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Lost love a frequent theme of Bacon's most significant works

IT'S a rare painting of a long lamented lost love, and its temporary home in Sydney is striking.

Among the first of more than 50 Francis Bacon canvasses to be unpacked during the next 10 days for an exclusive Sydney retrospective at the Art Gallery of NSW to mark the 20th anniversary of the Irish figurative painter's death, Seated figure from 1978 is particularly special.

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Curator Tony Boyd and his team explain the logistical juggernaut of sourcing the best of the artist’s works from around the world and transporting them to Australia.

Valued between $35 million and $40 million and never seen in an exhibition before, the two-metre tall painting shows Bacon motifs such as an umbrella and cricket pads on the upper human figure.

But it's the foreground figure that will draw in Bacon buffs: the profile is clearly George Dyer, Bacon's young lover who committed suicide with a barbiturate overdose in 1971 just as Bacon's exhibition opened at the Grand Palais in Paris. The fact that Bacon painted his dead lover's profile again and again shows he never got over the loss.

Curatorial director Anthony Bond was pleased to get eight rare works from private collections after having spent almost four years making his case to more than 30 international and Australian institutions to lend the Bacon paintings at a cost of more than $2 million for flights, handling and insurance.

Seated figure is one such work, with striking purple and orange tones, and on Tuesday found a suitable home for the life of the Bacon retrospective.


''I was talked into having orange walls by the designer, which I've never done before,'' Bond said.

''I always thought white was just fine. But this particular painting on that orange wall looks amazing; it actually works.''

The show also includes a painting of Bacon's later younger lover, John Edwards, sitting in front of a void. ''But the body belongs to George,'' Bond said. ''So he'd taken John's head and just pasted it onto the body of George, which I find quite sad, really. I don't suppose John minded much. I mean, John didn't really understand Bacon's paintings at all. Probably less so than George Dyer did.

''John once said he'd asked Bacon, 'Why do you paint me like I look like a monkey?' Quite a lot of the portraits in Bacon's works have a mask-like quality; even the self-portraits.''

The retrospective, Francis Bacon Five Decades, brings together works from the 1940s, '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s; featuring almost 10 per cent of Bacon's known output.

It was a labour of love for Bond, although he admits there were a few dark times when he worried it wouldn't come together. ''Early on, I thought maybe this is just not going to be possible at all.''

Bond admits there were a couple of special paintings he failed to get, but ''of the ones we got, those from the Tate Britain were dead easy. I asked for five, and they gave them to me.

''I think they have a soft spot for Australia. [Director Nicholas Serota] did once say to me, 'Well, we always try to help the colonies','' Bond said.

Bond places Bacon at the top of 20th century figurative painters. ''Nobody paints anything like Bacon,'' he said. ''He walked a tight line between figuration and abstraction. The paint is phenomenal and you don't get it until you stand a couple of feet away. You realise how risky it is.''

The exhibition opens to the public on Saturday week and runs until February 24.