Nov 28 2012

“Francis Bacon: Five Decades” opens at Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

by Michael Young

Tony Bond speaks at the media preview of “Francis Bacon: Five Decades” at Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2012. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific.

Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales’ (AGNSW) summer blockbuster, “Francis Bacon: Five Decades,” opened November 17 amidst vociferous demonstrations outside the museum by AGNSW staff facing retrenchment. State Premier Barry O’Farrell, responsible for an AUD 1.2 million budget cut to the museum, was due to open the exhibition but pulled out at the last minute seemingly to avoid a monumental PR blunder. “We were just told he couldn’t make it. No reason was given,” a gallery insider told ArtAsiaPacific.

One of the first things incoming director Michael Brand had to do in his new job was to deal with the impact of this budget cut. The inevitable retrenchments came in earnest when 44 gallery staffers were informed that their jobs were being outsourced and they will no longer be needed starting February. It was a move that is thought to be saving the gallery $500,000 annually.

“Gutless” was a word bandied about by the nearly 200 protestors as the Minister for the Arts, George Souris, opened the show in O’Farrell’s absence.

The exhibition itself is a sensation. This is the first major exhibition of the late British painter Francis Bacon (1909–92) that has been mounted in Australia and the final exhibition to be curated by long-serving and soon to be retired AGNSW director Tony Bond. It took Bond four years to bring together 53 works from 37 lenders that cover five decades of Bacon’s ferocious output, plus a lot of ephemera from Bacon’s studio in the London borough of South Kensington, where for 30 years prior to his death the artist lived and worked in an environment that had the severity of a monastic cell.

Bacon’s actual studio, however, was long ago relocated from South Kensington to be recreated in Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, in the city of Bacon’s birth. Therefore the objects of his studio have come from Dublin and without a doubt have been divested over the years of that intangible and transient quality which made the studio what it was.

A room in the exhibition presents video and photographs showing the original studio before it was carefully and painstakingly taken apart and turned into what one should perhaps call an art theme park. Preserving such spaces after an artist’s death seems ever popular. One can’t but help think of Brancusi’s studio in Paris recreated inside the Pompidou Centre, or more recently in Australia, Margaret Olley’s studio, which is currently en route from her house in Paddington to the north of New South Wales.

In his life, Bacon was uninterested in fame, and were he alive now he would certainly object to the degree of immortality afforded by the re-creation of his studio. This writer was fortunate enough to meet with Bacon at his original studio many years ago, when Bacon spoke of his loathing for those artists, like Henry Moore, who in his view established foundations simply so that their name would live on in perpetuity after death.

FRANCIS BACON, Triptych, 1987, oil on canvas, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2012. Collection of The Estate of Francis Bacon. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific.

Francis Bacon in his Reece Mews studio, May 1970. Photo by Michael Pergolani. Courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.

One of the last times I saw Bacon was early one weekday afternoon in London. I was working for a newspaper and wanted to secure a profile on him to celebrate his 80th birthday, but he made it clear he wanted nothing to do with it. I bought the most expensive bottle of champagne I could find and hammered for several minutes on the door of 7 Reece Mews, Bacon’s home and studio in South Kensington. There was no reply. Repeated banging on the door brought about the eventual opening of an upper window, and there stood Bacon in a dressing gown, his hair uncharacteristically tousled and his speech lightly slurred. He had obviously just got out of bed and was in no mood to say more than was absolutely necessarily to get rid of me. I explained that this would be my last attempt at persuading him to cooperate over the profile and that I would leave the champagne on the doorstep regardless of his decision. He grumpily shut the window and I left him to it. Four days later I received a charming letter from him saying that he would be more than willing to have the profile written and that we could do an interview any time and thank you very much for the champagne. I have the letter to this day.

Bacon lived an austere life. In 7 Reece Mews, there was a bath in the kitchen, and the only heating in the tiny upstairs living quarters was from the roaring flames of a gas oven. The place was a dreary domestic environment but a powerhouse of creativity. Bacon often said that the studio was his personal creative chaos. The space in which he worked was constantly threatened by the accelerating accumulation of mess—old paint pots and brushes encrusted with thick dry oil paint—that gathered on the fringes of the room.

“Francis Bacon: Five Decades” is a lavish trawl through the artist’s life. The works, with their splashes of abstract color applied by brush or roller, or dabbed directly onto the canvas with pieces of old rag, capture the violent approach the man had to his art. The one drawback is that all the works are exhibited under glass. Although it is well known that Bacon preferred his work to be shown in this way, the wonderful textural quality of each painting is lost among reflections. Even having one’s nose virtually pressed against the glass is no substitute for being in the full presence of the work.

As alluring and captivating as the exhibition is, I am fortunate enough to be able to remember Bacon in the studio where I first encountered him, with its arc of color flooding across the ceiling above the easel, the studio door used as a test bed for color, the solitary electric globe hanging in the middle of the room and the way that he had allowed the passage of time to deliver a mountain of detritus to the Reece Mews space—a space possessed of an energy that no amount of re-creation can or will ever convey.

An open drawer in a table showing photographs of John Edwards and Alberto Giacometti and by Eadweard Muybridge, Bacon’s Reece Mews studio, 1998. Photo by Perry Ogden. Courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.