On Francis Bacon

A transcript of an opening address for the Francis Bacon Retrospective at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2012.

For the next 3 months Francis Bacon will be the resident saint in this secular shrine. It’s an honour to be invited by AGNSW to introduce the exhibition, though it would be unwise to describe it – it makes its own sense. I’ll begin with Bacon’s favourite quote from Nietzsche:

There is no event, no phenomena, no word and no thought which does not have a multiplicity of meanings”

Francis Bacon was born in 1909 and he died in 1992. 20 years ago. He was a product of the 20th century and an artist of the sacred monster school. He was also a chancer; a gambler. As you will see – the bet paid off. The bet was with art and, after some louche beginnings – he sacrificed everything to it. He was talking about himself when he said:

“I don’t think people are born artists; I think it comes from a mixture of your surroundings, the people you meet – and luck.

Bacon was Anglo-Irish. His father bred animals – racehorses. Like his literary contemporaries, Samuel Beckett and Patrick White – he was the black sheep of a wealthy high Anglican family. In his cups, he’d claim a connection to the Jacobean philosopher Francis Bacon. It’s a name to conjure – Bacon – Think about it. No wonder he could imagine himself hanging in a butcher’s shop window.

The family wealth and livestock are forgotten, but Bacon’s art prevails. He brought a sense of grandeur tinged with futility. You might say he was something of an aristocrat in art and a bit of a whore in life.

Kicked out of home and Ireland by his father for transgressing, he landed in Weimar Berlin, where he enjoyed the squalor and splendour that produced George Grosz, John Heartfield, Brecht & Weill and Adolf Hitler. In Paris, he was inspired by films of Bunuel and the art of Picasso.

He set-up in London as an interior designer. He wore make-up, looked cute, and turned a few tricks. Dressing shop windows taught him that if you frame figures behind glass, the viewer will see themselves reflected in the work. The whoring offered a hands-on education in sensation, flesh and human frailty. In this he was aided by an ex-nanny – Jessie Lightfoot. Jessie was a shop-lifter who enthusiastically awaited the return of capital punishment – Bring back the gibbet!

The ex-pat Anglo-Irishman hooked up with artist and mentor Roy De Maistre and Patrick White. Patrick recalled Bacon’s lipstick and their Pimlico strolls, where Bacon would point out tiny graffiti markings on walls and bridges. From his walks with Bacon, Patrick learnt how to observe detail with a painter’s eye. The title of his well-known artist novel The Vivisector evokes Bacon and offers many echoes of him.

Painting and gambling became Bacon’s twin obsessions. The gambling debts forced him to paint more, and he often found himself in debt to gangsters, like the Kray Bros, whose pay-up methods were blunt:

Now Franny, you won’t be painting much without arms – will you?

Sexuality, criminality, suffering and art can be bedfellows. Like Jean Genet, Bacon chose gangsters and prostitutes over the academy.

And then came the war. WW2 blew a hole in the 20th century and left us with the carcass of Europe and a void – and Francis Bacon painted it.

Bacon’s Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion attracted outrage and acclaim. The ascent was underway. Three Figures – and many works you’ll see in this exhibition – were inspired by Aeschylus’ Orestia. By the Eumenides, The Furies. Bacon often quoted Aeschylus:

The reek of human blood smiles out at me”.

Greek tragedy aimed for catharsis – and so did Bacon. He saw the world through the prism – or the prison – of history. And he lived through an era when homosexuality was still criminalized. The images of cages and bars emerged from a world where repression, blackmail and entrapment were everyday realities.

I got to know a little more about Bacon in 2005 when we staged Stephen Sewell’s Three Furies for the Sydney Festival.  Simon Burke’s Bacon didn’t so much inhabit a room with a view, as a room without a view – he was a caged connoisseur; a primate, a theatrical Bacon. Though the real one could seem like a fictional character and Bacon wasn’t shy of theatricality.

Next year onstage in Sydney we’ll see reimagined stagings of works by two contemporaries of Bacon – Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot and Jean Genet’s The Maids. Even a decade ago they would have been seen as modern. Like Bacon, they’re now classic, and up for re-interpretation. His catharsis is our reality – his void is our inheritance – and post-WW2 Existentialism is the new classicism.

Bacon measured himself against the greats: Michelangelo, Velasquez, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Picasso. And now he’s joined them. When asked to comment on the violence of his imagery, Bacon said:

I think they’re rather pretty.” 

And we’re slowly realising that he was right.

Yet only a decade ago our culture was too timid to host Bacon’s heirs – Damien Hirst et al – in their SensationExhibition. When I visited it at the Royal Academy and found a shark in formaldehyde, I sensed Bacon’s ghost hovering: “The reek of human blood smiles out at me”.

Bacon has joined the gallery of sacred monsters; the vivisectors of the human condition. I’ve known a few. Patrick White and Pina Bausch among them. I admire them. We need more of them. But, in truth, you can never reallyknow an artist. Often they don’t know themselves.

I can, however, imagine Bacon, after a night of socializing, offering up bon mots appropriate to a legend … Like the story of Bacon stopping a waiter removing an empty wine bottle: “But, sir, there’s only the dregs left.” Bacon replied: I love the dregs!”

The next morning he’d awake, sober and alone, and face an empty studio, and an empty canvas – the void – he’d shape shift through time and space and set about painting what he termed – the injury.

There’s a line in White’s The Solid Mandala that seems apt:

He walked into the room looking as dull as the truth.”

Which leads me to one last Bacon quote:

“I painted to be loved.”

There it is, and dull as the truth: “I painted to be loved.”

And that’s where we – the viewers – come in.

Enjoy the exhibition.

Jim Sharman – 2012