Francis Bacon would swing wildly from giddying highs to the lowest of lows, boisterously proffering to all within earshot at his late night soirees in Paris and London bars and nightclubs his hedonistic views on life. “We come from nothing and go into nothing”, was reportedly a frequent toast. Here Bacon surrounded himself with people from all walks of life, from the upper echelons of society to the seediest of characters, engaging in serious drinking and debauchery - no doubt his feverish way of responding to his tightly gripped anxieties, doubts and fears.
On the eve of his major retrospective in 1971 at the Grand Palais in Paris, Bacon suffered what seemed an incomprehensible loss with the suicide of his lover, George Dyer. It was the artist's highest and perhaps lowest point.
George Dyer and Francis Bacon
But rather than turning his back on Paris after the trauma of Dyer’s death, Bacon returned frequently, staying in the Hotel des Saint-Pères where his lover had died. Bacon it emerged was deliberately feeding his sense of loss and guilt over the death, working through his anguish in a series of paintings dedicated to his dead lover - the paintings celebrating Dyer's life also vividly depicted his death and the distorted, horrid decay and tearing of flesh. (Source: Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon in Your Blood, Bloomsbury, London 2015)
Now over 46 years later, London's Tate Britain - referencing the nineteenth century German philospher Friedrich Nietzsche's book of essays of the same name - has brought together "over 100 works by some of Britain's most celebrated modern artists" in a "landmark exhibition" to explore the ways Bacon, his contemporaries and those that followed in their footsteps captured life on canvas.
Opening on 28 February, 'All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life', features the works of painters in Britain who "strove to represent human figures, their relationships and surroundings in the most intimate of ways". Insightfully, this selection of works by Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, Paula Rego, Walter Sickert and David Bomberg, among others, is curatorially tied together by Nietzsche's themes of immorality, good and evil, master/slave, and debauchery, among others.
Francis Bacon, Three figures and portrait 1975
The death of George Dyer - Francis Bacon, Triptych - August 1972
Francis Bacon in his London studio at 7 Reece Mews, January 1984 Photo: Ulf Andersen
Now as before Bacon's paintings shock. The art critic Robert Hughes previously wrote of Bacon, “This painter of buggery, sadism, dread, and death-vomit has emerged as the toughest, the most implacable, lyric artist in late-twentieth-century England, perhaps in all the world.”
But this exhibition promises something new - in addition to some rarely seen works. Whilst Hughes in his hyperbolic manner lauded Bacon's achievement despite his use of grotesque imagery (and because of it), here Nietzsche's writings give us a sense of the dark, nihilistic psyche of Bacon and his cohorts, the wrought world in which they lived and how they managed to render great art.
Nietzsche opined that life without experiencing emotion is bleak. And while everyone has fears, doubts, and anxieties, the artist tends to react in a different way to the rest of us by embracing life's messiness, and tearing at its imposed moral strictures, as an essential part of their chosen path in life.
Friedrich Nietzsche 1844-1900
"One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star”, Nietzsche observed. “Great art offers us a way of conceptualising our lives as meaningful, if we consider ourselves as the artist who creates our own life’s meaning by taking into consideration both reason and emotion”.
It seems to Neitzsche at least that being an artist provides the truest path to making sense of life and all it throws at us. Neitzsche believed that through art and in life we witness the power of the emotions, the transformative power of “the intoxications of passion”.
Francis Bacon, Portrait of Lucian Freud at Tate Britain
Lucian Freud, Two Women 1992
Paul Rego, Me, Maria and Toulouse
Such passion can be either constructive or destructive and therefore needs to be supported by rationality to avoid falling into an abyss. In this way the fusion between the rational and the emotional self can transform the self, creating an artist and a lover of life.
The task of the artist then is to make sense of it all, bringing together emotion and thought. Experiencing pain, hardship and loss may have disrupted Bacon's world and those close to him, but this darkness was indisputably the source of his great art and gave perhaps an all too human life meaning after all.
‘All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life’ runs until 27 August 2018