Francis Bacon’s sado-masochistic love affair with minor criminal George Dyer is the central theme of a controversial new film about the artist which goes on release this month. “Love is the Devil: study for a portrait of Francis Bacon” stars Sir Derek Jacobi as the middle-aged Bacon and Daniel Craig as the small time crook from London’s East End who was the artist’s constant companion for eight years, between 1964 and 1971. “I didn’t want to make a conventional bio-pic”, John Maybury, writer and director of “Love is the Devil”, told The Art Newspaper. “There’s enough documentary material in circulation already, so I wanted to create atmosphere, not historical detail. My favourite paintings are the paintings of George Dyer and so it seemed logical to look at that part of Bacon’s life”.
“Love is the Devil” opens with George Dyer’s fatal overdose on the opening night of Bacon’s retrospective at the Grand Palais in 1971, and traces their doomed relationship back to the night that they met in 1964, when George Dyer fell through the skylight of Bacon’s studio in an unsuccessful burglary attempt. “Sexually Bacon was a masochist and Dyer a sadist, but, of course, psychologically exactly the opposite was the case” says Mr Maybury. “To a great extent the film is an exploration of relationships in general: between artist and muse, lower and upper class, as well as between sadist and masochist. It’s not specifically a gay film—anyone who has been in any kind of intense relationship will recognise a lot of the horrors that go on.”
The art establishment has not been so comfortable with the film’s emphasis. Even before shooting started, Lord Gowrie, then chairman of The Arts Council, personally intervened to block Arts Council funding, which was only reinstated after some script adjustments.
The Marlborough Gallery, who were then handling Bacon’s estate, also threatened legal action if the film reproduced any images from Bacon’s paintings or included any direct quotations from the artist himself.
“I was shocked by the response I got from the cultural gatekeepers,” Mr Maybury admits. “Bacon himself was always completely open about his sexual practises and, anyway, it’s all there in the canvases—they go much further than I ever could; my film is tame in comparison. If I’d included all the dirt that I really got on Francis Bacon and his private life, then the film would have been unshowable”.
This embargo on Bacon’s images has not prevented the film from being steeped in his work. “Bacon was our ultimate production designer—the paintings told us exactly what to do”, says Mr Maybury, “The mirrors, the triptych forms, the claustrophobia of all the rooms, the alcohol and cigarette-stained skin: it’s all there, it’s like a gift.”
As well as looking like a giant Francis Bacon painting, “Love is the Devil” has also been given a contemporary spin by using as extras many figures from the current cultural scene, including Tracey Emin, Gary Hume, Gillian Wearing and Rifat Ozbeck, as well as some of Bacon’s original Colony Room drinking companions. The part of Muriel Belcher, the formidable owner of the Colony Room is played by Tilda Swinton.
“Artists, fashion people and writers still drink in the same places as Bacon, and since I know these people, it seemed obvious to put them in”, says Mr Maybury. “Rather than go for slavish period recreation, I’d rather add a layer of realism.”
New Bacon drawing conundrum: fake or real
The troubled progress of “Love is the Devil” is just one of a number of controversies that have arisen around Francis Bacon and his work since the artist’s death in 1992. In February this year The Art Newspaper reported that a Bologna court was considering whether a group of pencil and ballpoint drawings purchased by a Bologna doctor was the genuine article, and a verdict has still to be reached. More recently, there has been feverish debate among critics over the authenticity of an archive of some 500 pieces of worked-over photographic material, allegedly given by Bacon to his friend and handyman, Barry Joule, a few weeks before the artist’s death. The works are neither signed nor dated, and while Evening Standard art critic Brian Sewell, and Arts Review Editor David Lee are convinced that the works are genuine, others, including the Times art critic Richard Cork and Bacon expert, David Sylvester, are not. “I am among those who cannot see Bacon’s hand on these pages”, declared Mr Sylvester in a statement earlier this year.
Any works on paper by Bacon are extremely rare, since he did not want it to be known beyond his close circle that he produced such preparatory material, preferring instead to imply that his paintings sprang directly from instinct onto the canvas.
In a Channel 4 “Arthouse” film on the subject broadcast on 2 July, Barry Joule claimed that he had offered the archive to the Tate, and received no response. But when contacted by The Art Newspaper, a Tate representative claimed that no formal offer by Barry Joule to donate the works had been made. However, the Tate have already acquired two groups of works on paper by Bacon, one from the widow of Sir Stephen Spender, and one from an anonymous donor, and among these works are a number of photographs which have been overpainted by the artist in a very similar manner to pieces in the Joule collection. The Tate confirm that they intend to mount an exhibition of this collection next year.
Film script clip - “Francis Bacon” says
“Can tenderness ultimately only manifest itself in the motion of a brush? The visceral reach, running fingertips along the curved notches of a spine, the line of a femur, the curl of tendon into muscle. The smell... to violate, to desecrate, to examine a person from the inside... The girth, the solids, the sack of flesh—just offal bags, ruminating intestines, fine wines filled and swilled with rich food.”
“Loneliness...my only true companion, will always rival any lover. It’s greedy desire will always drive a wedge between me and any contender for my company. Do I possess some inner destructive demon?”