Summer blockbuster Francis Bacon: Five Decades brings the work of the great British painter (1909-1992) to Sydney. Curator Anthony Bond, head of international art at the AGNSW, reveals ten amazing facts about Francis…
1 He’s considered by many as the best painter of the 20th century.
“Bacon said that the idea was to ‘bring reality as violently as possible on to the nervous system of the viewer’ and he’s talking about the violence of the paint, the gesture. Sometimes there’s not much paint there but he creates the sensation of the thing very powerfully.”
2 His father was from Adelaide.
“Bacon’s great-grandparents were colonials who moved to Adelaide. His great-grandmother was Lady Charlotte Harley, who was Byron’s lover and didn’t make a secret of it, driving around Adelaide in a stagecoach with Byron’s crest on the side.”
3 Francis’s turbulent, disturbing works reflect a turbulent, disturbed life.
“He was born with an extreme case of asthma and grew up in Ireland with a father who trained racehorses and bred Irish setters. Nobody understood allergies then; his father just thought he was a wimp and started beating him to make a man of him.”
4 Francis quite liked the beatings.
“His father would get the stable boys to beat him and Bacon didn’t mind. He also quite liked having sex with the stable boys. His father expelled him from the family home and sent him to live in Berlin in 1926.”
5 Picasso was his initial inspiration.
“He first thought of becoming a painter when he saw Picasso’s ‘Bather’ paintings in Paris. He was impressed by the extreme distortion of Picasso’s figures. But whereas Picasso was a fantastic draftsman Bacon is the opposite because he couldn’t draw, so everything had to be done in the gesture, in the paint.”
6 Australian artist Roy de Maistre mentored him in the 1930s.
“When he arrived in London he moved in with De Maistre, who introduced him to people who became his patrons, as well as Patrick White, who wrote, acidly: ‘Strange young man: he practised painting on his face long before he got onto canvas.’”
7 Brett Whiteley met Bacon in the ’60s and hero-worshipped him.
“Whiteley was a complete Bacon tragic. When you think of Whiteley’s Rillington Place series, they’re definitely related to Bacon’s figures on the beds. Francis apparently said: ‘I see you took from me as I took from Velázquez.’”
8 He met the love of his life, George Dyer, in 1963 while Dyer was burgling his apartment.
“Francis liked a bit of rough. Even after Dyer’s death [in 1971] he continued to feature in Bacon’s work... One work in the exhibition I particularly love is the triptych of George Dyer shaving.”
9 Two of Bacon’s lovers died on the eve of major exhibitions.
“In 1962 Bacon was given his first major retrospective at the Tate. The day of the opening was marred by news of Peter Lacy’s death in Tangier. A decade later this scenario was tragically repeated when George Dyer died on the eve of Bacon’s retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris.”
10 Bacon himself died in 1992 in Madrid on a booty call.
“He was there to see a young lover, José Capello, and he loved to go to bull fights. He had a massive asthma attack and died from a heart attack in the arms of the Catholic nuns, which he might have been amused by as he was raised a Protestant and became an avid atheist thereafter.”
When Tony met Francis: London, 1980
Anthony Bond, curator of Francis Bacon: Five Decades, recalls trying to put together a Francis Bacon retrospective for Australia while the artist was alive...
"I was finding it difficult to get the works I wanted through his dealer, so I arranged for dinner with Bacon through a friend of mine to try to get Francis on side. Which was very naive of me.
"He arrived late, drunk and with someone who he’d picked up in the East End. His response was pretty hostile: ‘Well what’s wrong with the fucking new work, then?’ ‘It’s fabulous Francis, but Australia’s never had a show of your work, and wouldn’t it be wonderful for people to be able to see from the '50s and '60s how you came to the work you’re now doing?’
"And he said: ‘Typical bloody curator.’
"Of course, now I get to do all five decades, and he’s not around to complain.”