Dr. Michael Peppiatt is an internationally renowned art historian, scholar, and curator. He was a close friend to Francis Bacon for over 30 years and is the author of over 20 books, including the definitive biography of Francis Bacon, Anatomy of an Enigma. His latest, critically acclaimed book, Francis Bacon in Your Blood, was published by Bloomsbury in 2015.
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In the Post-war and Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 11 February in London, Christie’s will offer Two Figures, a self-portrait conjoined with the figure of George Dyer that stands as a tribute to Bacon’s great muse and lover. Dyer’s tragic death in 1971 gave rise to some of Bacon’s most powerful work, including the four acclaimed ‘Black Triptychs’. Michael Peppiatt, who acquired Two Figures directly from Bacon, spoke with Stephen Jones in New York.
Stephen Jones: You first met Francis Bacon as a 20-year-old. You were a student at Cambridge University who had decided to shake things up on one of the student magazines by interviewing a modern artist. What can you tell us a about that meeting?
Michael Peppiatt: This might give you some idea of how innocent and ill-prepared I was: a friend said, ‘If you want to do an issue of this magazine’ — which was called Cambridge Opinion — ‘on modern art in Britain, you’d better go and talk to Francis Bacon.’ I said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous. That’s an Elizabethan statesman.’
It was 1963 and Bacon had just had his first exhibition at the Tate Gallery. This friend of mine knew somebody who was close to Bacon, who was a bit of a terrifying figure. I have to say, in retrospect, if I’d seen his paintings before going to meet him, I probably wouldn’t have gone. But I did and turned up in a pub in Soho to try and meet this photographer friend of Bacon’s called John Deakin. Suddenly, I saw a small man was sitting just behind me, on a stool by the bar. He was talking in an exaggeratedly posh, camp voice, and waving his cigarette holder about.
Michael Peppiatt (left) and Stephen Jones in conversation at Christie’s New York alongside Two Figures, 1975, which is offered in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction at Christie’s London on 11 February
What were your first impressions of him?
I was a bit overawed. He was very, very charming. He knew how to talk to young people, and he was very seductive. He made out that he and I were talking at the same level. He never, ever talked down to people, unless he disliked somebody, and then he could talk down to them very, very effectively. Basically, if he liked you, he drew you out and drew you in.
He was an extraordinarily charged kind of person. When you were with him, the atmosphere tended to go up. He had such a sense of life, and such vitality. He was clearly very intelligent, but also he had this resilience — he was able to drink all day and all night, have a couple of hours sleep, and then be up the next morning, painting.
What was your reaction when you first saw his art?
I was horrified, totally horrified! I couldn’t square these images, which seemed to be of horror, of pain, of guilt and of every sort of negative emotion, with this charming, chuckling boulevardier who just seemed to walk through walls from one place to another, from one bar into another.
Francis Bacon and George Dyer, Soho, 1950s (gelatin silver print), Deakin, John (1912-1972) / Private Collection / Photo © Christie's Images / Bridgeman Images
When you saw the paintings, did you like them? Did you understand them?
No, I didn’t like them at all. But because I was studying art history at Cambridge, I knew some of his sources, and he was illuminating when he talked about his work. I came to realise that he was talking about a venerable tradition and literally giving it a twist to make it relevant to his own time.
At what point did this friendship become something more long lasting?
To begin with, it was chaotic. The interview I was doing just went on and on. I kept turning up, and then we kept going out and drinking far too much. We used to meet at midday, and then it would go on until about four or five in the morning. The conversation went on, really, for 30 years.
We talked often, just the two of us, late into the night. I was very moved by a lot of this, because I saw the extraordinary freedom that he lived his life with, the way he was always pushing the boundaries back and questioning everything.
It was quite a scary experience, and sometimes things went a bit wrong and in some of the bars there were dangerous situations, let’s say. He was very good at pushing a situation as far as it would go, and then somehow managing to get out of the the danger that he had created.
Francis Bacon and George Dyer on the Orient Express to Athens, 1965 (gelatin silver print), Deakin, John (1912-1972) / Private Collection / Photo © Christie's Images / Bridgeman Images
How did he go about explaining his art to you?
He’d say things like, ‘What I’m trying to do is give the sensation over as directly as possible’. He had this sense of life and of death, and I think that’s why I found it so horrific. I’m not sure so many people find it horrific now, but then it was so new.
In London people were still coming out of the nightmare the immediate postwar period. We can see the beauty of the painting now, but it at the time it was so violent, so radical. The violence really was the force of the new.
George Dyer became a very important figure in Bacon’s life, both personally and professionally. The relationship between Bacon and Dyer may be what produced some of this fantastic art…
Bacon was attracted to something as sexually different from himself as possible: muscular young men who he thought were dangerous criminals. George looked the part, even though as a crook he’d been quite unsuccessful. He was always in prison although in reality he was quite a timid soul. Part of the tragedy is that Bacon took George out of that life by giving him enough money not to have to steal. For George, he got into this this very sophisticated world of Bacon’s and really lost his footing.
Francis Bacon photographed with his Triptych, 1976, at Galerie Claude Bernard, Paris, 1977. Photo John Minihan/Evening Standard/REX Shutterstock. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2016
Dyer, as your book depicts so well in the passage on Bacon’s first big Paris exhibition at the Maeght Gallery in 1966, didn’t really care for the art crowd…
Bacon was always very amused by the fact that George didn’t rate [these people]; he felt a certain truth there. George was always upsetting things and Bacon enjoyed that; he liked barriers to be broken.
What I find interesting from the book is you get a sense of Bacon as being a very jovial figure socially, and yet the work he was producing at this time is incredibly dark, almost tortured. How do you account for that dissonance?
I can’t account for it, really. I don’t pretend to know. I think Bacon was somebody who was stretched between extremes. He could be extremely generous, and unbelievably mean. He could be very supportive and unbelievably critical and destructive.
We see the paintings as dark because they come over with this incredible force. It’s why a Bacon painting never disappears — it’s always there, you’re always conscious of a presence. I lived with Three Heads for about 20 years when I was living and writing in Paris. I could never stare them down. Somehow, he managed to transmit this force into his paintings.
Francis Bacon (1909–1992), Two Figures, 1975. Oil on canvas. 77 5/8 × 27 3/4 in. (197.2 × 70.3 cm.) Estimate: £5,000,000-7,000,000. This work is offered in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction at Christie’s London on 11 February
This painting of George Dyer was done in 1975, four years after Dyer committed suicide. Can you talk us through Two Figures, and where you think it fits within that period of Bacon’s grieving and recovery?
How do you paint death? How do you paint loss? How do you paint guilt in a way that isn’t sentimental? In a terrible way, George’s death gave Bacon the great subject of his painting. It was about loss, about grief, about guilt, because he felt guilty that he hadn’t managed to save George from killing himself.
George had attempted suicide several times, and Bacon had managed to get him to hospital, but since his big exhibition opening at the Grands Ballets in Paris, he hadn’t been available.
What followed George’s death was four years of painting, almost without interruption. These were very dark paintings, and this is where he begins to come to terms with his loss, and remembers a particularly intimate moment with George. So it’s remembering, in a sense — a passion, a certain happiness of the past. A happiness lost.
Bacon did a bigger picture, of which this one-half. I first had the complete picture, and then he came round to my flat in Paris one day and said, ‘If I could get my hands back on that, you know, I think I could make it so much better.’ I said, ‘Well, you know, you must take it back then.’
He thought it was too narrative, and he wanted to cut it in two, and make two paintings out of it. It happened to me more than once in that he’d see something that he’d given me, and then want to take it back to ‘improve’ it. Very often I wouldn’t see it again.
It’s only with hindsight that these things take on importance. It didn’t occur to me that I’d be standing here 40 years later, talking about it.
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