“All we’re asking is that you don’t applaud the Premier when he speaks…” a woman whispered in my ear, as my friend Kate and I entered the Art Gallery of NSW tonight. We were there for the opening of one of the hottest exhibitions in town: the retrospective exhibition of the works of Francis Bacon, which NSW Premier, Barry O’Farrell was expected to open. The likely presence of Mr O’Farrell was why about 150-200 had gathered outside to protest funding cuts by the NSW Government to TAFE courses in fine arts.
As I listened in to the conversations of people standing nearby, lots of people were speculating out loud about whether or not Mr O’Farrell would turn up. Shortly into his welcoming speech, the AGNSW Director, Michael Brand told us NSW Arts Minister, George Souris would be opening the exhibition. He made no reference or comment about Mr O’Farrell. The room erupted with a chuckle and a guffaw.
Introducing the exhibition, theatre director and producer, Jim Sharman delivered a wonderful speech – erudite, humorous, touching – about the life and works of Francis Bacon.
Not long afterwards, Mr Souris made a speech which went largely ignored by the vast majority of people in the room. Although many people at the front listened intently, the vast majority ignored the Minister, talked through his speech, and many even turned their backs as he spoke. While a small group at the front applauded the Minister loudly, the vast majority chose not to, in support of those protesting outside earlier about the TAFE funding cuts.
With the protest over, it was time to wander downstairs to see the Francis Bacon retrospective. Before tonight’s opening I knew very little of his work, except that it was often quite dark. I also knew Bacon, like many of the other people he knew such as Brett Whitley (who painted his portrait twice for the Archibald) had led a rather erratic life. He clearly liked a drink or twenty-five. He obviously took a few drugs. And he apparently had lots of sometimes anonymous gay sex. You really get a sense for what an interesting and wild life he must have led by the photographs of his shambolic artist workspace.
“I’d forget about the forties and fiftes”, I said to a few people tonight, a reference to the “Five Decades” title of the exhibition, adding “his most interesting works were from the 60s”. I thought the works from the fifties, in particular, were dark, uninteresting, and all a little the same. “They were like sketches”, a woman I met tonight called Melissa, added. But by the sixties, he really began to become a master of his craft, with works that were colourful, imaginative, and well executed. My two favourite works were the 1963 “Portrait of Henrietta Moraes” (which apparently slod for £21.3 million at Christie’s in London earlier this year) and 1969’s “Lying Figure”. I thought both works were stunning. As we chatted, Melissa observed “he was never very good at the female figure, though”. Maybe, maybe not.