Books

Max Porter
The Death of Francis Bacon

Feelings of desperation and unhappiness “are more useful to an artist than the feeling of contentment”, said Francis Bacon, one of the most notorious figures of 20th-century art, “because desperation and unhappiness stretch your whole sensibility”.

Agreed, replies Max Porter, the dreamily lucid wunderkind of contemporary English prose. And in this brief, ruthlessly unsentimental document – an effort to render in words what Bacon did with brushstrokes and linseed-soaked rags – the author stretches the artist taut on the canvas of the page, imagining his final days of life in 1992, before Bacon died of heart failure at a private clinic in Madrid.

The 74 pages of Porter’s text are divided into slim chapters that each correspond to a single pencil sketch and seven works in oil. There are repetitions and rhymes between sections, but they work – much as Bacon’s paintings did – as images in a series, rather than a narrative with a beginning, middle and end.

Bacon’s broken body is cared for by one Sister Mercedes, an intermittent presence who brings succour or soup, or disinters memories simply by breathing nearby. “Intenta descansar,” she says to him: “Try to rest.” But beneath the hospital sheets, Bacon’s body and mind riot.

The irony of dying in Madrid isn’t lost on Bacon or his ventriloquist: this was the city where Velázquez painted his tenebrist masterpieces. Velázquez’ fame was shared by Bacon and for Bacon, his portrait of Pope Innocent X was a totemic image.

Scraps of conversation in the early pages – overheard and overheated, slashed to pieces and reassembled – include quotes from a 1972 essay by John Berger: a killer piece of criticism that denied Bacon’s greatness and compared his work to Walt Disney’s.

Bacon’s memories shiver like a compass needle in the light of this judgement. Genius or charlatan, martyr or painter: Bacon the dying animal writhes between cardinal points.

The book is a bravura performance that begs to be read multiple times, just as a painting requires stalking from various angles. As a work of ekphrasis, the author replicates the artist’s work in language: verbs squeezed like tubes of paint, nouns mashed hard against the line.

But there is gentleness, too. You might consider Porter’s words an act of extreme unction: an anointing with language, clean and correct as the “cut white sail” of Sister Mercedes’ cap. 

Geordie Williamson

Faber, 74pp, $14.99

 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 20, 2021 as "Max Porter, The Death of Francis Bacon ".

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Reviewer: Geordie Williamson