I love the dregs.
If Francis Bacon had a theme song, it might be the Kinks’ I’m Not Like Everybody Else. Yet by his own reckoning, Bacon’s perverse, hedonistic lifestyle – with its heavy drinking, gambling and sadomasochistic sex – should not be considered the key to his painting. In a 1975 book of interviews with David Sylvester, often taken as holy writ, the artist tells us repeatedly that any meanings found in his work are purely accidental.
A figure lies on a bed with a hypodermic syringe protruding from its arm, but that was only to “nail down” an image. A set of cricket pads on a naked torso serves “to strengthen a figure and make it more real.” Even a swastika armband might be viewed as a generalised symbol with no specific reference to Nazism.
Bacon (1909-92) was not only a great painter but a legendary talker. To a nightly audience of cronies and admirers at a London watering hole such as the Colony Club, he could spin a web around the subjects of life, death and art. He cultivated a particular image, discussing his paintings in purely formal terms, while vetting his own museum shows to exclude anything that pre-dated Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944). He even talked the Tate out of including explanatory notes in a 1962 exhibition catalogue.
Bacon saw the self as no less of a creation than his paintings, and the Three Studies’ marked the point where he chose to be born as an artist. It was a shrewd choice because that small, unforgettable triptych is one of those rare works, like Picasso’s Guernica (1937), Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas (c. 1575), or Goya’s The Third of May (1814) that no-one simply walks past. Many viewers have been haunted by the image.
In Francis Bacon: Five Decades, at the Art Gallery of NSW, that seminal triptych is represented by a study for the right-hand panel. With its long, animal neck and a face that is nothing more than an ear and an inverted, gaping mouth, it remains ferocious, but has less impact when divorced from the other figures.
One might almost be thankful for that minor diminution. With Bacon’s Paris retrospective of 1971, one writer reported that people kept saying: “It’s like a punch in the face.” Any large survey of Bacon’s work is bound to be confronting, and this is the first time Australian audiences have been exposed to a comprehensive overview.
In relation to Bacon’s work critics have used the word “horror” with profligate ease, but the artist claimed this was never his intention. He saw his painting as a form of realism that delved beyond the veil of appearances, aiming to connect directly with the viewer’s nervous system. If his images seemed horrible that was only because life itself is horrible.
Why do we find Bacon’s work so magnetic, when he dwells relentlessly on the dark side? From 1962 onwards, the art museums of the world have held one exhibition after another, which the public attend in huge numbers. A commercial show with Claude Bernard in Paris attracted such a crush of people it almost resulted in a riot.
There are many possible reasons for Bacon’s appeal. One could speculate that no artist better captured the essence of the twentieth century in all its brutality and bloodshed. There is also the lure of the grotesque, the same desire that compells us to stare at scenes of death and disaster such as the 9/11 attacks. His work has the attraction we feel for anything that is genuinely uncompromising.
This selection of fifty paintings, plus source material from the artist’s studio, provides a surprisingly good overview of Bacon’s career. Some previous shows put together by curator, Tony Bond, led me to anticipate the worst, but this exhibition is a success. It’s also Bond’s swansong at the AGNSW, so he can retire with his head held high.
There are small indications in the catalogue of the ways in which the show could have been derailed – by an undue emphasis on Marcel Duchamp or ‘postmodernist’ theory, but such speculations never interfere with the works on the wall. We are able to experience these paintings as the artist intended – as a procession of stark, confronting images that subscribe to no theoretical or political agenda.
Bacon would have been less pleased by the first piece in the show, a small Crucifixion of 1933, which was reproduced in Herbert Read’s influential study of the modernist movement, Art Now (1933). It appears alongside a Picasso Bather of 1929, and Bacon’s debt to the older artist is obvious, which may be the reason he never allowed this work to be included in earlier retrospectives. Yet there is a distinctive touch in the painting that foreshadows the pictures to come and suggests the youthful Bacon was anything but a copycat.
In the years that followed, Bacon showed his willingness to follow Picasso’s dusty bon mot: “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” He stole imagery from old masters such as Michelangelo, Poussin and Velasquez; from Eisenstein’s film, Battleship Potemkin; from books on radiography, diseases of the mouth and spiritualism; from Picasso, Giacometti, and probably, Graham Sutherland. His greatest debt was to photography, especially the stop-motion photography of Eadweard Muybridge, whose figures appear in numerous guises in this show. A painting titled From Muybridge (1965) combines two images: a woman emptying a bowl of water, and a paralytic child walking on all fours.
Take Muybridge out of the equation and Bacon’s entire oeuvre may have been different, but he would have maintained his close relationship with the camera. Not only did he commission his friend, John Deakin, to take photographs of the people he wanted to paint, he also preferred reproductions of paintings to the real thing. In a powerful variant on his series of screaming Popes, titled Figure with Meat (1954), Bacon has drawn on photos of hanging carcasses; the dying nurse from Battleship Potemkin; and the revered Velasquez portrait of Pope Innocent X (c. 1650).
The combinations were intuitive, if not surreal. The artist would visit the studio in the early hours of the morning, after a hard night’s drinking, and enjoy the feeling of working with his head fogged by fatigue and alcohol. This was one of the ways he was not like everybody else.
A study in productive contradictions, Bacon enjoyed the high life and the low life, with nothing in between. He complained, half-jokingly, that being queer had been more interesting when it was illegal. He could be charming, generous and compassionate, or disarmingly brutal. He believed that friends should be capable of tearing one another apart – an idea that he backed up in portraits of his closest companions with pulverised faces, or the features of baboons.
Although he was a lifelong, outspoken atheist, Bacon began his career painting Crucifixions, while his later works have the iconic power of altarpieces. He accentuated the quasi-sacred nature of his paintings by having them put behind glass and framed in gold. This makes it harder to examine the works closely, and projects a rather crass impression of their monetary value. It may have been a cynical tactic for selling difficult pictures to rich collectors, reassured by the expensive frames. This Old Master pretense was a source of irritation for critics such as Hilton Kramer, who saw Bacon as an old-fashioned Salon artist posing as a radical.
Bacon’s admiration for Duchamp was most probably the admiration of one cynic for another. Both game-players, Duchamp’s passion was for chess, while Bacon preferred roulette, but they held equally dismissive views of the art world.
Samuel Beckett’s words about the painter, Tal Coat, could be applied just as accurately to Bacon: “nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” Bacon was a proud nihilist who felt that because life was essentially meaningless we may as well have a good time and try to do something marvellous. Devoid of all the conventional wellsprings of expression, he made paintings that continue to touch and move his audiences.
One sees the smallest glimpse of the man behind the mask in Triptych – August 1972, which features three portraits of Bacon’s lover, George Dyer, who committed suicide in a hotel room in Paris on the eve of the Grand Palais show. For years afterwards, Bacon the hardened nihilist was consumed with guilt, and painted a long series of works in expiation. The blobs of pink ectoplasm that surround Dyer may be vital fluids escaping from the body, but it takes little imagination to see them as images of the soul taking flight.
Francis Bacon: Five Decades: Art Gallery of NSW, November 17 – February 24, 2012
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, November 24, 2012