PRINT March 1995


Asked what I could look at, never tiring, for as long as I am blessed with sight, I might, without reflecting, answer, The night sky above the Sinai desert—but on second thought I’d have to say, The face of one I love.

The human face is my favorite landscape. If you know the face you’re watching, know it well, it cannot not show you the unseen, cannot not display devotion, pain, anxiety, its trust. Where else, on what other fabric, can you behold the shape of love, the shade of fear, the color of despair that’s not your own? What does love look like? Love looks like the face of the beloved. What does pain look like? It looks like someone in pain. The seen landscape of emotion draws on the human body and, most poignantly, because of parts achieving their expressiveness in combinations, on the face. A stranger can communicate the story of his life while sitting on a bus across from you, speaking not a word.

I first saw Francis Bacon’s Self-Portrait—one of his many—at the Marlborough Gallery in Albemarle Street in London, the year after he died. I hadn’t seen a Bacon exhibition since his one-man show at the Tate in 1985, which was my first introduction to the breadth and scope of his work. Then, one afternoon nine years later, my daughter and I came across a retrospective of his small portrait studies at the Marlborough Gallery. My daughter remarked that she’d always found him violent, and I knew I had to take her inside so she could see what he could do, and always did, with torment and with pathos.

And there it was, this little gem, 14 by 12 inches, bearing sweetness through the paint. The round, almost neonatal head seemed to have been delivered into life before being entirely formed, the eyes like golems’ eyes, the lip, perhaps, still tasting of the womb.

My daughter Lara and I stood before it, speechless. How and when and where one has these encounters—personal encounters, that is—with works of art are as much a part of the experience, and of the memory of it, as the art itself is. Bacon had only recently died, and in the weeks after his death British television had been awash with every prerecorded documentary on him they could rewind. He was, after all, the greatest painter England had squeezed from her green and drab since Turner. Bacon wasn’t just the best float in the parade, he was the parade. And the route he took was plotted over minefields, into walls, wherever he spotted a sign that warned NO TRESPASSING, or PRIVATE PROPERTY.

He was, I think, the most un-English English painter (he was born in Dublin), although Turner shoulders with him for ferocity. The English swallow Turner whole—but they don’t quite know how to slice their Bacon. He was a homosexual and an alcoholic, and, unlike David Hockney, he did not decamp to better light—he lived in digs in South Ken for most his painting life. Unlike Hockney, he attacked the institutions that are the four cornerstones of English life—class, connubial pretense, conformity, and Christ. His face was never pretty, nor was his talk. He had a pugilistic jowlishness that seemed to brag that it could go ten rounds, and had. His conversation veered away from anything that sounded show-offy or chatty. He looked like someone who had trucked with rough trade, truculently; someone who had recognized genius as a scar that never heals; someone marked at birth to live away, somewhat, from others, even those he loved.

Yet when it came to using his own hand to paint the face that he knew best—his own—he was capable, in this one instance, of painting what he’d lost, of painting who he’d been before he ever painted. That’s what this portrait is, not of a man but of a boy, not of wisdom gained but of innocence traduced, not of rage but of a sorrow that is ageless.

Since I saw this painting with my daughter, there hasn’t been a day when I’m at home that I haven’t looked at the copy of Self-Portrait I keep in my study above my typewriter, placed there as if it were a mirror. I have come to know it well; but more than that, I have come to love the human, the humanity, in it. I spent time in the Sinai desert recently, sleeping nights beneath the stars. Every night, with my eyes open, I could see more of the universe than I could contemplate; but when I closed my eyes, I saw that face. It is a face by Francis Bacon but not of him. What it’s of is all men, and women, too. It’s of forgiveness; and it’s as beautiful a thing as I have every seen.