A portrait of the artists as a pair of young wastrels

Outsiders, gamblers, brawlers: Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon had a volatile friendship which flourished wildly but ended badly

Jeffrey Meyers

In 1945 Lucian Freud asked Graham Sutherland to name the greatest living English painter and to Freud’s surprise he named Francis Bacon. Sutherland then introduced them and initiated a close but volatile friendship — based on similar temperaments, social life and art — that lasted for 30 years.

Both artists had a distinguished lineage, but different attitudes toward their background. Bacon was descended from his namesake, the eminent philosopher and statesman who, as Lord Chancellor under James I, was charged with corruption, dismissed from office and imprisoned. Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man described the fall of great figures from high office: “If parts allure thee, think how Bacon shin’d / The wisest, brightest, meanest of mankind.” Alluding to Pope’s poem but leaving out the devastating “meanest”, Freud called his friend, who was certainly not wise, “the wildest and wisest man he had ever met”. Bacon, descended from the intellectual nobility, did not value his ancestry. Lucian, the grandson of Sigmund Freud, was extremely proud of his heritage.

Both men were outsiders in London: Bacon was born in Dublin, Freud in Berlin. They came to England in boyhood and kept noticeable accents. Both had been threatened by an early death: Bacon had near-fatal asthma and continued to wheeze; Freud had escaped from the Holocaust. Both were mad about horses — Bacon’s father bred them — and as boys they had hero-worshipped the grooms. At Dartington Hall school Freud — like Gulliver after escaping from the Yahoos — slept in the stables with the horses, and also rode the most dangerous ones. Freud’s teenaged sculpture of a thick-limbed, three-legged horse, bent into the shape of a horseshoe, won him a place in a London art school, and he later painted several horses.

Both artists were compulsive gamblers. Freud explained this mad attraction in an equine metaphor: “The excitement is like nothing else: galloping home on the straight . . . I’m stimulated by debt . . . The only point of gambling is to have the fear of losing and when I say losing I mean losing everything. It has to hurt.” When completely cleaned out, he was free to return to his other obsession: his art: “When I lost everything — which was quite often, since I’m so impatient (except with working, where patience isn’t quite the point) — I always thought, Hooray! I can go back to work.” After William Acquavella became his art dealer in 1992, he agreed to settle Freud’s staggering gambling debts, which amounted to £2.7 million.

Both Bacon and Freud were extravagant spenders who, when flush, carried and dispersed thick wads of cash. For a long time Freud was financially dependent on Bacon’s generous subsidies. He would pull out a thick pack of £50 notes and casually declare, “I’ve got rather a lot of these, I thought you might like some of them.” After Freud had married the wealthy heiress Caroline Blackwood, he reciprocated by using her money to finance Bacon’s trip to the fleshpots of Tangier.

To the young and impressionable Freud, Bacon (13 years older) was a tempestuous, flamboyant and charismatic model. He embodied Nietzsche’s dynamic amoralism and defied all the rules of conventional behaviour. Both artists were charming, shameless and cruel, and revelled in what Bacon called an “atmosphere of threat”. Often on the run or hiding out, they led priapic private lives: Bacon was homosexual, Freud hetero. Mixing in high and low society, consorting with royalty and criminals, they patronised louche Soho drinking clubs, the Gargoyle and the Colony, where Bacon wittily toasted: “Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends.”

Both were violent and belligerent battlers. At the slightest provocation, Freud would punch people who annoyed him. Bacon, who liked to be beaten up, once seduced a Cockney burglar who broke into his studio in the middle of the night. George Dyer remained his most important lover until he committed suicide in 1971. Though Bacon encouraged punch-ups all his life, he ironically gave Freud lessons in polite deportment. He asked his friend why he always got into fights, suggested he adopt a less abrasive manner, and urged him to “use your charm”.

The artists were inseparable in the 1950s and 1960s. They exhibited together at the Venice Biennale in 1954, which included Freud’s great portrait of Bacon, and travelled to Paris to see the Ingres centennial exhibition in 1967. Caroline Blackwood declared, in a misleading statement frequently quoted in books on Freud, “I had dinner with Bacon nearly every night for more or less the whole of my marriage to Lucian” from 1953 to 1957. This was a considerable exaggeration, since she and Freud spent a year in Paris during their marriage, but suggests Bacon’s omnipresence in their lives. Michael Peppiatt reports that Freud and Bacon attended a notorious postwar London ball “at which Princess Margaret seized the microphone to sing Cole Porter songs to a captive audience until a fearlessly derisive Bacon booed so loudly she was forced to flee” from an audience both appalled and relieved.

On one occasion, writes Andrew Sinclair, during a dinner at Wheeler’s in Soho, Bacon “came into the restaurant declaring that he had heard from his doctor that his heart was in tatters and was hardly functioning. Rarely had such a diseased organ ever been examined. If he touched another drink, his useless heart would fail. He then ordered a bottle of champagne, and then another bottle and another . . . [Freud and Blackwood] took the diagnosis seriously and believed that Bacon would soon be dead, but he went on drinking prodigiously until his eighties.” After Freud’s marriage broke up, mainly destroyed by his ruinous gambling, Bacon worried that his severely depressed friend might commit suicide and urged his pals to keep a close watch on him.

Bacon and Freud also had important artistic similarities. Both worked in filthy and chaotic studios. At a time when abstract art was dominant, they opposed the prevailing fashion by creating figurative paintings that convey emotional intensity. Their portraits did not attempt to reproduce the actual appearance of the models, but revealed their essential characters. But their methods of work and styles of painting were very different. Distracted by models in his studio, Bacon preferred to paint alone and used photographs of his subjects. Freud observed, “I could never put anything into a picture that wasn’t actually there in front of me.” Wyndham Lewis called Bacon “a Grand Guignol artist: the mouths in his heads are unpleasant places, evil passions make a glittering white mess of the lips”. Employing intuitive spontaneity and whirling brushwork, Bacon declared, “If anything ever does work in my case, it works from that moment when consciously I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Freud was impressed by Bacon’s reckless use of newspapers and rags, the wooden end of his brush and even his hands to smear the details and express the passion in his work. Astonished by and unable to compete with Bacon’s productivity, Freud recalled, “Sometimes I’d go round in the afternoon and he’d say, ‘I’ve done something really extraordinary today.’ And he’d done it all in that day. Amazing.” Comparing his early work to Bacon’s, Freud noted that his friend’s art “related immediately to how he felt about life. Mine on the other hand seemed very laboured.”

Bacon, whose blurred faces were both a caress and an assault, painted the brutality of fact. Freud, who created anguished but exquisitely delineated figures, was the Ingres of Existentialism. Influenced by his Germanic heritage and the precise linear tradition of Holbein and Dürer, the young Freud established his ambience and mood with slow and patient scrutiny, with meticulous detail and riveting attention. His masterpieces, the high point of his career before he changed his style, were his 1952 portraits of Caroline Blackwood, which are as sensuous and stunning as Botticelli’s Venus.

Bacon had achieved fame decades before Freud and impressed the younger artist by his work and the force of his personality. Freud later remembered Bacon “as the man who amused and excited [him] by talking about paint carrying the form and packing a lot of things into a single brush-stroke”. In order to paint as fluently as Bacon, Freud stopped drawing and changed to a thicker and more painterly style of clashing brush strokes. Sebastian Smee notes that the influence occasionally went both ways. Bacon, “insecure about his own lack of facility as a draftsman, was also eager to learn what he could from his younger friend”.

Bacon painted 19 portraits of Freud, 14 of them between 1964 and 1971 modelled on photographs by his friend John Deakin. Bacon’s earlier Portrait of Lucian Freud (1951) was based on a photograph of the young Franz Kafka in Max Brod’s biography. Bacon portrays Freud with tiny eyes, thick chin and bangs of hair hanging down the forehead of his long narrow face. Wearing a dark suit and tie, standing in front of a doorway and casting a dark shadow on the white foreground, Freud looks like a criminal lurking on a dark street in a Hollywood film noir.

The painting doesn’t look like either Kafka or Freud. Smee asserts, “What Kafka had to do with Freud is impossible to say.” But it is possible to see, as Bacon did, Freud’s significant resemblance to Kafka, who died two years after the artist was born. Both the Kafka and Freud families came from cities — Prague and Vienna — in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. Both men were thin, handsome, Jewish, German-speaking, avant-garde artists, who felt (in Freud’s words) that “the task of the artist is to make the human being uncomfortable.” Like Kafka, Freud assaults and disturbs the sensibilities of his audience. Freud dismissively recalled this portrait: “I sat for one picture, and I thought it was pretty good a bit before the end, then he spoilt it.”

In 1964 Bacon painted a divided two-panel Double Portrait of Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach, pairing Freud with his Berlin-born fellow émigré and close friend. Both, in white T-shirts and no trousers, have grotesquely deformed features and monstrously misshapen legs. They recline on huge red divans, enclosed by strangely tilting and threatening walls. Three years later, in his Portrait of George Dyer and Lucian Freud, Bacon’s suicidal lover wears a dark suit and tie and crosses one leg on his thigh. His swivelling double face, bruised and swollen like a boxer who has just lost a fight, looks toward and away from Freud. The artist is seated next to Dyer, in front of a heavy green curtain and behind a shiny, reflecting table that supports a small cat. Dressed in an open-collar white shirt and grey trousers, Freud clasps his hands on his knee. In both portraits Freud and his companion are distorted and detached from each other. Bacon does not portray Freud’s appearance, but conveys the powerful perception of his tormented genius.

Bacon painted three full-length triptychs of Freud in 1964, 1966 and 1969. Andrew Sinclair writes that in the first one “Freud sprawls with one shoe pulled up, on a kitchen chair placed upon a crimson rostrum with an armchair back. The extreme mobility of his features in conversation and of his arms emphasising his points appear in the smudged outlines of skin and blurs of flesh and repetition of features that was becoming Bacon’s signature.”

In the mid-1950s Bacon had sold Freud Two Figures for only £100, and Freud kept this portrayal of Bacon having sex with a lover until his own death. By contrast, the third triptych, sold in 2013 for $142.4 million, set a world record for a painting at auction. Freud fondly recalled, “I used to have a lot of Francis’s paintings that he gave me or I bought . . . He gave me one of the popes with the tassel swinging across — you could almost see it move — and also a picture he did of two figures silhouetted against a blind in the South of France — which was very odd and witty.”

To reciprocate for Bacon’s art, Freud created three portraits of his friend. Sarah Howgate observes that he depicted “a man often hid behind his own blur, and whom the art world has often portrayed as almost beast-like”. Freud noted that Bacon grumbled a bit, as he always did, but “sat well and consistently”. In the pencil sketch Study of Francis Bacon (1952) the eyes in the heavy head gaze downward. Bacon’s open shirt and hands hidden behind his back reveal his naked torso. His trousers seductively folded open at the fly and his vulnerable belly suggest the sexual availability of a rent boy.

Freud’s most powerful portrait of Bacon, about 6 ½ by 4 ½ inches, was painted in 1952 with oil on copper plate while he was sitting knee to knee with his subject. In this detailed, sharply focused close-up, Bacon’s massive, pear-shaped, pillowy asymmetrical head is tilted slightly to the left. His lips are slanted, his heavy-lidded eyes are downcast and look inwards. A strand of hair hangs down his expansive forehead like a scar, and a heavy crease between his eyes and on the side of his nose accentuate his features. His bulging ovoid face — with its alarming pallor, twisted lips and swollen eyes — fills the whole frame and threatens to burst out of it. As Freud captures his alcoholic, masochistic and half-ruined character, Bacon seems trapped and trying to escape from the intense scrutiny in a confined space. This brilliant portrait, on loan from the Tate Gallery, was stolen from a Berlin exhibition in 1988. Freud designed a Wanted poster, modelled on those offering rewards for outlaws in old Western movies. The thieves demanded a ransom of £1 million, which was not paid, and the portrait has never been recovered.

In 1957 Freud painted a third, unfinished, portrait of Bacon in a looser, heavier style that reveals most of his face emerging from a cloudy white background. Bacon has a high forehead, thick eyebrows, heavy-lidded eyes, strong nose and full lips, and a sad fleshy face blotched with red. The picture, interrupted when Bacon left for Tangier, was never completed.

The artists had opposing attitudes to honours as well as to lineage. Bacon scorned and rejected official recognition while Freud sought and accepted it. The older artist, who had insulted Princess Margaret, turned down a knighthood and a Companion of Honour. He strongly disapproved when his younger friend accepted the latter and would have been even angrier in 1993 when Freud welcomed the UK’s highest civilian honour, the Order of Merit. Freud also aroused Bacon’s anger by perversely refusing to loan the coupling men in Two Figures for his second retrospective at the Tate. And Freud aroused Bacon’s wrath when he borrowed but never repaid large sums of money to support his obsessive gambling.

Greig notes that at the Marlborough Gallery in 1968 Freud “felt ignored and sidelined compared to Bacon, who in 1962 had a show at the Tate Gallery and was rapidly gaining a global reputation”. David Hockney thought “Lucian couldn’t countenance the success that Francis was enjoying, particularly in France . . . While he admired Bacon’s ambition, he envied his [international] success.”

But rivalry and jealousy erupted when Freud’s reputation began to match Bacon’s and he could no longer play a subservient role. “When my work started being successful,” Freud declared, “Francis became bitter and bitchy. What he really minded was that I started getting higher prices.” He felt that Bacon’s character “had changed quite a lot, which I think was to do with alcohol. It was impossible to disagree with him about anything. He wanted admiration and he didn’t mind where it came from.”

As a child, Bacon had dressed up in women’s clothes and been severely beaten on his father’s orders by his grooms. As an adult, he seemed to feel guilty of a terrible but unspecified crime and developed a masochistic taste for punishment. Freud, who cared deeply about his friend’s wellbeing, became unwillingly involved in Bacon’s sordid spectacles and was shocked by his self-destructive impulses. He was terribly disturbed when Bacon was beaten up by his lover Peter Lacy, who had been a fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain and drank himself to death in Tangier. “I was so upset seeing him like this,” Freud exclaimed, “that I got hold of Lacy’s collar and twisted it around.” Ignoring Bacon’s advice, Freud chose violence rather than charm, but Lacy refused to accept the challenge and would not defend himself. Freud admitted he didn’t understand that “the violence between them was a sexual thing”, that Bacon wanted to be beaten up and was furious when Freud interfered with his punishment. After seeing him brutalised by Lacy, Freud stopped talking to Bacon for a long time.

Over the years, as anger and resentment built up, each artist, well aware of his friend’s weaknesses, would zero in on the most vulnerable aspects of his character — vanity and ambition, egoism and jealousy — and they would attack each other’s lack of imagination and debased style. When Freud caustically criticised Bacon in their familiar hangouts, malicious gossips repeated his remarks and Bacon felt wounded and betrayed. He retaliated with sharp-witted retorts that destroyed their old affection: “The trouble with Lucian’s work is that it’s realistic without being real.” Referring to Freud in camp style and using a feminine pronoun, Bacon hit a sensitive spot by declaring, “She doesn’t put herself through the same third degree as her other sitters.” Freud certainly had to dominate and control. He was cruel to his models — friends, wives, lovers and children — who had to sit frozen in uncomfortable positions for many hours at a time and for pictures that went on for months and even years. He became furious if the models were even five minutes late.

At Freud’s 1974 retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, London, Bacon deprecated the German origins of his art: “Well, Lucian’s extremely gifted, but I’ve never been interested in Expressionism.” When Freud said he would not see him again because “his conversation is so repetitious”, Bacon retorted that he would not see Freud again because “his work is so repetitious”. Freud didn’t mind tipping Bacon’s omnipresent former nanny, Jessie Lightfoot, who earned pocket-money by guarding the toilet during her master’s illegal roulette parties. But as anger intensified after a stimulating and inspiring friendship, the combustible artists quarrelled frequently and bitterly until they finally severed all relations.After Bacon’s death in 1992, Freud had the last word with a characteristic equine metaphor that suggested his talent was exhausted: “Here’s the poor old accident standing in his stable with his head down waiting to be harnessed yet again. I wish Francis would go back to being a gentleman, which he was when we first knew him, and leave painting alone.”

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