The bad boy of British art long before the YBAs (young British artists) claimed the title, Francis Bacon was known as much for his personal escapades as for his powerful, disturbing distortions of human anatomy on canvas. A profligate gambler who relished drunken sexual encounters in a world where homosexuality was still illegal, Bacon laid his personal life bare on the canvas.
His brilliance, however, lies in the underlying sensitivity of these expositions, rather than in his flagrant flouting of the law. In Francis Bacon: Five Decades, superbly curated by Anthony Bond of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, we are lured as viewers through one decade, and its accompanying lover, after another – a device that might seem prosaic on paper, yet is hugely confronting in the flesh.
For it seems no one distorts, mangles, stretches and strains the human body quite like Bacon. Unless, of course, you’ve read Pat Barker’s numbing account in Toby’s Room of the damage done to unsuspecting soldiers in the trenches of Europe in World War I. Unaware of their vulnerability in the trenches, soldiers in the beauty of their youth received horrific facial injuries from German machine guns. Bacon would have been aware of the work carried out by surgeon and Slade Art School lecturer Henry Tonks, who meticulously documented these men’s injuries before the gradual reconstruction of their faces under remarkable New Zealand-born plastic surgeon Harold Gillies. Not that the exhibition makes this comparison; rather, it is in the world of medicine that links between Bacon and Tonks have tended to be made.
In the show, the viewer is confronted by Bacon’s visions of faces in which ridges of bone seem to have thrust through to rest outside the skin, noses are twisted, mouths are swollen and overlapping, and foreheads are violently dragged down across noses like the tragic proboscis of the Elephant Man. Yet Bacon’s work moves far beyond this immediate visceral response. For a start, he is a superb colourist, even in his famous dark, dragged paintings from the 1950s, the most notorious of which respond to Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X.
With their expressions of entrapment and rage, Bond perceptively notes, these screaming figures may also reflect Bacon’s horrifying struggles with asthma, brought on as a boy in Ireland by his unloving father’s insistence he work with his dogs and horses. (A heart attack, brought on by asthma, killed Bacon on April 28, 1992.)
He was fascinated by wild animals, not least baboons with their wide-jawed shrieks, heads thrown back as if dislocated, raging at the sky. That inhuman gesture finds its way into numerous portraits. Another important influence was the still from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin of a howling woman, blood dripping down her face behind shattered pince-nez. Those plump lips stretched wide find their way into several of the portraits in the show. Bacon drew avidly on Eadweard Muybridge’s revolutionary photographs documenting the body in movement, whether male nudes wrestling, animals caught as if in slow motion, or the staggers of the halt and lame. Equally, the influences of the surrealist movement and Picasso in particular are strong.
Paintings from the 1960s are somewhat lighter, his figures seated in brilliant planes of colour suggesting expansive sofas and beds, sometimes “illuminated” by a single hanging light bulb. Others tumble and twist on railings, as if performing in a circus.
Although largely self-educated and trained, Bacon was both a polymath and a magpie, as evidenced by his studio, now painstakingly reproduced at Dublin City Gallery the Hugh Lane. When viewed several years ago, it was visible only through narrow windows reminiscent of castle arrow slits, as if it was feared that, like one of Bacon’s paintings, the accretions of his creative life might rise up in a maelstrom and hurtle towards you.
Numerous writers have described the torn, scratched, frayed, daubed photographs from which Bacon preferred to work, cascading across furniture and floor among a plethora of broken books, magazines, paint-caked plates, bottles and tins. It seems the artist was fond of canned orange juice and Batchelors Butter Beans, their containers now jammed full of regimental paintbrushes. Bacon spoke once of the importance of his studio, noting “chaos breeds images for me”.
The most impressive works in Sydney’s exhibition are Bacon’s larger triptychs, such as Three Studies of the Male Back (1970). The figure of his lover George Dyer perches naked on a pedestal seat in each panel, reflected in a mirror supported by a metal cage. In the central section, his spine seems to have pushed through to the outside of his skin, and an ominous liquid shadow pools across the floor, as if his life is draining out of his body. As it did. The following year, on the eve of Bacon’s major retrospective exhibition in Paris, Dyer overdosed on barbiturates.
In smaller portraits, faces, including Bacon’s own, peer out from the picture plane, eyes often filled with an inexpressible sadness, faces abraded with textures produced by rubbing a woollen garment onto the wet canvas. That same wary gaze can be seen in numerous photographs of the artist. Yet on leaving the exhibition one feels uplifted. On an end wall is a large projection of Bacon in his studio. Although notoriously impatient with interviewers, here he spins in slow motion, raising his hand towards the camera amid the chaos, roaring with laughter.
WHILE YOU’RE THERE…
Further treats await the visitor over the summer in Sydney. Anish Kapoor will be at the Museum of Contemporary Art from December 20-April 1, covering the span of the sculptor’s career to date, including the monolithic wax My Red Homeland (2003). Look out for a Listener interview with Kapoor in the new year. And if history is more to your liking, there is Alexander the Great: 2000 Years of Treasures at the Australian Museum until April 28. Spoilt for choice.
FRANCIS BACON: FIVE DECADES, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until February 24.
Mary Kisler travelled to Sydney courtesy of Destination NSW.