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I always think of myself not so much as a painter but as a medium for accident and chance.

- Francis Bacon

...the artist may be able to open up or rather, should I say, unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently

- David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, 1987

Francis Bacon is one of the great painters of the 20th century. His works exude a sensual enjoyment of paint and embody the extremes of human experience. Fascinated with the human body and flesh, Bacon was committed to painting the figure in an innovative way and stood apart from many of the movements, such as abstraction, then dominating the art world.

This exhibition presents paintings from five decades of Bacon’s career, as well as an early seminal work, Crucifixion 1933. Bacon’s often confronting imagery, gleaned from diverse sources, has retained its intensity and has had a lasting impact on artists including Brett Whiteley and Damien Hirst.

Bacon was born to Protestant parents in Dublin in 1909. At the age of 16, after being evicted from home by his father, he travelled to London, subsequently spending time in Berlin in 1927 during the rise of the National Socialists. He then went on to Paris, where his encounter with the work of Pablo Picasso became a catalyst for him to paint. After returning to London in 1929 he briefly worked as an interior designer before turning to painting. Bacon lived and worked for most of his adult life in London and died in Madrid in 1992.

Focus work

exhibited in the 1950s section
Francis Bacon Figure with meat 1954
oil on canvas, 129.9 × 121.9 cm
Art Institute of Chicago, Harriott A Fox Fund

This painting is closely related to Bacon’s popes – figures that embody male authority and dominance. In dry brush marks of red, orange, cream and blue, it is a painterly depiction of flesh that shows Bacon’s fascination with meat and his belief in the parity of human and animal flesh. As he once remarked to David Sylvester: ‘...we are meat, we are potential carcasses. If I go into a butcher’s shop I always think it’s surprising that I wasn’t there instead of the animal.’

Issues for consideration

  • Consider the significance of holding this exhibition in Australia. What does it offer Australian audiences? Why is it important to have retrospective exhibitions of work by single artists?
  • When visiting the exhibition, look carefully at the arrangement of works and the exhibition design and layout. Do these contribute in some way to your understanding of Bacon’s work?