A mong his many talents, Francis Bacon had an outstanding gift for friendship. He was naturally gregarious, and after a short spell in pub or bar, aided by his charm and promptness to pay for all the drinks, he would not fail to make a variety of new acquaintances. Such chance encounters rarely went further, but most of Bacon’s real friendships lasted for decades, however demanding or unpredictable the artist became. These trusty companions stuck with him through thick and thin because they knew they would never meet anyone who could replace his electrifying presence in their lives.
Lucian Freud knew this better than anyone. A dozen years younger than Bacon, he was barely starting out when the two first met at the end of World War Two - just around the time that Bacon was gaining notoriety for his nightmarish triptych, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944). If Freud, like most young artists, needed a mentor, then he found an exceptional one in the more sophisticated yet determinedly rebellious Bacon. For his part, the older artist welcomed the quick-witted vitality of the great Sigmund Freud’s grandson, to say nothing of his striking good looks. That the two of them could discuss every aspect of art from antiquity onwards, as well as their own aesthetic aims and practice, provided a firm basis for friendship that was enhanced by a shared love of gambling, gossip and life on the wild side.
Before long the two artists seemed more engrossed in each other than they did in their lovers, dining together in Soho before moving on to such legendary clubs as the Gargoyle and the Colony Room - although Freud avoided the epic quantities of alcohol that Bacon consumed. It followed quite naturally that they each wanted to portray the other, even if their approach to portraiture could hardly have been more different, with Freud working directly from a sitter for weeks on end in delicate, minutely applied brushstrokes, and Bacon preferring to paint impulsively from photographs in thick swathes of violently contrasting colour. Once Bacon had made his first painting of Freud (a full-length figure drawn partly from a photograph of Franz Kafka) in 1951, Freud riposted the following year with a sensitively revealing head of Bacon in oil on copper, which became notorious for having been stolen (and never recovered) in 1988. Freud made a few further sketches of Bacon, while the older artist, in his no-holds-barred manner, went on to capture his young friend in a series of small and large formats, single panels and triptychs – as well as a diptych pairing him with Isabel Rawsthorne, another stalwart member of Bacon’s entourage – that amounted to some sixteen pictures.
The frequency and inventiveness of these portraits remain the best testimony to this unusual intimacy between two fiercely ambitious painters. When the relationship began, Bacon clearly dominated Freud with his exuberant confidence and spectacular generosity. Evening after evening, after the two of them had dined on caviar and vintage champagne, Freud would pick up the bill, then pretend to faint sideways while Bacon chuckled and paid, adding a huge tip. Since he earned considerably more from his pictures, Bacon could also bail Freud out when creditors for his gambling debts turned nasty. As time passed, however, Bacon began to resent Freud’s growing success, becoming harshly and openly critical of his work. Freud, meanwhile, never intended to remain in thrall to anyone, however infatuated with Bacon’s personality and achievements he had been; he also refused to lend the magnificent Bacon picture he owned, Two Figures (known familiarly as ‘The Buggers’), to Bacon’s key exhibitions. Slowly the friendship started to unravel until, as they were increasingly lauded as Britain’s most exceptional artists, the two men ceased not only to meet but even to speak to each other.
Bacon’s sudden focus on painting small-scale heads of friends and lovers – rather than on his previous, grander themes of crucifixions, popes and lone figures trapped in despair – coincided with meeting one of the great loves of his life, George Dyer. Perhaps this new intimacy led the artist to this comparatively domestic genre, in which he quickly developed such extraordinary virtuosity that today a Bacon portrait is as recognizable as an El Greco or a Van Gogh. All Bacon’s inner circle, including the artist himself, was subjected to the barrage of paint marks that distort and obliterate their appearance while recomposing it with such instinctive skill that there is also no doubt as to who the subject is. In Three Studies for Portrait of Lucian Freud (1964), the battered head weaves in and out of its own confusion like a punch-drunk boxer, bringing up its hand in the central panel as if to fend off the attack. Having survived the onslaught, he reels back into the picture frame more unmistakably Freud than ever.
Although Bacon regularly practiced what he himself called this ‘injury’ on friends and lovers in the solitude of his studio, he never explained why he felt impelled to destroy what was, after all, closest to him. Nor has anyone come up with a satisfactory answer since. One might hazard the guess that, given the artist’s own predilection for sadomasochistic sex, this was for him like the act of love transposed, a passionate search for the other that knew no bounds. The savagery that Bacon metes out also harks back clearly to his own great mentor, Picasso, who delighted in pulling the human frame apart, then recreating it in shocking combinations that changed the way mankind could be perceived.
In this portrait of his friend and confidant, his fellow painter and gambler (with life and love), Bacon gives free rein to his lust for pulling things apart like a child to see more clearly what they look like inside – the secret mechanism that makes them tick. In so doing, radically and pitilessly, Bacon achieved the seemingly impossible: renewing the ancient, revered tradition of portraiture that had lost its relevance to the art of photography. Earlier in the century, Ezra Pound suggested that ‘The age demanded an image/Of its accelerated grimace’. From Bacon’s tortured heads, that grimace arose and still hovers over the shattered post-war world as a haunting reminder of its fragility.