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Francis Bacon, Seduced by Madrid

ON the afternoon of April 30, 1992, a plain coffin bearing the body of the Dublin-born painter Francis Bacon arrived at the brick and white-stone chapel of the vast Almudena Cemetery in Madrid. The artist then made the quiet exit he had sought. He was cremated with minimal ceremony, with no mourners present; his ashes were sent to England.

Bacon had spent his final six days in a Madrid clinic, wheezing oxygen from a bottle and nursed by nuns. He charmed them with his basic Spanish, but he asked for no visitors and reportedly received none. After he died of a heart attack on April 28, his London dealer sent a Spanish colleague to collect Bacon’s brown suitcase and his leather jacket.

Bacon’s solitary death at 82 in Madrid seems a desolate, slightly random, parting for a London dweller whose foreign playgrounds, over the years, included Berlin, Paris and Tangier. In fact, the Spanish capital became something of a haunt for the artist in his final years, which he spent entwined in an on-and-off relationship with a handsome, young art-loving Spaniard.

So the retrospective of Bacon’s work that opened at the Prado Museum in Madrid this month is something of a homecoming for the painter. The show, which drew hordes to the Tate Gallery in London over the past few months, runs in Madrid until April 19 and then moves to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Madrid was quite a late discovery for Bacon,” says Michael Peppiatt, an art critic and biographer of Bacon. “It was very seductive: there was the Prado, which was a summit on his horizon, and, into the mix, a very good-looking Spanish friend who he was completely in love with.”

Bacon’s discreet trips to see his lover rounded off a long-standing interest in the home of the bullfight and of the two painters who, arguably, most influenced him: Picasso and Velázquez. He was charmed by the city, with its late rhythm, its bars that emptied at dawn, its dry, baking heat and narrow, seamy streets.

“He loved the heat, he loved the food, he loved the pictures, he loved the look of it,” said Janetta Parladé, a friend whom Bacon visited in southern Spain.

In the evenings, he and his Spanish friend would stop in for a dry martini — or three — or a bottle of Champagne at Bar Cock, a rather baronial-style bar frequented by actors and artists on a downtown street, then derelict and lined with heroin addicts. From there, a favorite destination was La Trainera, a landmark seafood restaurant whose beamed dining room is decked with nautical gear.

Patricia Ferrer, an owner of Bar Cock, remembers Bacon, immaculately dressed, having a drink just days before his death. “Here he was, a perfect dandy, sitting with his back beautifully straight,” she said. “He certainly died with his boots on.”

Bacon was fascinated by the bullfight, or corrida, a motif that recurs in his work in the form of circling bulls, ringed spaces, thrusting horns, gored legs. He described the corrida as “death in the sunlight” and “a marvelous aperitif of sex” and probably went to see fights in Madrid at Las Ventas bullring.

“He was captivated by the torero — the sexuality, the elegance, the outfit, the ballet of it,” said José Capa Eiriz, who, as director of exhibitions at the Juan March Foundation in Madrid, put on the first show of Bacon’s work in Spain in 1978.

For Bacon, the artistic high point of Madrid was, naturally, the Prado itself, home to a large collection of works by Goya and by Velázquez, whose 1650 “Portrait of Pope Innocent X” Bacon revered and transformed — some would say deformed — in his paintings of agonized, screaming popes. (Velázquez’s pope is at the Doria Pamphilj Gallery in Rome.)

Manuela Mena, the Prado’s curator of 18th-century painting and Goya — and of the Madrid retrospective — remembers Bacon asking to visit the museum on a Monday, when it was closed to the public. He would stand for long stretches before a work by Velázquez or Goya, peering up close, “thrusting himself right into the painting,” she said. “He wanted to see the brush strokes, the texture, the canvas.”

The retrospective offers a rare opportunity to see Bacon’s work in conjunction with some of the Spanish paintings that influenced him, according to Ms. Mena, who said she found echoes of, and allusions to, many of the Prado’s works in Bacon’s paintings.

In the “Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho,” Ms. Mena sees the self-assuredness of Velázquez’s black-clad “Pablo de Valladolid.” The stairs in the central panel of “Triptych — In Memory of George Dyer” (1971) are a reference to the Paris hotel where Dyer, Bacon’s lover, committed suicide, but they are also an allusion, Ms. Mena said, to the stairs leading to a half-open door in “Las Meninas” by Velázquez.

The purplish blood that soaks the clothes in the middle panel of Bacon’s “Triptych Inspired by T. S. Eliot’s ‘Sweeney Agonistes’ ”; the rusty, mottled patch in “Blood on Pavement” — these surely owe a debt to the sticky crimson smear on the dead man’s face and the blood mingling with the earth in Goya’s “Third of May 1808,” Ms. Mena said.

Friends and associates of Bacon speculated that he would be excited to see his paintings hanging in the museum that houses some of the painters he admired most. One person who seemed moved by the painter’s return to Madrid was Sister Mercedes, a nun of the Order of Servants of Mary who nursed the sick artist at the Ruber Clinic. She had no idea who Bacon was until the press descended on the hospital after he died.

Standing before the “Study After Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X” in a crowd of Madrid glitterati, Sister Mercedes looked a little pensive.

“He painted what he felt,” she said, nodding her head. “I could tell he was a tormented soul.”


The Francis Bacon retrospective runs until April 19 at the Prado Museum, Paseo del Prado; (34-91) 330-2800; Admission, 8 euros ($10.56 at $1.32 to the euro), includes permanent collection; open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.

Bar Cock, Calle de la Reina, 16; (34-91) 532-2826; open daily.

La Trainera, Calle de Lagasca, 60; (34-91) 576-8035;; open Monday through Saturday.
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