THIS PAINFUL MATERIAL IS, AS IN ALL SERIOUS ART, SUBORDINATED TO THE PICTORIAL LANGUAGE THAT GIVES IT FORM
FAR too much art has been hawked to jaded audiences, in recent decades of promoblather, as confronting or shocking; a kind of prurient curiosity is excited in viewers, inevitably disappointed by work that is repetitious, ideological and moralistic.
But there is something about the paintings of Francis Bacon that really is emotionally affecting after more than a half-century. You are aware of it not only while in their presence, but especially in the after-effect that persists as you leave the gallery. It’s like the sober, grey, bleak mood that follows a funeral, when for a time the colours of life are shadowed by a cold sense of mortality.
This not something you are likely to experience from encountering a single work in a modern art gallery, where the very diversity of styles militates against the kind of overall or collective impression one often has among works of earlier periods. This disparity is only aggravated by the curatorial instinct to collect one example of each style or movement, which tend to cancel each other out in general blandness.
The Francis Bacon exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW, the last big project by Tony Bond and the first show of the artist’s work in this country, is an opportunity to immerse oneself in Bacon’s imaginative world; more than that, it compels the viewer to inhabit that vision; the artist’s focus is exclusively and even obsessively on what seems to him to matter. There is nothing else, no incidentals, no pleasure in nature or the human environment, nowhere the viewer might escape into his own reveries in the margins of the work.
And what is actually shocking about these pictures — much more so than any political or moralistic declamation — is their vision of irredeemable unhappiness. Happiness is not something frivolous; it is not about fun, much less about temporary states of excitement and distraction. In the end, happiness is life itself. The insight is a profoundly classical one, vibrantly tangible in early poets such as Pindar, theorised in Aristotle, but still present within the Christian heirs to the classical tradition; thus in Dante we find that acedia, the vice of sloth, consists of refusing to take joy in the world that God has made for us — and that it is a sin worse than lust, gluttony and avarice.
Bacon’s joyless vision can be understood partly as an expression of his historical circumstances, growing up between the wars, beginning to paint seriously in the years of the Depression and the rise of fascism leading up to World War II and achieving fame and success in the still grim post-war years, shadowed by Cold War anxieties, even as rationing and privation gave way to the permissiveness of the 1960s.
But this is only the background; at the heart of it, the unhappiness is intimate and personal, beginning with an atrocious childhood. Biography, which has a limited value in illuminating the work of more impersonal artists, is unavoidable in Bacon’s case.
He was distantly descended from his namesake, the great Elizabethan statesman, scientist and essayist, and his family had money and connections. Eddy Bacon, his father, was a retired officer and horse trainer. His mother seems to have been remote, and he was closest to his nanny, who continued to live with him in adult life and until her death in 1951.
Bacon’s effeminate behaviour as a child, including dressing in his mother’s clothes, enraged his domineering father, who tried to make a man of him by forcing him go out riding horses, although this only provoked desperate asthma attacks, and is supposed to have had him whipped by the grooms, with whom the boy was also having sexual relations. Despite, or because of, his overbearing and sadistic behaviour, Bacon later claimed to have been sexually attracted to his own father, and seemed to pursue a series of cruel fathersubstitute lovers for the rest of his life, of whom Peter Lacy was the most unhinged.
All of these stories, however elaborated in the artist’s free and even exhibitionist retelling in the course of subsequent decades, speak of a profoundly tortured relationship to sexuality.
There is no romantic vision of homosexual love here — nothing like the poignant romantic friendship, perhaps tipping into erotic transgression, of Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte in Evelyn Waugh’s contemporary novel Brideshead Revisited (1945) — only the painful realities of rough trade and buggery at the hands of brutes and illiterate young thugs.
Such an encounter is evoked here in Triptych (1970), where the left and right panels of the triptych depict, respectively, a man in a suit and a naked youth, the one mounting the other in the central image.
In the early work, the figure is much less explicit. Often it is shown as confined in a kind of cage, truncated and vague, even disembodied, as though less real than the structures and bounds that constrain it. Complementary to the theme of confinement are the desperation and hysteria evoked by Bacon’s bestknown motif, the mouth open in a scream of pain, or possibly, as has been more recently suggested, gasping for air like the asthmatic in panic at his inward suffocation. The two interpretations are quite compatible, for both are responses to fear and enclosure.
Bacon was impressed by the cry of pain in Poussin’s early painting of The Massacre of the Innocents (1627-28) at Chantilly, and most famously transferred the motif of the scream to Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, a picture which the artist — although he spoke of having a crush on the painting — may have known only from reproductions. In transforming the image of an extremely powerful, selfpossessed man into a screaming hysteric, it is hard not to think that Bacon is reflecting on the sense of vulnerability and oppression that could be experienced even by a dominant figure such as his father.
Without narrative context, and therefore without specific motivation, the theme of the open mouth becomes even more disturbing and acquires a more generic existential conno-