The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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-

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