FRANCIS Bacon was one of the most towering and controversial artists of the 20th century, laying bare the struggles of the human condition with painful beauty.
As the catalogue for a retrospective exhibition of his work at the Art Gallery of NSW noted in 2012, his paintings are gutsy and unforgettable, and intended to have each viewer experience a personal and physical response to them.
And his works, such as a portrait of a pope, often lead to arguments between members of art-lover groups.
That picture of the head of a pope, Bacon’s reaction to Velazquez’s renowned Portrait of Pope Innocent X, led English actor Garry Roost to give the title Pope Head: The Secret Life of Francis Bacon to a show he has developed on the artist’s life.
Pope Head was such a hit at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival that it will have a return season at this year’s festival.
In the meantime, it is booked into the Sydney Mardi Gras in February and March and will play in four other Australian cities, with its first performances at Newcastle’s Royal Exchange on February 13 and 14.
The show’s Australian tour is appropriate, as Francis Bacon’s father was born in Adelaide to an English father and Australian mother.
His father, a Boer War veteran who became a racehorse trainer, returned to the British Isles early in life, and Francis was born in Dublin in 1909 and spent his early years there before moving to England in his teens.
His home life was difficult. His father was strict and militaristic and was enraged by Francis’s feministic behaviour.
He had Francis severely beaten by an offsider in his early teens and kicked him out of home when he caught him at age 17 draped in his mother’s underwear and admiring himself in front of a mirror.
Francis Bacon didn’t become a committed painter until he was in his 30s. By that time, he was living a high life, heading to Berlin and Paris with male partners, and running London gambling houses with the support of his childhood nanny.
And when his painting finally made him famous after World War II, he was having a luxurious life in Monte Carlo.
Bacon had several often turbulent relationships, the first with a collector and businessman who supported his work.
It was followed by a sometimes violent affair with an ex-Royal Air Force pilot, and subsequently an affair with a young man he caught breaking into his home. While his life often seemed to be chaotic, Bacon noted in one interview that ‘‘I work much better in chaos ... chaos for me breeds images’’.
The reactions of art lovers to what he saw as chaos led to his paintings selling for millions at auctions after his death in 1992.
In November 2013, his Three Studies of Lucian Freud, a triptych of portraits of a fellow painter, sold at Christie’s, New York, for $US142.4million, a record price for an art work sold at auction.
Garry Roost, an actor who has appeared in television series such as EastEnders and The Bill, was so fascinated by reading what Francis Bacon said about himself that he decided to develop and perform a one-man show about him. He has drawn on Bacon’s words, with the artist’s attitude to life shown in his statement that: ‘‘I think of life as meaningless, yet it excites me. I think each day something marvellous is about to happen.’’
And the show has certainly won favour from friends of Bacon who saw it at Edinburgh.
‘‘It was Francis,’’ one said, while another commented that it was ‘‘very, very unique and truthful’’.
The show has been noted by critics as having a lot of darkly witty humour.
Pope Head: The Secret Life of Francis Bacon can be seen at the Royal Exchange, in Bolton Street, Newcastle, on Friday and Saturday, February 13 and 14, at 8pm. Tickets: $22. Bookings: 4929 4969; trybooking.com.