Francis Bacon: Five Decades

Some four years in the making, the Art Gallery of New South Wales has launched the first major exhibition in Australia of works by Francis Bacon, one of the darkest, most intriguing and popular post-war artists of his generation.
Comprised of works from every decade of his career, as well as a plethora of archival material, the show reveals that if one thing was ever constant with Bacon, it was his ability to construct provocative paintings that have a visceral impact, as Michael Brand, director of the gallery, put it.
Despite having a very obvious preoccupation with death, the inner psyche and religion, what Bacon was mainly interested in was sensation, the ability of his paintings to change how a person felt.
This is always possible. His style was not just figurative, but distortive, the subjects often appearing to be warped, disfigured and altered, though it was always clear who it was he was painting.
Although inherently macabre and unnerving, there is something compulsive in the viewing of his works, as if while you observe them you’re being absorbed into the unusual spaces surrounding the strange figures.
It is interesting then, that Bacon often gets confused with violence. If you look at most of his art, there is, as the gallery notes, very little example of it. Perhaps this misunderstanding arises out the fact that they can be unsettling experiences.
Without any words to form context, our visual senses thus conclude that something is amiss, and like the irrationality of being scared of tiny spiders, our eyes send the wrong signals to the brain. Look harder, and you begin to see a man finding his own language, and nothing about that understanding is intimidating.
“Francis Bacon is an artist for our time,” explained the New York Times’ Roberta Smith in 2009. “You may love or hate his work, which is still vigorously polarising after all these years. But more than that of any other artist who emerged at the end of World War II, his work tells us about the strengths and weaknesses of the moment.”
Though his art has a certain pugnacious quality about, unflinching in its honesty and sincere in its graphic content, there isn’t any suggestion that he was doing this in a deliberately confrontational way. No, it was simply his chosen visual, the best way in which he could express himself and engage with the wider world.
Francis Bacon: Five Decades at the Art Gallery of New South Wales runs until February 24th 2013.
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