British Bacon

September 24, 2008

I spent the weekend in London with Julie. We had a great time, and I had the chance to drag her along to do a few things she probably wouldn’t normally have done but she subsequently enjoyed, so winners all around. We spent a couple of hours on Sunday at Tate Britain, somewhere I scandalously haven’t visited in years as I often overlook the place in favour of Tate Modern. I’m really pleased I went though. My main reason for going was to catch the major Francis Bacon exhibition currently on show, but there is so much there to recommend.

Sadly, (in my opinion) the most interesting thing to the majority of the public in attendance was Martin Creed’s “piece” Work No.850 Described by the artist as a “celebration of physicality and the human spirit” the work basically asks a serious of runners (the human athletic kind) to sprint through the coridoors of the gallery as fast as they possibly can, setting off one at a time every thirty seconds.

In essence I don’t have a big problem with this kind of art, or this work in particular, but when what seemed to me to be no more than a somewhat slight sideshow starts to gain more interest than anything else in the gallery I think it all gets a bit silly. From one perspective, as unsuspecting visitors to the gallery were suddenly confronted with sportswear dressed sprinters running straight at them at high speed I did quite like Work No.850. There was something oddly amusing about the surrealist aspect of the whole thing, but this soon wore off. The artist’s notes also mentioned an allusion to music in the piece, with the thirty second gaps between runners compared to rests in a musical score. The clockwork precision with which that the runs took place did make me think of Radu Malfatti’s music for a while, but somehow I don’t think he’d appreciate the comparison. Overall, compared to the immense wealth of art housed within the gallery’s walls I don’t think Work No.850 (were there 849 others by the way? I dread to think) deserved the amount of interest it was shown yesterday, and I guess neither does it deserve the space I’ve given it here either…

The Bacon show is very impressive, well over a hundred paintings and drawings covering his tortured career as a painter and including the vast majority of his most important work. This is very much the Bacon exhibition (and more again) that I wanted to see when I visited his recreated studio in Ireland this year. (See this post.) Like so many artists before his, Bacon’s life mirrored the frightening, twisted nature of his painting. Spending an hour in the company of his work is not an easy thing to do. Bacon painted the human condition, but with a real accent on the darker, grotesque elements of the mind. Looking on into his paintings has a disturbing effect on me. In his warping of the human figure lies his own tragically ugly appraisal of the human mind. The raw physicality of sex and flesh mixes with the loaded imagery of crucifixion, isolation and traumatic horror. There is nothing beautiful in these paintings. Bacon understood the human body as well as any figurative artist, yet the images he continually confronted the public with throughout his career portray vivid, nightmarish figures draped in an aura of tortured hate.

He was clearly an incredibly powerful creative genius, and the story of Bacon’s life fascinates me, (Julie bought me Michael Peppiatt’s biography of the man before we left), but I struggle to feel comfortable around his painting. I felt a sense of relief when leaving the Bacon galleries on Sunday, as if I’d woken from a bad dream. On the way out the Tate were selling Francis Bacon coffee mugs, utilising a colourful, unrecognisable corner of one of his paintings for its image rather than assault someone visually as they drink their morning coffee. Suffice to say I didn’t buy one.

Elsewhere in Tate Britain there are many delights to be found. A good smattering of work by some of my favourite British artists are on show right now including a healthy selection of Ben Nicholson’s works that included a stunning small pencil drawing from his time in Rome that Julie had to literally drag me away from. A small room of Robyn Denny’s work was a real pleasure, as were the occasional Lucien Freud works dotted about the building.

The obvious treasure of Tate Britain lies in its collection of Turner’s great works however. Two rooms are devoted to these stunning landscapes flooded with those incredible skies. The room I found the most interesting of the two was a small one devoted to unfinished Turner paintings. His fixation on light and its source at dawn and dusk is even more apparent in these paintings as these elements are usually completed, with the other parts of the paintings left unfinished, as if his interest waned after completing the sky. Turner’s skies remind me so much of Rothko’s work, obviously very different in subject matter but so close in the way the paint is layered to bring dramatic, emotive depth into the work. I could have stood with these all day, but as the smell of the coffee shop was calling Julie we wandered off.

Right now there are some very strong exhibitions taking place around London. As the Cy Twombly show ends at Tate Modern it will shortly be replaced by a massive Rothko exhibition that focusses his late work and brings together all of the Seagram paintings for the first and possibly the last time since they left New York. Also a small display of Gerhard Richter’s colour field works began today at the Serpentine Gallery. I hope to get to all of these shows over forthcoming weeks.

Comments (5)

  • jon abbey

    September 24, 2008 at 8:36 am

    pretty jealous about that Rothko exhibit, I read the entire Breslin bio of him on the plane ride here, and would really like to see those. some of them are normally in a museum near here, and we were going to go see them with Keith before we learned they’d be in London. I wonder if there’s any chance it’s touring afterwards and will come to NYC, probably not.

  • Richard Pinnell

    September 24, 2008 at 8:42 am

    The Breslin bio is excellent Jon. Would take me more than a single plane trip to read that again though!

    From what I’ve read the condition of the Tate’s Seagram paintings isn’t good so they won’t lend them out. Sadly that means the only way they could all come together would be in London. The exhibition runs into Spring next year so maybe you could make it.

  • jon abbey

    September 24, 2008 at 9:01 am

    I just checked the airfare, not as bad as I thought. I might come for the 11/29-20 Kill Your Timid Notion BFI program and this, it mostly depends on whether I can find the money or not.

    I didn’t quite read the whole book on the plane, I’d read maybe the first 70 pages beforehand. NYC-Tokyo’s a long flight (13 hours+), it took almost the entire time to finish the rest, and it really helped the flight go faster.

  • Richard Pinnell

    September 24, 2008 at 9:04 am

    You know that Keith is playing at the Tate on the 28th don’t you Jon?

  • jon abbey

    September 24, 2008 at 9:12 am

    yeah, that’d be part of it, I’d maybe go from the 27th to Dec 2nd. I need to talk to Yuko about it more and see if I can come by myself, obviously that would make things cheaper albeit lonelier.

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