Culture Trips

‘Francis Bacon was my guy’: Max Porter on his life-long obsession with the artist | Max Porter

If I were to visit a floor plan of my artist obsessions and wander from room to room, there would be artists I will always have deep feelings for, the ones who provoke or engage especially, some for whom my affections have cooled, some I ought to revisit, some whose work is sewn organically to life experience and therefore exerts a nostalgic tug and some I’ve gone right off. Deep in this imaginary place is a bloody chamber, a dimensionless room full of bodies. A place I want to escape from, and a place I yearn to be back in. This room is my long and uneasy obsession with the paintings of Francis Bacon.

I can’t resist the urge to ruffle the feathers of another baggage-heavy dead icon and re-examine his screaming masterworks. Gorgeous, horrifying images ripped from the book of unspeakable 20th-century brutality. Maybe it’s to try to remind myself that it’s not over, that he was on to something, that the clock is nearer to midnight now than it was then, and in some ways we seem past caring. Behind our wipe-clean screens the snarling reality of ecological collapse, exploitation, injustice, the human tendency towards industrial violence and cruelty is bloodier than ever. More than ever, despite our futile efforts, as Bacon says: “We are all meat.”

I was a slightly death-obsessed child. I read Raymond Briggs’s nuclear war fable When the Wind Blows again and again and couldn’t see any of us making it far into the 21st century. I was a committedly death-obsessed teenager, discovering shame, rage, seeking out work that acknowledged or interrogated abjection. This is normal, surely? Straight-off-the-shelf guilty middle-class teenager of the almost Donnie Darko days. I was finding out about the western world, about colonialism, torture, the Holocaust, the Inquisition, so Bacon was my guy.

Bacon in his studio.
Bacon in his studio. Photograph: Graham Wood/ANL/REX/Shutterstock

Bacon’s paintings seemed more honest, that was all (and I’ve wrestled with that, given the various forms of representational dishonesty that are at work). They pushed through the artifice or fakery that I felt was prevalent, inherent, in the great grinning and shopping and jogging industry of denial. The pictures seemed, more than anything else, to be telling the truth about the brief ludicrous reign of animal terror, human life. Bacon was ripping the artificial skin off things. He knew – as an interiors man – how to make a scene pop, how to drag a viewer in, how to go from calculable damage on the surface to inexplicable lushness in the depths.

Max Porter.
Max Porter. Photograph: Stephen Shepherd/The Observer

I remember a snooty someone saying, “Of course you’re into Bacon”, as if it was an excruciatingly basic position, to be into Bacon. I flinched for the first of a countless thousand times at cultural snobbery even as I relished the wings of my own snobbery unfolding (very Bacon-esque, this blend of revulsion and egoism), equating taste and intelligence and reconciling them with passion, with pain. The comment also nudged me even further into Bacon, into the loneliness of being misunderstood, the uncoolness of being into one of the most famous painters working in England. This led me to read books about Bacon, obsessively, to wallow in the company of other obsessives, and of Bacon himself, a great talking orchestrator of his own myth. Of course he has attracted extraordinary writers, perhaps more than most painters, but I found I was losing not gaining ground on the paintings the more I read about them, as if explanation was bleeding them dry.

One morning in the first lockdown, I sat down and thought I’d try to write about Bacon in a way that replicated, or approached, the complexity, sudden grandeur and grisly corporeality of the paintings. I started by setting aside some of the familiar ways in which his work is discussed or contextualised, but I didn’t bin them altogether (you can’t with a self-made saint like Bacon, because they’re accurate, they’re right there, shallow, naked in the repetitions, meaning just what they mean). I wanted a kind of ecstatic democracy of ingredients (art, accidents, interruptions of illness, materials, practicalities of making, noise, sex, gossip, myth, daydream and so on, infinite in every direction just as looking at a painting can be) and I wanted it fractured by the dying mind failing, grabbing at things, a sort of image maker’s requiem.

My book The Death of Francis Bacon has an acceptance of its own hybridity built in, because we all know a painting is a painting and a book is a book. We all know what artifice is, from syntax to brushstroke, but we are still committed to truth and feeling. So the book is an essay, a poem, a fantasia, a dinner party skit, a play for two actors, a high camp polyphonic attempt at translation, a love letter to this most European of artists. Fidelity to the original, or to any official agreed “meaning” in Bacon’s work, would be a futile (although pleasingly masochistic) ambition. It is designed to slip in and out of different registers, which is likely to enrage some readers, but I hope this gets it slightly closer to looking than reading. As all art lovers know, deeper satisfaction is gained from longer looking, but also different types of looking, swivelling between bombardment, glance, immersion, way back, close up, from a room away, from a decade ago. From remembering and misremembering, letting images plant themselves in the water table of your consciousness to take root over time.

Many better writers than I have written about the mysteries of art and seeing. I think it’s fair to say that some of the best writing ever has been about art. My book doesn’t claim to add anything to that, rather it uses fiction as mongrel accomplice to barge over the line and jump in, like Katie in James Mayhew’s picture books for children where a child goes into famous paintings and the paintings also spill out into her world. What would it smell like, tiptoeing between the taut skin-panels of one of those big triptychs? Can prose be more painterly than literary, at what cost, and how? What would it be like to lie underneath one of those weird unfolded, spilling sofas and feel the weight of the figure, the gaze of the painter? What would it sound like? What is the squirming unpicked body doing while the background is being filled in? What is the chat, the image-pulse, the residue of a Bacon painting’s inner energy? At what speed does a magpie recycler and virtuoso handler of pigment attack or quote himself? Who is in there with him? Or is it terribly lonely? These are the questions I wanted to wrestle with, and the death bed seemed the perfect scene. A famous painter in a clinic. Madrid. Unfinished. Man dying.

• The Death of Francis Bacon by Max Porter is published by Faber

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