Squalor, Intoxication, Creation

Theory-fiction exploring the life and work of painter Francis Bacon

The Mews

Slow churning, metal on metal; dog-skull masticating tin cans.

During long inebriated nights, his words, together with this continuous grinding, soundtrack visions of craggy mountainscapes. Distant peaks with flame-red sunset tips blearily confabulated by glazed eyes and nodding heads. At their foot, bared, red rock.

A veneer-framed fire-mountain-scape occupies the top third of a cheap electric fire. Below, the flat illusory panorama blossoms into fully-sculptured coals, cast in translucent plastic and scumbled with soft red and black.

Cracking off this plastic shell as one might prise open an oyster would reveal the source of the interminable rasping; Spitlike there turns a metal rod, sprouting small paddles at regular intervals; their role being to interfere with the light from a bulb now dead and frosted-over with dust, but which would impart to the plastic rocks the illusion of an animated and wholesome blaze.

Further below, as justification for this decrepit artifice, nothing more than a two-bar electric fire: two bars meaning a total of four combinations: No bars, and stay cold (the room loses heat swiftly and regains it slowly). Two bars, and 50p in the meter every evening. One or the other bar—multiple theories exist, yet untested, concerning their relative potency.

God knows where the ugly thing came from. Mind you, the whole fucking place is a dump. Strewn with images and things that might be parts of images: torn edges, fold-marks, stains, burnt-out circles, flashes and pools of pigment, slowly-solidifying emulsions. A butcher’s block for signs. Can’t spot the join between the images and their material environment, or between one image and another. Can’t even see the floor, you just know it’s there, like the canvas beneath the paint. Crucifixions, paralytic children, dogs walking [interrupted], open mouths. Cooked children of Thyestes trussed up in Harrod’s food hall. Not sufficiently surreal!

The front bar, aglow, is afflicted by perfectly circular spots of char-gray where, bending low as if in promethean sacrament, George would light his cigarettes (Not another fucking fag!). As he did so, you would have noticed infernal reflections play on the chitinous hair, slicked over with a substance liable, were he to bend an inch closer, to combust a great deal more enthusiastically and with a more cordial warmth than that fire had ever provided. With his heavy determined grace, the Kray bearing, he would topple back on his polished Bond Street brogues and, at the termination of a smoke-traced arc, set himself back in the chair. But no more, ‘George is no longer. George no more! Boo hoo!’ he plays callous nursery-rhymes with the absence, taunts himself and appals his audience, celebrating something tougher than death, more important than life. Love is the Devil.

‘Idon’treallyknow,’ he retorts dismissively to some imbecile inquiry, taking a further draught of the stuff whose influence imparts the abrupt inkiness to his cavernous gob, the same poison blackening the dank interior and bestowing its wine-dark fluency. In the dark cube of the room this yawing block of head-meat, apparently bereft of an owner, hovers and sways in the dim glow of the speckled bar, a cheshire cat with its teeth smashed in. Pope-robe-purple lips poised on the brink of black concepts. They tremble, they thin in contemplation, they tumesce in silent anticipation, but for a moment nothing tumbles out from the cave. The fire-stirring axle continues to crank. He fixes you with his wavering, milky eye, a crackle of cruelty anticipating the next revelation, the ultimate bon mot which will surely shock ’em: another superficial outrage, mere shadowplay of the obliteration, the utter psychic carnage that would descend…if they only knew.

Only a Drinker

Only a drinker could really know that giddy feeling of a perception not quite staying still for long enough to become a thought, phasing in and out and in as something not exactly the same.
(Robert o’Toole)

Only a drinker could so understand and utilise the power of vague visual suggestion. Staggering out of the Colony Rooms, veering like a breached longship. Vagabond navigation by means of uncertain forms smeared through the vapour of dipso nights. Functioning in below-ground shadow worlds, where men become monsters before your eyes, where smoke-filtered light turns and tricks, making shadows flesh, flesh meat. A world through the champagne glass—as in Maynard’s biopic or ‘study for a portrait’, where glasses and bottles are improvised lenses distending the image into an approximation of its subject’s vision.

But isn’t his masterstroke the inversion of this principle, the deliberate reverse-engineering of reality from from a manufactured smear? A seer and a hunter/tracker as much as a painter. Reading spilt viscera. On the verge of surrendering himself to despair and death in the wilderness. Suddenly spots occult suggestion in a mess of colour (‘…involuntary marks on the canvas which may suggest much deeper ways by which you can trap the fact you are obsessed by.’) Continues the hunt. Borderline paths which may be ‘mere’ fabulations, imagined from the slightest differentiation. Followed, they become real. Recognizably patterned outcomes retrospectively prove the significance of ambiguous omens. Belief in the significance of accident, sincerely felt, will always corroborate itself.

Performing a pissed-up transcendental deduction, he posits the logical necessity of a fantastic reality, given the deliberately corrupted evidence of deranged senses. Kickstarted, the process can’t be stopped. The mess suggests A, so B must be the case. Add B. Repeat until something becomes real.

The Gilded Gutter

The shaman, an outcast no less vital for his existence outside the social framework. A queer aristocrat (never ‘gay’, he disdained the politics of identity, preferring to remain afflicted by his condition) who unacceptably scrambles hierarchies (when working as a ‘gentleman’s gentleman’, he turns his employer apoplectic and gets the sack immediately by appearing one day at the next table at the Ritz—and probably wearing a suit of superior cut too.) It’s not only in the artistic sense that he believes himself to be, of necessity, ‘working outside any tradition’. This was the emerging postwar world of faltering delineations, of barriers melted in the heat of battle and no longer reparable. And in any case the interzones of Soho and Tangiers were prefigurations, futures arrived early, just as in urbanomic drift cities prefigure the future of outlying districts. Peculiarly, when the future arrives this generalised declassification is realised as an attractor-basin of affordable mediocrity rather than as a plane for extreme experimentation, a multitude of roles available for the enjoyment of their differences. This other future, however, persists as a perpetual possibility, a virtual zone.

Gambling also fosters a Heraclitean appreciation of the reversibility of all things, as in the following poignant anecdote:

I remember once in the Ritz going up with a rich man who happened to be in the lift, and he’d been in Soho shopping to buy some peas and new potatioes, and the bag burst, and it all fell on the floor of the lift presumably taking him up to his room, where I imagine he had a little oil stove where he was able to cook the peas and potatoes. Well, that is luxury for a rich man.

It’s entirely due to fortuitious circumstances of life—circumstances that perhaps would have destroyed or reduced to subsistent mediocrity another person—that he becomes able to address the question: What is left for the artist when all the certainties of class, place, hierarchy, and tradition are stripped away?

[O]ne can only want to record one’s own feelings about certain situations as closely to one’s nervous system as one possibly can.

Ersatz orange fire illuminating the crags of his brow, glittering on his tongue as the spit turns relentlessly; in the midst of the most appalling morbid excogitations, the cheap, silly optimism of the nervous system imbues him with cheer, keeps him warm.

A purported ancestor booms out, laughing, in the half-darkness:

It is worthy the observing that there is no passion in the mind of man so weak but it mates and masters the fear of death ; and therefore death is no such terrible enemy when a man hath so many attendants about him that can win the combat of him.