British artist Francis Bacon’s studio at 7 Reece Mews in South Kensington, London was as much a work of art as any of his paintings. So much so that in 1998, years after his death, the entire studio – a rat’s maze of rubbish piles, old paint palettes, torn and scattered photographs and other source materials for Bacon’s art (7500 objects in all) – was dismantled by archaelogists, conservators and curators and painstakingly rebuilt at the Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane.

bacon_studioBut the whole, military-strength exercise was more than just the preservation of a museum curio. Much like Australian artist Brett Whiteley’s preserved gallery (Bacon was a friend, mentor and a huge influence on Whiteley’s own work) in Sydney’s Surry Hills, the Bacon Studio reveals much about the artist’s methods, inspirations and creative spurs. Various pieces of the studio’s ephemera – photos, magazine clippings, torn images – make up a display at the centre of the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ current blockbuster, Francis Bacon: Five Decades which runs until February 2013.

Yet, despite Bacon’s chaotic working environment, his paintings have always exhibited cool control and incisive technique – which usually serves to make their subject matter even more harrowingly repulsive/attractive than if they had been heatedly dashed off. His harsh self-editing over the years (he routinely destroyed paintings throughout his life) helps too.

The 50 plus paintings on display for Five Decades span Bacon’s work from the 1940s through to the 70s and 80s. And they are 50 of the best, drawn from 37 collections internationally including the Tate and MOMA, New York. The AGNSW curatorial team, helmed by Anthony Bond, has really landed a beauty here. The exhibition includes many major works, including several of his well-known three-panel works such as “Triptych August 1971”.

Francis Bacon has been called the greatest British painter since Turner and with good reason – he is. To be able to see the paintings on display here – up close brushstrokes, textures and handwork, the jaw-dropping balance of colour, the audacity of form and shape – is one of the great experiences of Art. His technique is often beyond belief, and the aesthetic leaps he makes are foolhardy at best, insane at worst (Bacon was an obsessive, lifelong gambler) – yet they come off again and again and again, brilliantly.

So much for technique. Bacon’s subject matter is another thing altogether.Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion circa 1944 by Francis Bacon 1909-1992

The first impression is that of a pornographic butcher’s shop. Many pictures seem to be shining a harsh light on a private act – an amorphous or distorted writhing man-animal entity of flesh contorts on a stage which is often a cube or room-like space. The beings writhe or copulate or bleed as they present themselves to us, for our pleasure/revulsion. Many figures seem twisted into a corkscrew or spasm of agony/ecstacy. Their flesh is blue-pink, blue-grey – the bluing of bruising or decomposition.

The detachment alone is shocking – the neon strobes lighting these works is that of the surgeon, the scientist, the pornographer. Bacon worked often from photos of screaming people, or medical books on diseases of the mouth. Robert Hughes said of Bacon, “It takes no mean feat of self-removal to be able to inspect the gums and saliva of a screaming mouth as Monet did a lilypad”.

But, of course, there is much more to these pictures than their shock value. Bacon seems to use the shock of the image to jar us, to shake the blinkers from our eyes (and minds), so that we can then experience what is happening in these paintings “directly to (our) nervous system”. In interviews he always played his cards very close to his chest. Unlike pop-artist Andy Warhol’s banal statements (which were as tactically premeditated as his art was), Bacon seemed to constantly deflect from thinking too hard – or at all – about his work (he once said “I have nothing to express”) and just feeling it.

And yes, despite the apparent detachment, there is much to feel here. Upon the death of his lover George Dyer, Bacon did not grieve publicly, but embarked on creating several triptychs depicting Dyer with the shadows around his figure either black menacing Death or lilac puddles of Life draining from him. They are touching and truly tender.

Portraits of friends and lovers (Bacon was a popular and hugely social person) such as “Portrait of Michael Leiris” or the studies for his own self-portrait, show an incisive, almost Cubist analysis of planes and surfaces – but also more than we would expect, give away the sitter’s personality or Bacon’s feelings towards him or her.

And that contradiction – together with all of Bacon’s (and all of great Art’s) contradictions – is what will make you never forget Francis Bacon: Five Decades. It truly does hit you “directly to the nervous system” as you are drawn by the beauty and mastery of the pictures but repelled by their subjects – back and forth until you are left in a place of pure feeling, pure sensation that, if you let it, yields some answers to what we are when the chatter of life stops and the lights go out.

 

Published December 2012 on liveguide.com.au

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