Bacon in Australia

Carolyn McDowall, Francis Bacon: Five Decades of Art during Twentieth Century, The Culture Concept Circle, 12.11.2012

"A wise man will make more opportunities than he finds. […] The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery." -Sir Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon: Five Decades of Art is an exhibition ‘not to be missed’ to be held at its only venue in Australia, the Art Gallery of NSW. It is on view 17th November – 24 February 2013. This retrospective is of works rendered by that twentieth century master of post-war British art, the Irish born son of English parents Francis Bacon (1909 – 1992). He portrayed the ordeal of the vulnerable exposed human body like no other artist of his generation although unlike other artists he did not paint from life. Instead he appropriated images and manipulated them into psychological studies that shot him to a prominence. His fame hardly diminished over the next fifty years, and today still continues to rise. The show is structured around five decades, which correspond to key themes in Bacon’s development as an artist. Each decade is represented by thought-provoking works that characterize his art during that period.

His technical bravura is always harnessed to change, from the horror and meaningless bastions of death to the metamorphosis of man as he struggles from being merely meat to human or the reverse. He played with notions of the human form and its isolation and while perhaps avoiding narrative, in many ways he ended up dictating it.

Bacon was a man with a name already famous and he proved like his historical namesake, and possible ancestor philosopher and wordsmith Francis Bacon (1561-1626), that he was a complex and often conflicted individual. They both seemed to share a vision for that of seeing their own universe as a challenge to be contemplated and meditated upon, with all the world a stage on which ‘man’ stood as a symbolic portal for expanding knowledge.

Whereas the older Francis Bacon view could be enlightening, uplifting, purposeful and inspiring the modern Francis Bacon’s viewpoint was for most of his life the polar opposite; one in which humankind seemed to have been deserted by the love of God or any other human being on earth.

All his works while bold and graphic are emotionally raw and he would become perhaps the bleakest chronicler of humankind during the twentieth century, while being celebrated as one of its greatest artists. As Bacon himself explained: ‘… they always talk about this violence in my work. I don’t think my work is violent at all. You’ve only got to think about life.’

As his illustrious ancestor was renowned for making humankind think, perhaps that is also his greatest life achievement and their most important connection.

With over 50 rare paintings, some of them monumental in size, as well as photographs and archival material from Francis Bacon’s studio at London, the exhibition covers every decade of his career. It gives a fascinating insight into his life and work, if you can in reality survive the experience.

There is nothing really light hearted on view, the works range from the pensive and most shocking works of the 1940s to the exuberantly coloured and visceral large paintings of the 1970s and 80s.

This is an exhibition four years in the making and the works have been drawn from 37 collections including private collections and Australian and international institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art at New York, Tate Britain at London, the Pompidou Centre at Paris, and the Francis Bacon Estate.

Shown alongside the paintings is a wealth of archival material from his mostly chaotic London studio, offering a fascinating insight into the artist and his creative process.

Bacon’s childhood when you read about it could not be viewed by any stretch of the imagination as ‘normal’ or remotely like one that anyone else would begin to experience. His homosexuality, once realised, came at a time when sexuality other than the ‘norm’ was not easily acceptable to society and certainly not his father. There is a story his father had him horsewhipped, which if it is the case, would have only added to the challenges and cruel experiences of his life. Theirs was a difficult relationship.

Francis Bacon did not complete school, quitting before he was to be expelled. He drifted off to London aged 16 not knowing where he wanted to be or what he wanted to do. Becoming a a renowned master artist was an idea that hadn’t yet entered his head or even emerged on his forseeable horizon.

A visit to Berlin in 1927 provided him with an experience of another place, but would not as yet generate any sort of interest in art, or life for that matter. Drifting on to France he sojourned in Chantilly for a few months, where he is said to have encountered the Nicolas Poussin work The Massacre of the Innocents c1630, one he would allude to later in his career.

After that at Paris he attended an exhibition of drawings by Picasso in the summer of 1927. Without any formal training or guidance this is the point that he began to make drawings and watercolours of himself.

At London in the late 20′s and early 30′s he set himself up as an interior decorator; a furniture and rug designer, the latter being made at Royal Wilton’s prestigious carpet factory. This was not an insignificant achievement for someone with no formal qualifications in any field.

Studio magazine wrote him up and Australian Post Cubist painter Roy de Maistre helped him find his feet and he began producing oils on canvas. Bacon mounted his first modest exhibition, with de Maistre participating too, of paintings and rugs. Although he was now moving up the ladder of society through the circle of people he was involved with, both personally and professionally, he found that it was desperately hard to earn enough money to live on.

Exempt from enlisting in the World War II effort because of asthma he took on the horrors of it all on the bombed out streets of London physically daily, as well as emotionally, internalizing what he saw. This was a point when he also became influenced by intellectual pursuits, especially the works of British born American poet and author T.S. Eliot.

His first major work Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944 was hung in a group exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery, New Bond Street in April 1945. This was only mere weeks before the end of the war in Europe, unnerving all who encountered what is a very disturbing triptych. It certainly made people sit up and notice him and it was a forerunner of things to come. In Bacon’s immediate oeuvre were images straight out of a horror story of what would seem to be a warped imagination, disembodied, disembowelled mangled manic figures, torturous for the viewer in the extreme.

At this point he seemingly linked what happened in slaughterhouses to animals and to the war experiences of humankind during the horrific years he had just lived through.

It was a combination of bleak city and bad news all at once, in a time of political and social transition.

He would revisit the subject again in 1962.

Following the war he made his way to the French Riviera and the gambling dens of the Côte d’Azur, where he was supposed to be busy producing a body of work for a show at London.

He did experiment with different techniques and also texture by painting on the reverse unprimed side of a canvas, an intractability he enjoyed so very much, because it only made it all the harder.

Torturing himself had now also entered the equation.

Pushed for time to complete enough works on his return to London in the late 40′s he produced a series of six ‘heads’ and focused on producing ‘disturbing details such as open mouths, teeth, ears and safety pins’.

His Head VI 1949 seems to be screaming out in protest, its purple cape representing that worn by the Pope, as well as his earliest variation on Spanish master Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1650.

This was another theme he would repeat with obsessive intensity throughout the following decade and intermittently during the 1960s and 70s.

One might suspect that it was perhaps a comment on the torturous experiences of his early life in Catholic Dublin, that is if we were to believe there was a narrative attached to his works.

His trips to South Africa where his mother had moved following his father’s death would add another layer of influence during the 50′s, which seemed to be a kinder period of his life. This was when he divided his time between Morocco and London and began moving in illustrious literary circles, gaining loyal patrons in Robert and Lisa Sainsbury.

He exhibited in 1954 at the Venice Biennale and had his first one man show in New York in 1953 and at Paris in 1957.

This is when his painting started undergoing a transformation and his colours became much more strident in both their range and hue, leaving the sombre backgrounds and ghostly forms far behind.

During the swinging sixties when revolutions in sexuality, popular culture, gender fashion and lifestyle were all happening he was living n a converted coach house in Reece Mews in South Kensington.

It was from there that he reworked his ‘three studies for a crucifixion’, which was exhibited at the Tate Gallery in May of 1962.

This was an exceedingly uplifting time for him in terms of virtuosity and he employed a great deal of bravura brushwork, producing compositions of great invention.

He gained and lost a lover and a muse during this period and when George Dyer, who had tried to frame his lover for possession of cannabis, died in 1973 his Triptych May – June of 1973 was one of grave simplicity.

This was a period were shape and expression was reflected in a new material culture that was richly visual.

During the 70′s and 80′s solo exhibitions and retrospectives of his work meant that his became a name well known around the world of art.

As he aged during his 70′s he also took on the challenge of ‘landscape’, during which nature’s daily events, such as a sandstorm, were given attention.

His pictorial language was reduced as he began searching for a simplicity it had not known previously, and his colours took on other nuances and were refined.

His health gradually declined and during a trip to Madrid in April 1992, one that he had been advised against he died, ironically in the presence of two nuns. His estate was left to John Edwards whom he had met during the mid-1970s.

Francis Bacon: Five Decades of Art
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
17th November 2012 – 24 February 2013

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