How does the one we love see us?
Photography captures the world through the eyes’ visual perspective. Painting is the filtered perception of reality through the artist’s obsession and desire. There is something almost romantic about this statement, yet when speaking of the immortalized lovers of artists throughout history, it can almost become a curse when observing the works in a new light.
In Literature we have the example of Marcel Proust, who transformed his lover and chauffeur, Alfred Agostinelli, into Albertine, the quintessential representation of torrid affairs in the twentieth century, in his novel In Search of Lost Time. Some believe that what drove him to write this monumental seven-volume literary work was having his lover die in an aerial accident.
Art features several cases of lovers being represented one way or another in the works. One of the creepiest yet spectacular cases is that of modern artist Francis Bacon and George Dyer.
Bacon’s painting capture the grotesque of everyday life through ambiguous and monstrous representations that in the artist’s words: "I would like my picture to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail leaving its trail of the human presence... as a snail leaves its slime."
According to the myth, in 1964 a few days before an exhibit opening, George Dyer broke into Francis Bacon’s studio to burgle. The artist caught him in the act and said “Take off your clothes and get into bed with me.” But if we’re to trust more accurate accounts, it happened in a less cinematic but more realistic setting: a pub in London’s Soho. “George was down the far end of the bar and he came over and said ‘You all seem to be having a good time, can I buy you a drink?'’’
From that moment on, they were together for eight years. Dyer became the leading man in Bacon’s paintings. This led to a period where the Irish artist’s most famous works were made. Some of the ones that stood out are Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror (1968) and Portrait of George Dyer Talking (1966). The latter was auctioned for 36 million euros in 2014.
These were intense, unstable, unpredictable years full of emotional dependence. The paintings of this era show this through the imagery of sex, death, and pain added to the heart-wrenching work Bacon was known for.
In 1971, on the eve of Francis Bacon’s retrospective in Paris, he found George dead in the bathroom of their hotel room. He had ended his life by overdosing on sleeping pills. Prior to the event, George Dyer had already attempted to take his life several times, for he suffered from constant depression. After his death, and until 1974, Dyer continued to be Bacon’s model, until the artist met John Edwards.
What might have gone through George Dyer’s minds the first time he saw himself in his lover’s paintings? What might he have thought after seeing himself monstrously deformed? Might he have observed something of himself through the way Bacon captured him?
These grotesque representations might prove there is no step between love and hate, only art.
If you’re interested in reading about other moments of tumultuous love in art, you should read:
Translated by María Suárez