Dreg King

You have to hand it to Michael Peppiatt’s Francis Bacon in Your Blood: That acute title calls up an entire juicy slice—slab?—of modernist antiquity. Emerging from London’s queer-Dickensian gutter like a pestilent hedgehog from an air-raid shelter (or sewer, his detractors said), Bacon saturated the starched fabric of English art with images of, in the words of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, “Blood, Devastation, Death, War, and Horror.” (In other words: What’s not to love?) Say what you want about the man—crown him first runner-up to Picasso in the artistic Mr. Universe pageant of the twentieth century or call him a macho-masochist Existential Kitschmeister par excellence—he got under people’s skin in a way few artists do anymore.

Peppiatt’s memoir of his intense, almost thirty-year friendship with Bacon, which began in 1963 when, as a student, he interviewed the painter for the Cambridge Opinion, is not really a sequel to his definitive 1997 biography, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma. It is a first-personalized reworking of that book’s most salient and revealing passages—including longer versions of the same stories and quotes—avidly embracing its subject’s knack for hopscotching between high culture and low life, tortured thought and blithe gossip. In a concerted attempt to unpack the father figure/doting son dynamic the two seemingly fell into at first sight, Peppiatt pokes and prods his relationship with the painter: As a courtier, confidant, sounding board, and audience, he constructed his self-image largely on the basis of his mentor’s approval, affection, or withholding.

The reader’s response will be contingent on how fascinating he or she finds Bacon and his sharp little serpent’s-tooth crew. How much of his secondhand company and the antisocially sociable, alcoholic whirl of gay subculture in the bad old days do you have an appetite for? (Moderation is not an option: It’s either journey to the end of the night through the alleys and galleries or scurry home with your tail between your legs.) Francis Bacon in Your Blood will appeal to those with a soft spot for rough trade, Performance seen as cinema verité, Bowie’s “Queen Bitch,” Edward St. Aubyn’s tours through the perverse and mortifying sides of gilt-and-gin-drenched English manners, and emotional carnivores in abattoir-red lipstick. (Bacon fondly recalls a barfly’s barb: “‘When I knew her’—meaning me—‘she was more famous for the paint she put on her face than for the paint she put on canvas.’”)

Peppiatt was, as a straight, mild-mannered youth, instantly entranced by the carnivalesque, “Ballad of a Thin Man” quality of the scene, and found the chaotic gestalt irresistible. So do I: The blisteringly mercurial, difficult, yet strangely gallant Bacon presided like a painter-king over a mythical domain where one mingled with Lucian Freud, Sonia Orwell (George’s imperious widow), and Michel Leiris; went on epic pub crawls (“The Iron Lung gives way to the Music Box and the Maisonette”); and passed through gambling dens, gentlemen’s clubs, and posh restaurants (sometimes having two sumptuous dinners a night). Along the lurching way, one was regaled with accounts of Berlin in the 1920s or the heyday of the expat scene in Tangier (where Paul and Jane Bowles held court, William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg chased boys, and the notorious Kray brothers dropped in like awful, “deeply curious” emissaries from gangland). The balancing act between death-shadowed, love-scarred seriousness and sloshed, gossipy asides, the mix of cattiness and generosity, does, I suspect, accurately represent how Bacon and his compatriots lived.

In this milieu, the line dividing romantic self-dramatization and the bruising, both-ends-bleeding madness of being was a membrane-thin envelope to be pushed, in the name of pleasure and pain, love and sensation, art and transcendence. Even as a harmless wallflower, Peppiatt gets an intellectual-sexual contact high in the presence of this manic-excessive behavior. That Peppiatt’s father suffers from severe bipolar episodes also predisposes him to Bacon’s company: Black Francis compensates for and cauterizes the wound left by a permanently distracted parent, while maintaining a touching affection for the author that his actual dad never mustered.

As a narrator, Peppiatt is a tangle of perceptiveness and a callowness never wholly outgrown. He certainly kept good, detailed journals, and sometimes they have essentially been transcribed here, offering us a present-tense account of events. He has a knack for recalling or reconstructing conversations that were lubricated by aquarium-size drafts of wine, whiskey, and expensive champagne. I’m not sure if this gift falls under the heading of reporting or ventriloquism: He seems to have been able to “do” Bacon for his friends, channeling the great man’s idiosyncrasies as if he were a small-i impressionist building up a dossier of phrases, routines, and tics for later use in a one-man show. Peppiatt’s Bacon certainly had the gift of monologue, though every night he would go over the same territory twice, in the second run-through deleting or forgetting details and twisting others around mercilessly.

This book has two distinguishing qualities. The first is that fidelity to Bacon’s repetitions, which are reproduced and even underscored: Peppiatt wants to catch the “strange circularity” both of Bacon’s thought and of their relationship. The other is the author’s role as perpetual observer, always more voyeur than participant (or critic, except in the most valedictory sense). He presents himself as learning how to pass for a man-about-town, but forever feeling out of his depth. That cements his relationship with the ultra-worldly Bacon: It absolves him of a degree of agency yet gives him the rush of being a protégé to a shape-shifting, thunderbolt-casting God.

Bacon’s generosity comes with a few strings attached. He tries, for instance, to make everyone in his orbit into dependents, and in turn to never be beholden to anybody. (You can see why this would present a problem in love.) What does he see in, and want from, young Michael? Partly, Peppiatt thinks, it might have been an unrequited sexual attraction, but what Bacon primarily needed was companionship and an audience. And Peppiatt falls effortlessly into the role of, as one chapter has it, “Bacon’s Boswell”: If the disclosures, intimacies, and musings demonstrate nothing else, it is that opposing impulses in Bacon’s world are never mutually exclusive—they run along a spectrum, or are strung crucifixion-like between poles. In the author, Bacon found a friend he trusted, and a disciple to write Bacon’s self-portrait by proxy. He must have liked the fact that Peppiatt could step back and see his blind spots, weaknesses, and doubts but remain totally, unequivocally in his corner. We expect artists to be manipulative, self-absorbed creatures of bad habit, but what is conspicuous about the Bacon Peppiatt knew is his kindness. He threw his status and wealth around as a way of securing loyalty (“I’ve always bought my way through life,” he says), but he was also considerate in a manner that doesn’t look to have been merely a pose.

Peppiatt has a way of being vague about time and cultural context, but he fleshes out places and menus with savory gusto. You may not know the year in which an anecdote takes place, but he’ll list each dish and vintage and notable piece of furniture or architecture. This approach reflects Bacon’s work: the big, jaded signifiers (papal airs, Nazi paraphernalia) smear together like historical offal swirling in a drain, but the death dance of flesh and blood, beds and chairs, has the specificity of a DNA sequence. Bacon rescues sense memory from abstraction and sterile platitudes. If there is a weakness in his work, it is when this quality becomes claustrophobic—so insistent on animal nature and nerve endings, yet removed so far from nature—turning the world into a static, feral procession of artifice and pageantry. Life, he said, “is just a series of moments” headed for “the great compost heap of the world.” In the meantime, more pressing matters are at hand: “Now, what do you think we should drink with the partridge?”

The one missed opportunity in Francis Bacon in Your Blood has to do with a painter Peppiatt calls a “parallel father figure,” the Slovenian artist Zoran Mušič, who was a survivor of Dachau and painted images of the experience. He is mentioned only in passing, in light of his “extraordinary calm” in confronting his own past, and some comparison between his work and Bacon’s might have illuminated the nature of the latter’s fury and horror, attraction and repulsion, when it came to facing the monstrosities men are capable of.

Bacon once said: “I’m simply a brilliant fool, brilliant and idiotic, and there it is. I don’t believe in anything and I don’t care about anything. There’s just my brilliance and the brilliance of life.” There’s a lot of performance in that little speech, preening and effacing. You could practically set it to music. (Wait, John Lydon already did: PiL’s Metal Box, which could have been dedicated to Bacon—particularly “Poptones.”) If we say—and Bacon said it enough times—that he fell short, what do we really mean? He fell short of Velázquez, Goya, and Picasso—fair enough. But in another sense, he gambled his brilliance against life’s own, shadowboxed death, and drank everything down to the bottom: “As George pours the last drops into Francis’s glass, the wine waiter recoils in horror, saying: ‘But, Monsieur, those are the dregs.’

“‘But I love the dregs,’ says Francis, beaming up at him. ‘The dregs are what I prefer.’”

Howard Hampton is a frequent contributor to Artforum, Bookforum, and Film Comment and the author of Born in Flames: Termite Dreams, Dialectical Fairy Tales, and Pop Apocalypses (Harvard University Press, 2007).