Painting pictures in Soho and Greenwich Village: books

Richard Davenport-Hines reviews two artistic Lives
Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma by Michael Peppiatt, Weidenfeld, pounds 20

Jasper Johns: Privileged Information by Jill Johnston, Thames & Hudson, pounds 16.95

Biographies of painters are especially difficult. A painter's job is "to get the essence without being positive about factual shapes," as Francis Bacon said. The greatest painting in the 20th century has been anomalous and parabolic; it has not told literal truths, but has provided mystifying hybrid images, repudiating the sort of pictorial story-telling about which spectators can make pedantic guesses and pride themselves on their cleverness in deciphering secret messages. As a result, modern painting can be trivialised if viewed biographically, and painters rightly fear that their images may be sterilised by a reductive or literal-minded biographer. The possibilities of a sympathetic, interpretative biography are shown in Michael Peppiatt's account of his friend Francis Bacon. The results of humourless, arrogant biographical interpretations are exemplified in Jill Johnston's rant about Jasper Johns.

Bacon's life followed a series of fractured literary models: childhood in a horsey Anglo-Irish family from Elizabeth Bowen, in youth a prostitute- thief from Genet, then a Baudelairean dandy, a Dostoevskyan gambler, a Soho boozer from Colin MacInnes, a masochist with Rimbaud's fascination for violence who ended in a senescent sexuality from Proust. Keith Vaughan's description of Bacon as a "spiv-existentialist" is wonderfully apt, for he never abandoned the fashionable nostrum of Soho and Greenwich Village in the 1940s that the key to a productive and amusing life was submission to chance and abasement before the consequences of arbitrary decisions. The result was a fractured, destructive life which, by the intensity of its abandonment to extreme instincts, gave Bacon superb powers of visual inventiveness.

Peppiatt first met Bacon in 1963, and though his memories of their conversations add a keen edge to his biography, he never forgets that Bacon surpasses him in both interest and achievement. Peppiatt hints that Bacon's need of emotional extremism to stimulate his creativity led him to exaggerate the desolation of his childhood, and writes with unprurient cheerfulness about Bacon's masochism, which is surely more basic to his painterly vision than homosexuality. His account of the evolution of Bacon's artistic ideas is confident, amusing and thought-provoking. Peppiatt is fascinating about the literary influences on Bacon's work such as T S Eliot's play The Family Reunion (1939). Though he tells us that Bacon often re-read Proust and declared that the first section of Sodome et Gomorrhe "said everything there is to say about homosexuality", he should perhaps have compared Bacon's pictures of men shrieking in pain and roaring with pleasure with Proust's most terrifying volume, Le Temps Retrouve, in which the narrator and characters endure the final saturnalia of a Baconian hell.

Bacon's images of previously unimagined horrors seemed outrageous in the 1940s and 1950s. The early pictures of Jasper Johns like White Flag (1955), Green Target (1955) and Gary Alphabets (1956) created equal scandal by playing with familiar designs like the Stars and Stripes or firing- range targets. The huge, abrupt success of his 1958 show broke the hegemony of Abstract Expressionism in the USA and prefigured the Pop Art movement. As one might expect from a painter whose most vital work has been an ironic teasing of famous emblems, Johns has said: "I'm interested in things which suggest the world rather than the personality." His discreet, self-reliant persona is mistrusted, if not resented, in the confessional America of Oprah Winfrey, and has brought him the attention of Jill Johnston.

Johnston's agenda is for the "autonomous, incorruptible art object" which she calls "virtually a freak of culture" to be "nudged into the open, no longer a fugitive from important truths." Predictably in our age of tabloid Feudianism, the important truths from which Johnston implies that Johns is a fugitive are sexual, and most of her suggestions are exceedingly trite. She has made one interesting observation, identifying Mathias Grunewald's 16th-century Isenheim altarpiece (much admired by Bacon) as a profound influence on Johns' later work. But her account of this is overblown and unnecessarily mysterious. It climaxes with a simplistic connection between the depiction of a monster and plague victim in Grunewald's altarpiece and the carcinomas associated with HIV. The rest of the book is discursive, incoherent, pompous drearily literal-minded and ill-written. Unsurprisingly, Johns refused permission for his work to be reproduced in it.