Francis Bacon In Your Blood

John Reed reviews Michael Peppiatt’s new memoir about the twentieth-century painter

When Michael Peppiatt, at 21, met Francis Bacon, the 53-year-old artist was already all artifice, well spoken when well rehearsed, his bistro doctrines applauded by clinking glasses. Peppiatt, having taken over a student arts journal at Cambridge, had shown up in London’s Soho. It was 1963, and Peppiatt laid claim to but a tenuous introduction to the renowned painter he sought. At the bar of the French House, the youth was handled by the photographer John Deakin, who loudly advised: “My dear, you should consider that the maestro you mention has as of late become so famous that she no longer talks to the flotsam and jetsam. . . . I fear she wouldn’t even consider meeting a mere student like you!”

Deakin’s proclamation turned the heads of the patronage, and a man called back, offering Peppiatt a chair. It was Bacon; Deakin had made an artful introduction, and Peppiatt, however accidentally, had found his apprenticeship. Over the next 30 years, Peppiatt would emerge as a critic, curator and publisher, and ultimately Bacon’s biographer. Joining Bacon for his nightly rounds, from restaurants to clubs, Peppiatt would ply Bacon with “interview” questions — a writer challenging the bromides of his celebrity subject. “Francis Bacon in Your Blood,” arriving some 20 years after Peppiatt’s seminal biography, “Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma,” is the result, a gouache découpé of a friend, against a background of art history.

As of the 1960s, and Peppiatt’s arrival in Soho, the landscape of Cold War painting had been thoroughly mapped; Pablo Picasso’s new way of seeing had been assimilated; Surrealism was as familiar as an old show tune; Abstract Expressionism had been packaged for global export; and Existentialism had been offered in abridgment, Jean-Paul Sartre advising that we act and Jack Kerouac advising that we be. In its historical place, Bacon’s aesthetic was both courageous and compromising. His paintings nestled in the between — not quite abstraction, Surrealism, Cubism or representation. At the same time, Bacon vociferously objected to the direction his contemporaries had taken. “Jackson Pollock?” asked Bacon. “Oh are you talking about the old lace maker?”

If Abstract Expressionism saw Bacon as timid, Bacon’s response was sanguine. His life’s mantra, which he might have proclaimed almost brightly, was: “Nothing. Nada. Just nada, nada.” With their spooky appeal, Bacon’s images summoned carcasses on hooks like the ones that prompted him, after a bloody meal of chops and trotters, to tell Peppiatt: “Life’s just like that. We’re all on our way to becoming dead meat. And when you go in that restaurant . . . you see the whole cycle of life and the way everyone lives off everything else. And that’s all there is.” [Read More]

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