Francis Bacon once told the art critic Richard Cork: ‘I certainly hope I’ll go on till I drop dead.’ Max Porter’s The Death of Francis Bacon is a book about painting to the end. It is about art, rags and the restless artist’s eye. Porter, the author of Grief Is the Thing With Feathers and Lanny,has called it ‘my attempt to write as painting, not about it’. In this he brilliantly succeeds.
The writing is matted and clotted and thickly impastoed. Each page has the ridge and texture of paint; the paper is like scabby canvas, the words are like drying oil. There is a sticky, tacky quality, as if the author has only just stopped and stood back to look at his work. The book feels unfinished and that seems right. Bacon painted till the end of his life, but not to the end of his creative energy. Porter writes powerfully about the artist’s bodily contortions and the cut and thrust of his brush. He has Bacon say to a sitter, or perhaps to a picture itself: ‘I’m going to tip you forward out of the frame and whip your buttock with lead white to give a sense of fight.’
Bacon fights against the dying of the studio light. Porter has him rail against ‘one of these shits who will write a god-awful hack-tosh-hagiography of me after I’m gone. Oh he was so scabrous, the monstrous pitiable Bacon, up at the bar, buying us drinks’. We hear Bacon parody his own reputation as ‘the empty-head celebrity meat-master of macabre’. He says to one model (and to posterity): ‘This is going to upset you, exhilarate me and interest scholars.’ We hear voices off and fractured thoughts: nuns and pundits, lovers and critics. A Spanish phrase is repeated —intenta descansar: try to rest. Porter captures all the agitation of Bacon’s art, the sense of ‘actual paint in his actual bloodstream’.
In a short video on the Faber website, Porter says: ‘It stinks, I hope, this book, of turpentine and oil and fags and cologne and breath mints.’ And then some. Also of blood and garlic, of fat and house wine, of hot palms and close armpits, of damp plaster and bresaola, of ‘cum and vermillion’. The smells are stale and raw. This is a troubling, bodily book. Not for the squeamish. Sex and art make a pair. A chatty boy says: ‘Take me while I’m wet.’ That goes for paint as much as a pick-up.
The back cover gives the barest sketched outline. ‘Madrid. Unfinished. Man Dying.’ It would be a kindness to readers to give a bit more ‘Bacon-beginners-start-here’. Not necessarily the full spell-it-out works, just a prod in the general direction. It might help to know that Bacon was in Madrid in the spring of 1992; that he was 82; that his asthma was chronic and that he had been admitted with pneumonia to the Handmaids of Maria, a private clinic, where he was nursed by a Sister Mercedes. There are no pictures, though it is a book all about them. Porter gives the dimensions, but not the names, of seven canvases. You don’t need a catalogue raisonné on your lap, but you might want a mind’s-eye slideshow. Mug up before you set off.
Porter is one of our most exciting writers. He dares to experiment and that means both the flare of mercury and the burnt crucible. Some sections enthral, others alienate. Like its subject, The Death of Francis Bacon is tricky, wicked and wonderfully weird.
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