Santa’s Here: Francis Bacon at AGNSW

Posted on Sunday December 23, 2012

There’s no need to wait until Christmas eve for the best of presents – it’s already here, at the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW), in the form of a small survey show of the work of that dark and conflicted painter, Francis Bacon.

The paintings cover all periods of Bacon’s life, and they show clearly the development in his work, especially after returning to painting just after WWII. Scratchy, physically (and emotionally) dark paintings featuring screaming mouths give way to colourful, smooth-surfaced works whose apparent banality is shattered by the distorted faces and bodies that focus the eye. Everything carries an emotional charge, that’s often felt first in the gut – literally.

Bacon Study for self-portrait 1976Study for self-portrait 1976  © Francis Bacon/DACS. Work held in AGNSW collection.

Nearly everything carries a sexual charge as well. For Bacon’s carnality was a major source of ideas, and the violence of some of his relationships is expressed in his work. This is the Irish boy who, at age 16, was thrown out of his father’s home for dressing up in his mother’s underwear.

What makes this show extra-strong is the inclusion of selected items from Bacon’s studio – paint-streaked scraps of photos of his models (he preferred not to paint from life), yellowed pages torn out of books and pulp magazines, palettes crusted thick with paint and who-knows-what-else. And there are several large colour photos of his studio, so jumbled with painter’s junk that it makes the late Margaret Olley’s studio look like a hospital room.

Bacon drew heavily on this bank of images, and it’s fascinating to see how he used some of them – such as C19 photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s studies of human motion – quite directly as sources of poses.

If you can re-conceive Santa as a hard-drinking, gambling, homosexual man who wore women’s stockings under his trousers while painting (and who says he doesn’t?), you’ll love this present.