A detail of Triptych August 1972

A tawdry death imitating art

Francis Bacon’s turbulent love for George Dyer is visible on the canvas

On Art

This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

One night in late 1963, Francis Bacon was at his studio at 7 Reece Mews in South Kensington when he heard a loud crash followed by scrabbling noises. He rushed upstairs to find that a burglar had just slipped and tumbled through the skylight.

Bacon confronted him, sized him up and gave him an instant ultimatum: they must have sex there and then or he would call the police. This is how Bacon first met George Dyer, a petty criminal from Borough, just south of the Thames, who would become one of the painter’s great loves.

The most important pictures to emerge from the relationship were painted after Dyer’s death in 1971

At least it is one version of how they met. Lucian Freud offered a rather less picaresque alternative: the pair met in a club and went back to Reece Mews to seal the new acquaintance. Freud added that Bacon expected to be robbed by his casual squeezes — usually it was a watch that went missing. This time, however, Bacon was the recipient: Dyer gave him a gold watch, albeit one he had stolen the night before.

Dyer would go on to feature in some 20 paintings by Bacon, although he never liked them: “I think they’re fuckin’ ’orrible, really fuckin’ orful,” he told Bacon’s friend, Michael Peppiatt. If Bacon believed that “a thing has to arrive at a stage of deformity before I can find it beautiful,” Dyer didn’t. However, perhaps the most important pictures to emerge from the relationship were painted after Dyer’s death in 1971. Then, in mourning, Bacon produced three works, known as the “Black triptychs”, with Dyer, transmuted, in every panel.

The first of them, Triptych August 1972, is currently on show at the Royal Academy’s uncomfortable if stirring exhibition, “Francis Bacon: Man and Beast”. Even fifty years on, it remains an upsetting work. Dyer is shown twice seated, in nothing but his underpants, in front of a black door opening as he appears to melt into a pink puddle on the floor. In the third canvas he is on the ground, either in his death throes or tangled with Bacon as they have sex.

Bacon famously refused to explain his pictures but nevertheless admitted that while he wasn’t trying to express “the sorrow about somebody committing suicide … perhaps it comes through without knowing it”. If so, the visual metaphors — a dark portal to a void, dissolving forms as if life itself is seeping away — seem straightforward enough.

In a second work, Triptych May-June, 1973, they are even more obvious. In its panels, Dyer is shown in the dark of the doorway, sitting on the toilet, retching into a sink, and liquefying into the shape of a black bat. The picture, said the artist, “is in fact the nearest I’ve ever done to a story” because it shows how Dyer was found, dead from alcohol and amphetamines in their hotel bathroom, on the eve of Bacon’s 1971 retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris. Such an exhibition was only the second time that the honour had been granted to a living painter and was supposed to be the crowning moment of Bacon’s career.

By then the relationship between the two men had soured, exacerbated by Dyer’s drinking and drug taking and a series of unpleasant incidents. Dyer, by turns maudlin, possessive and vindictive, had planted cannabis in Bacon’s studio and called the police; in New York he had threatened to hurl himself from a skyscraper — again the police were summoned; and he had thrown Bacon’s furniture down the stairs at Reece Mews, blocking the painter out. As Freud (again) said: “It was awfully tragic, really. Francis stopped fancying him and George was in love with him.”

Bacon seemingly invited Dyer to accompany him to Paris out of pity. He was told of Dyer’s death just before the exhibition opening and went through the full meet-and-greet rigmarole knowing that his lover of nearly 20 years was dead nearby, in the most ignominious of circumstances.

Bacon remained addicted to rough-trade lovers

As added torture, shortly after their relationship began, Bacon had painted Dyer on the toilet as part of an earlier triptych, Three Figures in a Room, 1964 (also in the RA show). He would never know if the conditions of Dyer’s death were a coincidence or some form of mockery or accusation.

Dyer’s death was one of several in Bacon’s circle around the time, including that of his childhood nanny, Jesse Lightfoot, who lived with him in London, ministering to him just as she had when he was a boy. Bacon claimed not to think about it: “because there’s nothing to think about. When it comes, it’s there. You’ve had it.” Nevertheless, a greater morbidity can be sensed in his paintings from that time on.

Bacon remained addicted to rough-trade lovers — a legless Moroccan in Tangier who pushed himself around on a wheeled board, another who interrupted a conversation about Bonnard with an art critic by asking “Are you ready for a thrashin’ yet, Francis?”, and assorted couplings near Tube stations and at rooms-by-the-hour hotels. Even when he was in his eighties Bacon would look at men “as if everything is still to play for”.

These though were transient fancies and did not make it on to canvas the way Dyer had. According to Bacon, “You always have to go too far to get anywhere at all, in art or life.” He did indeed get somewhere with his posthumous triptychs, but it was Dyer who had gone too far.

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