You are here:   Features > A portrait of the artists as a pair of young wastrels

“Grand Guignol” and the Ingres of Existentialism: Francis Bacon (left) and Lucian Freud in 1974, photographed by Harry Diamond (©National Portrait Gallery, London)

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.”

View Full Article
October 11th, 2017
12:10 PM
Chrystosom: I'd say it's a significant comment on the state of art criticism, not necessarily the state of art.

John Borstlap
September 29th, 2017
8:09 PM
All this low-life and bickering about the prices of their works, what impression does it convey? Of talented, but rather degenerated men, and this shows in their works: it is all about the sordid aspects of life, without any transformative idea behind it. No wonder their works got so popular: like crime series on TV and pulp fiction, many people prefer this to something that would require some mental or emotional effort. In fact, it is populist art, as populist as concept art and abstraction - the style may be different but the sentiments are comparable: nihilism. Why the status? Because seeing such art being sold for so much money, relieves the sordid onlooker from guilt about his condition: if THAT is placed on the pedestal of 'expensive high art', then 'my sorry condition is OK'.

September 28th, 2017
11:09 AM
It is a significant comment on the state of art today that this article (at least in the version I saw on line) did not have a single illustration of any work by these, so-called, modern artists, though we had pictures of the painters themselves.

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.