A sense of new adventure can be hard to conjure when working with an artist so famed and so often reproduced as widely celebrated Irish-born British painter, Francis Bacon.
Though such an exhibition may not evoke that giddy feeling of nowness and the jolt of discovery, this collection of 50 years of painting (and one rogue extra artwork) comes with a heightened feeling of consolidation, resolve and conclusion. If you haven’t seen a Bacon retrospective in another city, then you haven’t seen such a thorough collection of Bacon’s work up close. If your familiarity with the work has been garnered through jpegs and printed catalogues, then there is a lot to re-learn about the grandeur, detail and materials (such as sand, dust and aerosol applied with such tools as textured fabric) of these painting up close.
Curator and the director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales Tony Bond has compartmentalised this exhibitions into five decades, making Bacon’s career easy to navigate, educational and thoroughly digestible.
Through wall texts, quotes and projections – not to mention books and monitors in the education room – the exhibition groups Bacon’s shifts in technique and fluctuation in palette, giving insights into the inextricable link between life and work, including a revealing focus on Bacon’s almost calendar-regulated lovers. But can a life self-described as chaos really be reduced to 10-year time slots?
Opening with the single exception to the time-specific curatorial regime, Crucifixion from 1933 depicts a splayed carcass hanging in one of Bacon’s recognisable wireframe prisms and is a touchstone to the haunting trajectory to follow. Next, projected up high, is a portion of Soviet Russian Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 film Battleship Potemkin, depicting a scene of a screaming woman that had a particular impact on Bacon and became a recurring theme in his work.
During the 1950s, Bacon did not have a permanent studio and this echoes in the word. Perhaps to combat the depression and repression of this period in London – represented in this room by moody blues, greys and earth tones (Figure with Meat, 1954) – Bacon regularly visited Morocco, where homosexuality was more tolerated. Perhaps unsurprisingly, while becoming friendly with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, Bacon accomplished little else during these stays.
Concerned with creating new advances in painting, Bacon argued that one cannot use the old techniques to achieve this. Employing high risk, the artist used the back of the canvas, the un-primed surface, where the mark could not be removed and a confidence in the gamble delivers an absolute truth. A wall text reads: “My ideal would really be just to pick up a handful of paint and throw it at the canvas and hope that the portrait was there.”
The 60s saw a particularly fertile period and works often depicting broad colour fields with a central figure. In 1961, the artist took up residency at Reece Mews, the studio he would keep until his death. In ‘63 he met his lover and East End petty criminal George Dyer and painted the many portraits (often from three angles as if police mug shots) of the Soho scene with which he was so famously linked. Bacon’s work, often regarded as cruel and gruesome, here shows a tenderness and sensitivity.
The room depicting the 70s sees more images of eroticised athleticism and several self-portraits, marking a period of critical and commercial success for Bacon but also the suicide of his lover George Dyer on the evening of Bacon’s exhibition at Paris’s Grand Palais. He soon broke his own rules and we witness examples of narrative and depictions of the dead, such as the never before exhibited Seated Figure (1978), showing a profile of Dyer.
The 80s saw a stylistic change and a revisiting of the shadow, this time a fuller, fleshy and blob-like object in itself. Though a certain precision, sophistication and deft drama is evident during this period, the control leaves the works a little less enigmatic and engaging. Like a well-tuned motor vehicle, you receive all the confidence it will arrive at the destination yet no excitement and blood-racing danger of the possibility of failure.
It is hard to discern whether the artist’s life could be so rigidly structured by some kind of astrological 10-year calendar, or if it is Bond who has so convincingly sculpted Bacon’s career into this accessible exhibition. Regardless, its educational value is unarguable. It is the surfaces, textures and three-dimensional materiality of the works that makes forgetting the reproductions and witnessing the actual works so important.
Francis Bacon – Five Decades shows the Art Gallery of New South Wales until February 24, 2013.