Francis Bacon’s Cruel Optimism

Francis Bacon’s Cruel Optimism

Francis Bacon's Two Studies for a Portrait of George
Two Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer, 1968

Several years ago, I went to see the Francis Bacon retrospective at the Met hoping to have a religious experience. My boyfriend, Clayton, constantly awe-struck by the comings and goings of Manhattanites, seemed to take great pleasure in things that I did not understand. When confronted with strange amorphous blobs of paint, for example, he would coo while I stood by confused and yet excited by his look of revulsion and pity. I was very serious about him.  Our relationship felt like the kind of thing one sees in movies. It was like fireworks—lots of pops and sizzles—something you’d expect from a great Victorian novel, tragic yet overwhelmingly romantic. The day I went to the Met I was feeling lonely and insecure. I was about to leave for a two-month trip to China, and things were not going well between us. Our fights were stupid: “I can’t like the color orange because you’ve claimed it as your favorite color!—I want to be able to like the color orange.”  My memories, viewed from the present read as a train-wreck that I blocked out as though I have some adolescent form of PTSD. We were like two train conductors ordering more speed on a track that grew increasingly dangerous, thrilled and excited by the threat of what was looming. We were invincible and yet terrified of losing each other.  Even in the final moments, we, like Massacio’s Adam and Eve being cast out of Eden, shamefully clung to each other like we were the last people on earth.

Francis Bacon's Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.
Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944

I walked into the exhibition room, dreaming about Clayton’s boyish brown hair. The curator’s note told me that Bacon’s paintings were intended for delivery “straight to your nervous system” which, to me, meant nothing. Art was supposed to be an intellectual struggle. “How ridiculous” I thought to myself as I turned my head to look at Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.  In a hilariously exaggerated gesture, I rolled my eyes and continued forward. In the next room I saw a few of the screaming popes in cages, then some portraits, a picture of a dog on the sidewalk. To me it all felt like a blur—blurry brushstrokes, blurry canvases, blurry emotions, but no thoughts. Bacon still seemed as foreign to me as Mars. I sat down, annoyed and confused. At this point, I was convinced I didn’t have a nervous system, or if I did it was not functioning properly. I started to think about Clayton again and feeling aroused I began to understand the sensual and aggressive brushstrokes.

According to Jerry Saltz, Francis Bacon was the “last of a breed of Romantics.” 1 To be romantic is to be in love, to be fervently optimistic even in situations where optimism has no place.  In a 1988 interview, Francis Bacon, an alcoholic and self-proclaimed “rotten man,” had this to say about his optimism:

My impulse is my life, my impulse is that I’m an old man, but I’m profoundly optimistic about nothing…[by] existing for a moment…existing today makes me optimistic…I’m optimistic about nothing I’m just born with that kind of optimistic nature. 2

It seems to me that Bacon was not optimistic about nothing, but rather optimistic about existence itself, or rather the promise of continued existence. His paintings, often incredibly bleak and dark, remain as comforting as they are frightening. His paintings depict real life: sad, depressing, desperately lonely, yet still optimistic, still existing, still a comfort. For Bacon, death was not an option and underneath the paint one can feel his beating heart. Watching the 1988 interview one expects him to begin singing Tomorrow from Annie as though he were the last man on earth.

As I came to Two Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer (1968), I became dizzy, transfixed and overwhelmed. I felt comfortable, excited and completely alone. The painting, as the title suggests, depicts Bacon’s most famous lover, George Dyer. Their relationship was something out of a blockbuster melodrama—intense, tumultuous and strange. After catching the 30 year-old Dyer trying to rob his house, Bacon, 55 at the time, took Dyer in and the two became lovers.  3 Dyer was a lonely man with a criminal background and an alcoholic’s temperament. Bacon, self-confident, wealthy, temperamental and vain, saw to it that Dyer had everything he wanted, which included enough alcohol to keep him permanently drunk. For a time, the two were inseparable. In 1971 during the premier of Bacon’s retrospective in Paris, Dyer committed suicide by drug overdose. Bacon continued on with the retrospective, bottling up his emotions in characteristic fashion only to release them later in his work.4

Without Bacon’s self-proclaimed inherent “optimism,” it seems impossible for this relationship to have lasted as long as it did. I imagine Bacon going to sleep at night thinking, “maybe we’ll both stop being alcoholics someday,” or Dyer thinking, “maybe I really am loved and secure.” Without optimism, Francis Bacon, who was whipped by stable-hands, and inappropriately fucked by his father’s contemporaries, would not have survived to adulthood. 5 This painting of Dyer reveals Bacon’s twisted Romanticism, revealing something of how he managed to survive his adolescence. It shows two figures that refer to George Dyer but the figures look more like lumps than figures. The brushstrokes suggest eroticism, sexuality, and defy figuration. They  are somewhat cruel and yet so purely existential that although Bacon exposes cruelty, all I feel is my heartbeat breathing new life into every vein.

In her essay, “Cruel Optimism,” Lauren Berlant writes that optimism comes from the promise bequeathed by another person or thing. The promise of more, of tomorrow, of being loved, overcoming an addiction, even the promise of financial success. As she describes, optimism is one’s sense of “look[ing] forward to being in the world” 6. Bacon paints with a keen awareness of optimism and the continuation of existence. With Berlant in mind, one can imagine Bacon and Dyer clinging to each other under the sheets, Bacon drunkenly massaging Dyer’s bandaged wrists, tearfully offering a plea for sanity and rational thinking. Dyer, drunkenly acquiescing.

For Bacon, as well as Berlant, there is no escaping this optimism, this insatiable desire for the promise of more—more happiness, more time with the people we love. It is this very insatiability that makes optimism so cruel. Berlant continues, “cruel optimism is the condition of maintaining an attachment to a problematic object in advance of its loss” 7. Cruel optimism is the unwavering commitment to something—a person, an object, a job, even existence itself—in spite of its inevitable loss. Everything can be taken away in an instant, life, money, virginity. Bacon knew this. He assumed everyone was cruel. While it is arguable that paintings are inherently uncruel because they do not change once one has finished painting, Bacon could not help himself but create art that was both cruel and optimistic.

To paint Dyer’s likeness would have been to suggest that one can keep Dyer himself on the wall. I see Bacon clinging to Dyer, trying, but unable, to capture his likeness. Just as a butterfly pinned inside a box will never reanimate so too will Dyer cease to exist when Bacon paints him. In the painting, Dyer is, like anything in life worth having, transient in his permanence, absent while he is present, missed before he is gone. Bacon, armed with a child-like wisdom renders a palpable affective force that loves beyond reason and robs one of security by means too blatant to be duplicitous. The painting expresses a belief that life exists beyond art and beyond representation. It is not a memento to a person, or a person’s life, it very simply is life. Were one to stab it, the painting would surely bleed.

As I walked down the steps of the Met, I was thrilled by what I had seen, my head was abuzz with excitement about how I was going to explain what I had seen to Clayton.  At dinner, we discussed the work, I showed him some pictures on my phone and though he tried, he didn’t seem to understand.  It wasn’t until years later, when I began to rediscover Francis Bacon that I realized it was that night at dinner that  I  decided to break up with the person who had, until that point, delighted me more than anything I had ever known.

  1. Saltz, Jerry. “Jerry Saltz on Francis Bacon at the Metropolitan Museum – Artnet Magazine.” Jerry Saltz on Francis Bacon at the Metropolitan Museum – Artnet Magazine. May 27, 2009.
  2. Francis Bacon on the South Bank Show: A Singular Profile of the Singular Painter. London: London Weekend Television, 1985. Television.
  3. Akbar, Arifa. “Inside the Mind of Francis Bacon.” Independent, 25 April 2007
  4. Norton, James. “The Six Loves of Francis Bacon.” Sunday Herald, 13 March 2005.
  5. Blackwood, Caroline. “Francis Bacon (1909–1992),” The New York Review of Books, Volume 39, No 15. 24 September 1992
  6. Berlant, Lauren Gail. “Cruel Optimism” In Cruel Optimism, 94. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.
  7. Ibid
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