Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago. Here, Max Porter revisits Francis Bacon’s painting Triptych May–June 1973.
What happens to Ben Lerner, or Ben Lerner’s character in Leaving the Atocha Station, when he has a profound experience of art cannot happen to a person too many times, or it stops being profound. I do not fall in love all the time, and I distrust the cultural vocabulary that insists I should. I’ve looked at a lot of art, and thought deeply about what I’m looking at, how I’m looking at it, and I think only two or three times has it been profound. This might be a failing on my part, and I could strive, like the ecstatic saints, to prolong the jouissance, the sweet heightened encounter. But for now, here is one of those times:
I was seventeen. I was preoccupied with death, with sex and flesh. I was darkly interested, for various reasons, in people who die on the loo, who end their days alone on a cold plastic seat, mid-shit. The death on the toilet is fantastically banal. It is not humiliating because it is gloriously normal, and you are dead. Let your final act be a flinging of limbs, a spreading of waste, a painterly use of the small space, a bravado arrangement of body parts, plumbing parts, white porcelain and red blood. Someone will find you. Someone will deal with your mess. None of it matters to the dead. We are all meat.
I had this quotation, “We are all meat,” pinned to my bedroom wall, because I was going through a phase of obsessing about the work of Francis Bacon. I had his attributed witticism “Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends” pinned next to it. I was doing my school art project on Bacon. I read every book I could find about him. I tried to paint like him (impossible: nobody can paint like him, just—as he discovered—nobody can paint like Velázquez.) I looked at faces and bodies and I splashed paint around. I used combs and toothpicks and turpentine. I drew and drew and drew. I drank, because this was a way to understand him. I thought about sex and violence and the vicious farce of life, because this was a way to understand him.
I went with my mum to the David Sylvester–curated exhibition “Francis Bacon: The Human Body” at the Hayward Gallery in 1998. I must have been excited to go. It was on the South Bank, my favourite place in London. I expected that it would transform my understanding of Bacon. And I would surely get a fucking great grade for my Francis Bacon project.
My mum left me in front of Triptych May–June 1973. An hour later she came back and asked why I hadn’t moved. I could not move, I explained. I could not understand these three huge paintings behind glass. I refused to move until I could begin to understand what was happening here.
I knew the painting depicted a man, George Dyer, Bacon’s lover, dying on the loo. These were facts, and I tried to reconcile them with what I was seeing. A broken, rolling, squashed, organic heap of something, still, on a toilet. Then the purple, intrusive, bruising center panel—the viewer is shoved onto it as if by a drunk thug to be, a pervert voyeur, a prurient judger of naked men dying. I recognized (the nose, the hairline) that this was the same face ripped sideways, attacking or being attacked, spewing from a black monstrous shadow horrifyingly unrelated to the body. It was somehow disgustingly middle, as if these curved clean shadow lines had come to the wrong audition to tell a lurid story. They’re a careful moment of attentive blackness in a windowed world, an architectural violation. I thought, How dare you? And then the right panel, which restores narrative order while flinging the figure, in a rush, in a compositional urge, to vomit into the ghostly bowl. To die. Two white arrows pinned to the surface—very funny; where else would I look?—meaning nothing, meaning flat space, artifice, game, pure picture-making satisfaction. Come. Cum. Don’t get too close.
I wondered how a person capable of such vicious spontaneity with a tool like paint could also be so tender. I wondered how those clean surfaces—the immaculate floor, the perfect deep red walls—were achieved. I thought of the famously messy Reece Mews studio. How so spotless then, here on the wall? Some trickery must be involved. Bacon must be lying to us all about how he makes these things. And the biographical odor creeps around the viewer’s experience and pollutes it, ripens it, makes it grossly more interesting, nudging us against our better judgement into voyeurism. Bacon is quaffing champagne, hearing the terrible news; Bacon is fucking, fighting, selling, lying, twisting the body into these shapes on the canvas; but Bacon is also applying a perfect surface of unblemished oil. He is rigor, control, exactitude, and technical virtuosity.
I hated the glass. How ludicrous, for a sheet of reflective glass to get in the way of me and this challenge. I can see myself, and all I want to see is paint. All I want to see is George. I felt sick that this feeling was roped in to the mechanics of display, art for the public. I felt thrilled that it was. I felt lightheaded with gratitude and curiosity. This work is fit for purpose, I felt. This furious truthful work is an affront to all liars and cheaters and deniers. This work is for the bombed world, the abused world, the shamed and humiliated and lied-to world. For lovers. I was seventeen, and this was a profound experience of art.
Max Porter is the author of Grief Is the Thing with Feathers.