mews. That studio a prototype for offshore Chinese and Saudi investors frightened by fluctuations of market and grasping for the solidity of mortar and stone. Duplexes in South Kensington lined up, unoccupied, no major works gathering no dust.
When interrogated about the “disturbing” nature of his work, Bacon responds, “What horror could I make that could compete with what goes on every single day? If you read the newspapers, if you look at television, if you know what’s going on in the world…what could I do that competes with the horrors going on?” Only, he didn’t mean it, he thought he did compete, tried to compete. Thought what he saw in people (meat-pain) was in all people, was why they were what they were. Now there is something quaint about the delirium tremens proto-psychedelica of high society gentlemen. Not so horrible to be an alcoholic out and gambling in the West End, out at the members-only Colony Room (future echoes of the members-only Shoreditch House in Soho, now perched over East London like a threat). Hangovers exorcised through non-figurative painting, subjects looking like slabs of meat looking out of a butcher’s shop window, looking like Bacon probably felt after a long night of holding court over champagne, cigarettes and g-and-t’s. In his Guardian-sanctioned recollection of the great man, Michael Peppiatt recalls that Bacon would repeat “We come from nothing and go into nothing,” over and over again to his drinking buddies, a high society injunction to enjoy. Bacon, escaped from nasty mother’s Irish cupboard where he was locked up when he misbehaved, is too eager to launch himself into a better life, to make up for lost time.
Indeed, his paintings never left that cupboard, happening upon the claustrophobic horse stable on Reece Mews as a fair enough approximation (he never went far enough East nor far enough South - Barking and Croydon - to see the horror that would finally end up on the news - the horror he wouldn’t be able to compete with). All of Bacon’s smudged figures exist in an undefined dark space, on display even as they seem to be in process of disappearing, the satanic inverse of the galleries he would be displayed in, a “haptic void.” We are displaying meat, we are displaying pain, we are displaying other people’s souls - this is what his paintings say.
And yet - what do we learn from re-evaluating Bacon’s work in contemporary London, this new city, where the members-only Colony Room is shuttered, where Soho is a film set for tourists and bankers and poisonous shots of espresso, and all artists have been forced out to coast. What London now says: Bacon would have been an Essex-man in Brexit Britain. South Kensington even worse than Soho - no restaurants or boutique outfitters. Just endless rows of empty flats, fake cobwebs on windows around Halloween accidental reminders that there is, in fact, no one home.
Bacon’s Pope, the three little dictators “at base of crucifixion,” now quaint, Richard-III-style villains, easily identified in the crepuscular meat market in which Bacon lays them out. What about the slow, insidious movement of money away from people and the gradual decolonization of London as prices rise and rise (and rise)? Didn’t see this from inside of his oyster-shell. Reece Mews was the past and he didn’t know it yet. What about Don DeLillo’s vision of Eric Parker in Cosmopolis, the brilliant trader gridlocked in limo through Manhattan on way to haircut? A new liminal space, a movement out of Bacon’s paintings into a much fresher hell. A cast of service people moving through Parker’s car, stripped bare, not to soul or meat, but to their ability to make more money for the man. These are the men buying the paintings now; in Cosmopolis, Eric Parker tries to buy the Rothko Chapel in Texas for his apartment. When he is told that the chapel “belongs to the world,” he replies, “it’s mine if I buy it.” London as a Rothko Chapel and Bacon could only see the future price tags of his paintings. How about $142 million for the three studies of Lucian Freud stuck up on wall of penthouse apartment, hung up just for people to jeer at hungover pain?
Bacon’s pain is real and speaks to us. Speaks to me. But is only champagne-death of one tortured man in one cupboard exported from Dublin and blown out to encompass an ex-stable. What if we could see Bacon’s pain on a total level? Could blow the whole rotten game wide open and see the city, ugly with money, uglier than the paintings, the buildings, the new members-only clubs… A class of Bacon’s has given way to hungover start-up blokes, casual in their button-up shirts and chelsea boots, no brogues to be seen, coming up with ever more invasive social media apps, more expansive technologies… Never mind the cutting floor of Bacon’s artistic eye, we have Facebook. We have the City of London. Parker says to his interlocutor, “it’s mine if I buy it,” and so have they bought up London, Paris and New York and pushed the peasants out of these “cruise ships” onto old-world eggshell islands. And social media moguls looking at Bacon’s meathook men in hedge fund friend’s apartment overlooking Thames (there’s the Shard, there’s the Isle of Dogs, suits who made bad bets weighing themselves down to riverbed with rocks) and social media mogul, staring at Bacon, saying, “we could really do something with this.”
I’m standing outside 7 Reece Mews, steady English drip, no Strongbow cans in street - here, it’s all clean. Foxton’s “Let” and “To Let” signs all down the street. No people to be seen. Where is this total horror in Bacon’s work? Where is this empty world? Bacon, surely, never read Ballard. Four houses down, a realtor, woman in suit, shows group of people into house, standard clipboard under armpit. Far Eastern syllables out onto street. Sounds of glottal stops or sound of money. A new incentive for real estate developers: recruit international - the English can’t speak their second languages.
Put the people who run our world onto Bacon’s chopping block and the paintings that come out would make the old gin blossom’s finger paintings look sweet, a nostalgia project, foreign buyers posing for Facebook picture at foot of Big Ben before heading to apartment-investment tour, Winston Churchill scowling on a plastic fiver.
by Max Lawton
Images for this article are of the works of Francis Bacon as photographed by Flickr user centralasian, stylized cea +, used according to Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic, allowing for the commercial usage and modification of said images.