Francis Bacon (artist) - Death of George Dyer

Death of George Dyer

Bacon met George Dyer in 1964 when, he claimed, he caught the young man breaking into his home. Dyer was then about thirty years old and had grown up in the East End of London in a family steeped in crime. He had spent his life drifting between theft, juvenile detention centre and jail.

Bacon's relationships prior to Dyer had all been with older men who were as tumultuous in temperament as the artist himself, but each had been the dominating presence. Peter Lacy, his first lover, would often tear up the young artist's paintings, beat him up in drunken rages, and leave him on the street half-conscious. Bacon was attracted to Dyer's vulnerability and trusting nature. Dyer was impressed by Bacon's self-confidence and his artistic success, and Bacon acted as a protector and father figure to the insecure younger man. Dyer was, like Bacon, a borderline alcoholic and similarly took obsessive care with his appearance. Pale-faced and a chain-smoker, Dyer typically confronted his daily hangovers by drinking again. His compact and athletic build belied a docile and inwardly tortured personality; the art critic Michael Peppiatt described him as having the air of a man who could "land a decisive punch". Their behaviours eventually overwhelmed their affair, and by 1970, Bacon was merely providing Dyer with enough money to stay more or less permanently drunk.

As Bacon's work moved from the extreme subject matter of his early paintings to portraits of friends in the mid-1960s, Dyer became a dominating presence in the artist's work. Bacon's treatment of his lover in these canvasses emphasises his subject's physicality while remaining uncharacteristically tender. More than any other of the artist's close friends portrayed during this period, Dyer came to feel inseparable from his effigies. The paintings gave him stature, a raison d'etre, and offered meaning to what Bacon described as Dyer's "brief interlude between life and death". Many critics have cited Dyer's portraits as favourites, including Michel Leiris and Lawrence Gowing. Yet as Dyer's novelty diminished within Bacon's circle of sophisticated intellectuals, the younger man became increasingly bitter and ill at ease. Although Dyer welcomed the attention the paintings brought him, he did not pretend to understand or even like them. "All that money an' I fink they're reely 'orrible", he observed with choked pride.

He abandoned crime but soon descended into alcoholism. Bacon's money allowed Dyer to attract hangers-on who would accompany him on massive benders around London's Soho. Withdrawn and reserved when sober, Dyer was insuppressible when drunk, and would often attempt to "pull a Bacon" by buying large rounds and paying for expensive dinners for his wide circle. Dyer's erratic behaviour inevitably wore thin—with his cronies, with Bacon, and with Bacon's friends. Most of Bacon's art world associates regarded Dyer as a nuisance—an intrusion into the world of high culture to which their Bacon belonged. Dyer reacted by becoming increasingly needy and dependent. By 1971, he was drinking alone and was only in occasional contact with his former lover.

In October 1971, Dyer accompanied Bacon to Paris for the opening of the artist's retrospective at the Grand Palais. The show was the high point of Bacon's career to date, and he was now being described as Britain's "greatest living painter". Dyer was now a desperate man, and although he was "allowed" to attend, he was well aware that he was "slipping", in every sense, out of the picture. To draw Bacon's attention he earlier planted cannabis in Bacon's flat, then phoned the police, and he had attempted suicide on a number of occasions. On the eve of the Paris exhibition, Bacon and Dyer shared a hotel room, and Bacon spent the next day surrounded by people eager to meet him. In mid-evening he was informed that Dyer had taken an overdose of barbiturates and was dead. Though devastated, Bacon continued with the retrospective and displayed powers of self-control "to which few of us could aspire", according to Russell. Bacon was deeply affected by the loss of Dyer, and he had recently lost four other friends and his nanny. From this point on, death haunted his life and work. Though he gave a stoic appearance at the time, he was inwardly broken. He did not express his feelings to critics, but later admitted to friends that "daemons, disaster and loss" now stalked him as if his own version of the Eumenides. Bacon spent the remainder of his stay in Paris attending to promotional activities and funeral arrangements. He returned to London later that week to comfort Dyer's family. The funeral proved to be an emotional affair for all, and many of Dyer's friends, including hardened East-End criminals, broke down in tears. As the coffin was lowered into the grave one attendant screamed "you bloody fool!". Although Bacon remained stoic throughout, in the following months Dyer preoccupied his imagination as never before. To confront his loss, he painted a number of tributes on small canvasses and his three "Black Triptych" masterpieces.

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