The English artist Francis Bacon created outrageous, violent, chaotic works designed to trigger audience emotions and appeal to those little quirks we often suppress.
The Newsroom was fortunate to enjoy a guided tour of this acclaimed major exhibition covering five decades of Bacon’s work, from the first works that shocked public perceptions to the huge exuberant canvases of his final years.
Wednesday 7pm, and the gallery was packed as Sydneysiders flocked to catch the final days of the exhibition. Our guide, Jenny, provided a bridge to understanding, shedding light, and a little clarity, on the intense images before us.
I had been told to expect controversial art, sometimes grotesque and confronting, but always brilliant. The exhibition followed each decade of Bacon’s work from the ’40s to the ’80s, but that’s where order and consistency ended. As Jenny explained, Bacon wasn’t owned by any particular isms. Instead, his paintings were a collection of random chaos with a theme that was hard to follow and a style which consistently changed.
The tour group formed a tidy semicircle around Jenny, creating a contradictory scene: orderly, structured audience neatly tucked around Bacon’s violent, chaotic, emotional work.
“I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them. Like a snail, leaving a trail of the human presence and memory trace of past events, as the snail leaves its slime.” Add this to a type of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered from his time in London during World War I and you can start to grasp the nature of Bacon’s work.
My favourite piece was Head 1 – an image of a face or, rather, teeth screaming out from a dark frame with a melted figure distinguishable only by the disjointed ear that accompanies it. I saw my childhood foe, my archnemesis, the proverbial monster under the bed. Voldemort.
Bacon’s habit of painting from photographs seemed appropriate. His avoidance of the gaze of a subject or audience in his work is mimicked in his audience’s tendency to avoid looking directly at his paintings, looking too closely, or for too long. The energy and violence of his work is simply too confronting, intimate and personal to deconstruct.
The piece that struck me as a pinnacle of the exhibition was his 1954 work Figure with meat, depicting a seated man with what appear to be enormous wings – but on closer inspection prove to be the bisected carcass of a cow.
His final works, from the late ’70s to the ’80s, were particularly striking. The series entitled Studies of the Human Body depicted a large, muscular man astride a balancing beam. In each panel, the figure is in varied interaction with the beam that traverses the painting. Jenny described the series as representing “the agony of maintaining one’s balance”. It seemed an appropriate summation to this rollercoaster collection of work by a 20th-century great.
Did I “enjoy” the exhibition? It is perplexing that I can’t exclaim with delight and joy that I did. Bacon’s work is confronting, violent, quirky extreme and unusual. The inherently visceral nature of the art does not evoke a warm response. It was thought-provoking, touching a raw nerve that leaves me uncomfortable – probably, exactly as he intended. – Amy Neumann
The Francis Bacon Five Decades exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW ends on Sunday, February 24.