Review by Frank Plowright
Cristina Portolano’s skim through Francis Bacon’s life fits into a line of artist biographies translated by Prestel from volumes first published in Europe, and is a rare lapse in an otherwise admirable list.
Francis Bacon has become one of the most important and influential painters of the 20th century, his work challenging and shocking, and accompanied by a lifestyle to match. Bacon could be charismatic and epicurean and could equally be dissolute and offensive. His work is bleak expressionism, shot through with a fascination for the unpalatable, also sometimes reflected in his life where he was an impulsive risk taker. That supplies sensational biographic raw material, yet despite a gushing introduction from Portolano about her admiration, she never brings Bacon to life, instead reducing him, his surroundings and his work to a parade of mundane staged panels, with largely unconvincing dialogue sometimes pitched at the level of 1970s sitcoms.
Portolano uses as few narrative captions as possible, instead conveying information via dialogue, sometimes having people address the audience directly in explaining themselves. Bacon is given occasional thought balloons, but he’s generally someone around whom life carries on, rather than the focus, with some milestone dates and moments dropped in, yet with errors. Homosexuality wasn’t decriminalised in the UK in 1957, the year the Wolfenden Report was published. It took another decade for its major recommendations to be enacted. Mistakes compound a depressingly pedestrian and superficial presentation, whereas whatever your view of Bacon’s art – and he’s not to all tastes – those terms could never apply to it, nor to his life.
Artistically the cover portrait is as good as it gets, having a power and transmitting a feeling of the confrontational character it represents. Inside there’s nowhere near the likeness, with Bacon, and everyone else, drawn as simple figures. Divorced from the context of this biography hardly anyone would have a clue about who the illustrations are supposed to represent. The exceptions are those introducing chapters of Bacon’s life. In terms of palette Portolano uses the flesh tones associated with Bacon in places, as on the sample page, but there’s no consistency about it.
The distancing continues to the end, people who’re important to Bacon only rarely explained or contextualised, so when their deaths are noted they have little resonance, and thoughts about his own work aren’t noted. Neither is effort made to reproduce examples of his art except in the sketchiest of terms, nor to place it in any broader context. In her afterword Portolano notes that in a biography all one can do is suggest and recreate, and that being her attitude goes a long way to explaining why Francis Bacon: The Story of His Life is so disappointing.