Kissing the Rod

TO KISS THE ROD is an old English expression meaning to "submit to one's master." It is a phrase best remembered for its uses in Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Richard the Second, yet it first appears in Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (written in the 1580s and published around 1590).

Origin. In the old days, the master would have a staff (rod) and the servant had to bow to his master and kiss his staff, showing his submission to him.

Significantly, TO KISS THE ROD can additionally mean to "accept punishment submissively" (Oxford Dictionaries) and even "to submit to punishment or misfortune meekly and without murmuring" (E. Cobham Brewer, Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1894).

Bacon: The End of the Line
Submissiveness to the master?

Charlotte Higgins, Sado-masochism and Stolen Shoe Polish: Bacon's Legacy Revisited, The Guardian, 22 November 2009.

Art historian John Richardson's revelations on the troubled artist he knew as a young man.

Francis Bacon's was a life lived to extravagant extremes. His drunken excesses in the Colony Room Club in Soho; his carnivalesque, ruinous generosity; the formative occasion on which, as a teenager, his father found him wearing his mother's underwear and beat the living daylights out of him – all this is almost as celebrated as his riotously tortured paintings.

But now the art historian John Richardson, whose multi-volume life of Picasso has been called the best artist's biography ever written, and who knew Bacon from the 1940s, has argued that the best of Bacon's art stemmed precisely from his sadomasochistic sexual relationships at their most intense, which also led directly to the death of at least one of his lovers.

It was that early beating by his father to which Bacon attributed his taste for masochism – desires that were played out in adulthood with his lover Peter Lacy.

Richardson describes Lacy's "most heinous assault": "In a state of alcoholic dementia, he hurled Bacon through a plate glass window. His face was so damaged that his right eye had to be sewn back into place. Bacon loved Lacy even more. For weeks he would not forgive Lucian Freud for remonstrating with his torturer. Mercifully, Lacy moved to Tangier."

Writing in the forthcoming issue of the New York Review of Books, Richardson calls Lacy "a dashing 30-year-old … He owned an infamous cottage in the Thames valley, where Francis would spend much of his time – often, according to him, in bondage".

Richardson adds: "Unfortunately, drink released a fiendish, sadistic streak in Lacy that bordered on the psychopathic. Besides taking his rage out on Bacon, he took it out on his canvases. To his credit, however, he inspired some of his lover's most memorable works, among them, the Man in Blue paintings: a menacing, dark-suited Lacy set off against vertical draperies."

The best-known of Bacon's lovers is George Dyer – partly because Bacon immortalised in paintings Dyer's 1971 suicide in a hotel bedroom lavatory, on the eve of the artist's retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris.

Richardson describes the directness of the relationship between Bacon's desires and his artistic output. "Bacon would goad George into a state of psychic meltdown and then, in the early hours of the morning – his favourite time to work – he would exorcise his guilt and rage and remorse in images of Dyer aimed, as he said, at the nervous system." Richardson argues that these are among his best works.

Richardson describes the evening he spent in New York with the pair in 1968. After a lunch during which Bacon called Jackson Pollock an "old lace-maker" they went out drinking. Dyer left, after an argument, and in the early hours Richardson received a call from Bacon who had found his lover passed out on the floor of their room in the Algonquin hotel, "unconscious from having washed down a handful of his sleeping pills with a bottle of scotch".

According to Richardson: "The goading worsened, the imagery intensified," and finally, after another unsuccessful suicide attempt in Greece, Dyer killed himself in Paris.

Richardson argues that Bacon's art went rapidly downhill when, after Dyer's death, he entered a relationship with John Edwards, which was "seemingly free of sadomasochistic overtones. This may explain why Bacon's work lost its sting and failed to thrill. Paintings inspired by Edwards, as well as a Formula 1 driver and a famous cricketer the artist fancied (fetishism survives in the batting pads), reveal that in old age Bacon managed to banish his demons and move on to beefcake. His headless hunks of erectile tissue buffed to perfection have an angst-free, soft-porn glow".

Richardson is an unusually stern critic of Bacon – who was the subject of a Tate retrospective last year and is revered by such artists as Damien Hirst. The problem, argues Richardson, is that Bacon simply could not draw. "Painting after painting would be marred by his inability to articulate a figure or its space." The critic David Sylvester – who helped cement Bacon's reputation – let him off too lightly for this "fatal flaw", he argues. "His celebrated variants on Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X are either magnificent flukes or near-total disasters. In the earliest of this 10-year series, Bacon famously portrays the pope screaming. He's good at screams but hopeless at hands, so he amputates, conceals, or otherwise fudges them."

Richardson describes his first visit to Bacon's studio in the late 1940s. "Bacon struck me as being exhilaratingly funny … Everything about his vast, vaulted studio was over the top: martinis served in huge Waterford tumblers; a paint-stained garter belt kicked under a sofa … The ramshackle theatricality that permeated the studio also permeated the three iconic mastershockers – scrotum-bellied humanoids screaming out at us from the base of a crucifixion – that were about to make the artist famous."

The sight of Bacon's blind old nanny, Jessie Lightfoot, knitting in a corner "came as a surprise". She slept on the kitchen table, and "provided cover for Francis's shoplifting sprees (groceries, cosmetics, and Kiwi shoe polish for his hair)". She also helped provide an unusual source of income for Bacon: when the artist held illicit roulette parties, she would extort huge tips from visitors desperate to go to the loo. According to Richardson: "I remember Francis echoing his nanny: 'They should bring back hanging for buggery.' He was certainly not the only gay Englishman for whom guilt was intrinsic to sex."

John Richardson claims it was the key to Francis Bacon's finest work.

Charlotte Higgins, "Demons and Beefcake: The Other Side of Francis Bacon," The Guardian, 22 November 2009

The territories of Francis Bacon's soul have been explored widely; they have been the subject of a film, books and endless speculation. But the senior art historian John Richardson – who, at 85, is working on the last volume of his acclaimed biography of Picasso, and who knew Bacon from his 20s – has now laid down his views and recollections of Bacon, amounting to a reappraisal of his life and work.

Writing in the forthcoming issue of the New York Review of Books, Richardson argues that Bacon's sado-masochistic relationships lay at the heart of his best work, but with terrible consequences for his lover George Dyer, whose fragile mental state Richardson attributes to Bacon's endless "goading".

Having provoked Dyer into "a state of psychic meltdown" he "would exorcise his guilt and rage and remorse in images of Dyer aimed, as he said, at the nervous system". This "goading" resulted in Dyer's suicide, writes Richardson.

An earlier relationship, with Peter Lacy, was violent to the extent that "he hurled Bacon through a plate glass window. His face was so damaged that his right eye had to be sewn back into place".

Bacon's art went rapidly downhill when sado-masochism ceased to be a part of his life, argues Richardson, who describes the "angst-free, soft-porn glow" of his later work.

Richardson, who has hitherto held back from revealing his full memories of Bacon since the artist's death in 1992, also pours scorn on critics, such as the late David Sylvester, who attempted to defend the self-taught Bacon's "inability to draw". He calls the celebrated Screaming Popes series "either magnificent flukes or near-total disasters" and refers to Bacon's failure to convey "subjects that call for graphic skill, subjects, for instance, that include hands". Richardson also refers to Bacon's early adventures as a rent boy; his shoplifting, using his elderly nanny as an accomplice; and the vividly bohemian life around him, including a three-day party in 1950, whose guests "included members of parliament and fellows of All Souls, as well as 'rough trade', slutty debutantes, cross-dressers, and the notoriously evil Kray brothers".

The reversal of fortune

Nicholas Chare, After Francis Bacon: Synaesthesia and Sex in Paint, Wey Court East, Surrey: Ashgate, 2012. Like an analyst listening to a patient, this study attends not just to what is said in David Sylvester's interviews with Francis Bacon, but also crucially to what is left unspoken, to revealing breaks and caesuras. Through interpreting these silences, "After Francis Bacon" breaks with stereotypical ideas about the artist's work and provides new readings and avenues of research. "After Francis Bacon" is the first book to give extended consideration to the way the reception of Bacon's art, including Gilles Deleuze's influential text on the artist, has been shaped by the Sylvester interviews - and to move beyond the limiting effects of the interviews, providing fresh interpretations. Nicholas Chare draws upon recent developments in psychoanalysis and forensic psychology to present innovative readings of Bacon's work, primarily based on the themes of sadomasochism and multi-sensory perception. Through bringing Bacon's paintings into dialogue with Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" and the film "Alien", he also provides original insights into the ethical relevance the artist's works have for today. This study addresses the complexities of the artist's practice - particularly in relation to sexuality and synaesthesia - and additionally forms a crucial intervention within current debates about creative writing in art history:
"Art historical writing never merely describes art. It also shapes its reader's perception of it. Art's histories, its various texts and contexts, frame the ways in which works of art are understood. This framing is, in part, accomplished through choices of words and styles of writing. It is this aspect of the practice of art history, the composition of the description and explanation of artworks, which has increasingly, self-consciously, explained by historians [recently]" (p. 1).

Painter with a Double-Edged Sword

"If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties." – Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, 1605
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