PARIS — If good artists borrow while the great ones steal, then Francis Bacon was a particularly savvy thief. His list of artistic influences is a mile long, from Diego Velázquez’s dark Catholic imagery to Picasso’s fragmented perspectives.
But perhaps more than any painterly influence, literature shaped Bacon’s art. He thrived off the tragedies, the ideas and the fictions of others.
“I call it my imagination material,” he told the French photographer Francis Giacobetti in 1991, during his last interview, referring to his immense collection of books and photographs. “I need to visualize things that lead me to other forms, that lead me to visualize forms that lead me to other forms or subjects, details, images that influence my nervous system and transform the basic idea.”
CreditThe Estate of Francis Bacon; ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London; ARS, NY 2019; Artimage; Collection Agnelli, Londres
“Bacon: Books and Painting,” a new exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris through Jan. 20, brings together about 60 of the artist’s paintings to investigate how literature influenced his work.
“I had the sense that some of these books, put together, could give a real sense of Bacon’s project,” said Didier Orringer, the show’s curator. “I thought, ‘Wow, this man is not using books as decoration.’”
Bacon had an enormous library in his London studio, where books were scattered among shelves and on the floor. Since his death in 1992, about 1,300 of them now belong to Trinity College in Dublin.
Bacon read, marked up and often memorized the works of Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Jean Racine, Balzac, Nietzsche, Georges Bataille, Freud, T.S. Eliot, Joseph Conrad, Proust and others. In a 1966 interview with the British art critic David Sylvester, the painter said he knew some of them “by heart.”
Michael Peppiatt, a friend and biographer of Bacon, said in a telephone interview that, “Like his taste for the very great artists, like Michelangelo and Velásquez, his literary icons also tended to be monuments.”
Mr. Peppiatt, who befriended Bacon in 1963, added that some of the painter’s favorites — Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” Eliot’s “Four Quartets” and Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” — were “isolated peaks of literature, and Bacon was his own kind of isolated peak.”
A thread that connects the writers he loved is that they stood against the values of their time, opposing dogmas, whether religious or political. Like Bacon, they wouldn’t be dictated to.
For the artist, this was perhaps because his early life was stifled by conformity. Bacon was born into a posh family in Dublin in 1909: His father, Anthony Edward, was a military captain, and his mother, Christina, an heiress to a coal and steal fortune.
Family relations were tense, especially with his father, who discovered the teenage Bacon dressing in women’s clothes several times. Bacon left home on poor terms with his family, in 1926, and settled in London two years later.
His homosexuality and, later, his atheism would keep him at odds with his conservative family throughout his life. He was in near-constant search of a father figure, using prostitutes and lovers in this quest and frequently entering into abusive relationships.
Books became a way for the painter to create a new version of himself and to find guidance where he had little.
“He quite liked stark, tragic stories because he thought of his life as quite a stark, tragic story,” Mr. Peppiatt said. “He looked for other people who’d also looked down into the darkness.”
Bataille’s writings helped open Bacon to his sexuality; Nietzsche gave him a path to existential meaning without religious conviction; and Aeschylus gave Bacon a grand way to conceive of his own personal tragedies, which included the death of his partner of about eight years, George Dyer, of a drug and alcohol overdose.
Aeschylus, in particular, had a special place in Bacon’s life. No writer, he believed, captured tragedy quite as he did. In 1985, he told an interviewer on British television that a phrase from the Greek playwright, “The reek of human blood smiles out at me,” evoked in him “the most exciting images.”
Bacon’s “Second Version of Triptych 1944,” from 1988 — a triptych of disembodied mouths and sets of ghoulish teeth that’s on show at the Pompidou — combined Bacon’s love for Aeschylus’ violent phrase with the sexual frankness of Bataille’s writings. Mr. Orringer said this painting was, like so many of the works in the exhibition, an indirect investigation of Bacon’s personal demons: in this case, his sexuality and Dyer’s death.
Bacon was sometimes explicit about his literary inspirations, as with “Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus,” 1981, which depicts the three-part tragedy with mutilated bodies, flayed backs and a dead body that appears to hold a doe’s head on a plate.
At other times Bacon’s influences show more subtly.
Mr. Orringer said that in “Study from the Human Body and Portrait,” from 1988, Bacon took inspiration from Eliot’s multiplicity of poetic fragments in “The Waste Land” to make a multilayered painting with aerosol paint and a dry transfer lettering. This mirrored the epic poem’s “fragmented construction and its collage of languages and multiple tales,” he said.
Catherine Howe, an art historian who specializes in Bacon, said in a telephone interview that the painter was “interested in this kind of Modernist rule-breaking, how one formally goes about altering painting to convey a sensation.”
“He used to quote from Valéry and say, ‘I’m conveying the related sensation without the boredom of its conveyance,’ which is a very modern notion of bypassing narrative,” she added.
This means that sometimes the artist’s literary references are basically inscrutable, as in “Triptych Inspired by T.S. Eliot’s ‘Sweeney Agonistes’,” from 1967. In two panels of the three-part painting, lovers cavort on a green carpet, while in the central section an animal carcass rests against a window. It is erotic and disturbing, but what this has to do with Eliot’s unfinished verse drama is hard to say.
“He didn’t like a singular interpretation of his work,” Ms. Howe said. “So I don’t think Bacon would have wanted a direct text-image comparison. It was more about the impression it had on him. But that impression was entirely personal.”
Mr. Peppiatt recalled that in the mid-1970s, he helped Bacon secure an apartment in Paris, where Mr. Peppiatt was working as an arts writer and editor. They had long, languorous lunches together, and Mr. Peppiatt remembered the artist spending hours at home, flitting between stacks of photographs, magazines, books, “any old stuff,” he said.
Around that time, he said, Bacon described himself as being “like a grinding machine: Everything goes in and gets ground up very fine.”
Bacon had a bleak outlook on life, Mr. Peppiatt said, and his favorite books and poems confirmed this.
The lesson of the literature Bacon loved, Mr. Peppiatt added, was “that we don’t really know why we’re here, that we invent our purposes, that we invent our drives and aims. And then, suddenly, we’re gone.”