Gory love: Francis Bacon and everlasting anguish

Content Warning: drug overdose; grief

Francis Bacon has never been one to shy away from the darkness of the human psyche. With his distinctive painting style often depicting people in anguish, darkness, and other such extreme emotions, his work based on sex unsurprisingly follows in the same vein.

The central panel in Bacon’s ‘Three Studies for a Crucifixion’ triptych (1962) fuses sex and violence. A figure curls up on a bed in the centre of a red and orange room, with black blinds pulled down over three windows. It’s hard to make out the shape of a body through splatters of blood and oozing flesh, but it is distinctly writhing in pain. By conflating images of religion, death and sex through the incorporation of the bed, there is something suitably unsettling about the painting.

Bacon’s best-known lover, George Dyer, with whom he had an incredibly tumultuous relationship, has been immortalised in the painter’s repertoire. With warped features, blood-red cheeks, and sunken eyes, Bacon’s portraits of his lover aren’t far from resembling a decomposing corpse. If anyone suspected that Bacon would smooth the depiction of Dyer because of any lingering affection, they would be wrong. Bacon’s obsession with the violent and visceral bleeds into his portraits of Dyer, and perhaps that is the kindest thing he can do, depicting this man in the most honest way he can.

After Dyer overdosed on alcohol and drugs in Paris in 1971, Bacon’s obsession did not wane. He didn’t avoid addressing the death of his lover in his work; his ‘May – June 1973’ triptych depicts the scene of Dyer’s unbecoming, with three panels showing an agonising descent into darkness. Dyer, painted in slithering greys, browns, and blues, dissolves into shadows framed by dark doorways and red walls. There is nothing tender or delicate about the subject. To confront his own grief, Bacon had to bring Dyer’s death to light in all of its unpleasantry.

Francis Bacon’s work, always raw, always hard to swallow, would naturally depict his relationships in the same way. While his paintings about George Dyer are the most explicit reference to his own personal relationships, his other works often reference sex in a way that is undeniably feral and wholly unromanticised.

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Ally Fowler

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October 2021
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