My experiences at the Tate Britain’s Francis Bacon retrospective
Waiting at the Entrance. 29th November 2008
I found myself shivering and staring at the formidable, Bosch-esque doors at the Tate Britain far too early last Saturday morning, after being the unexpected recipient of an early Christmas gift from my better half; a ticket to the day’s first showing of the Francis Bacon exhibition, holding around 60 of his original works plus archive material and film footage. The wait to enter the show seemed like an age, and it wasn’t just the cold weather that made me desperate to enter the Tate’s darkest chambers. Eager to see a fairly representative selection of works from the finest artist of the 20th Century – and arguably the first truly important retrospective exhibition of the 21st Century – I had only ever personally seen one of his original works before, and that was hung far from his homeland, in Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum in 2003. My long-unresolved anticipation was beginning to piss me off a bit, and I was in very real danger of reverting to a giddy, stroppy bastard schoolboy when I heard some deep metallic clunking and the doors swung upon with a heavy squeal.
Arriving at the Bacon floor of the building, being the first one in the queue, I knew I had a very real choice;
1. Strip off all my clothes and run through the currently empty exhibition whooping and cackling, like a starved incubus looking for an open vessel.
2. Or rush past everything first (fully-clothed) and immediately seek out the original ’…Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion’; in my opinion the most important work of paint in modern times. A picture whose raw horror/beauty urinates ad infinitum over any other notable work of the past 100 years that you could care to mention (yes, even bloody Guernica). A piece of work that arguably changed everything in artistic expression that came after it, especially and most obviously modern art and pop culture interpretations of human savagery and moral voyeurism, an influence crossing one millennia to the next.
I plumped for the second option (thus avoiding the courts once again) and, being strangely guided to the works like a magnet, I soon found myself there, perched in front of the gild-edged triptych as a captivated disciple in a completely empty room. The room’s conspicuous silence only prickled the hairs on my neck even more, and…well… I became that giddy schoolboy.
Mesmerised by the mourning, participatory voyeurs that are the Fates, the central penis/chicken anthropomorph specifically gnashing its teeth just for me, I managed to fumble for my cameraphone to take a sneaky shot in honour of the occasion (and because the triptych, in reproduction, is rarely seen with its gilded frames);
My ‘covert’ shot of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) at Tate Britain.
Although I already felt somewhat spent by my experience at the altar of Bacon’s first major work, I eventually hauled my bones from its accompanying seat and viewed the Tate’s broad selection of other works in an almost frantic manner. Yes, ok, I was over-excitable. But hey, its very rare these days that I feel so ageless and invulnerable as I did then, no matter how brief the experience.
With the ever-present risk of exaggeration in these bloody blog articles, I have to say in hindsight that I felt like I had entered the Tate a cold and tetchy 30+ shell of a man, and left a rejuvenated being, warm-of-spirit and quick of step. God knows what I am rambling on about, but lets just say that the Bacon exhibition changed – no, actually reaffirmed – my direction in both life and art. It was that good.
Sure, there were some disappointments; ‘Figure With Meat’, ‘Painting (1946)’, ‘Man in a Cap’ and other personal favourites were absent (most of them in the ever-tightening grip of American modern art museums). I also prefer to see retrospectives of an artist’s work in chronological order and not put into themes like this show was. Having said that, I thought it was a very moving idea for the Tate to include a room dedicated to Francis’ doomed muse George Dyer.
I am a bit of a Bacon nut, it has to be said; he’s simply a major inspiration to me, if not a constant influence on my actual art. His canon of work, though often seen as mostly figurative, is really stunningly varied – as the Tate’s themed rooms highlight above almost everything else; you’ve got something special for the Bacon baboon fans (and there are many), you have his take on Impressionism with the Van Gogh section, a healthy selection of mouths, portraits and figures, and a section devoted to his more technically accomplished later work (though not his best). As mentioned, there is also the archive room of important studio material that I found myself losing about an hour in, just wandering around from one semi-destroyed photograph to another in utter silence and pure bliss.
For me though, I think I will always prefer his anthropomorphs; those strange, fleshy creatures curled up in a corner or thrust into the light, ready to kiss your cheek or bite your hand off with those glistening orifices if you so much as brush past them on your way to the exit.
Once you finally leave such a landmark exhibit and step back out, onto the cold grey streets of London once again, its really hard not to get philosophical about the contemporary human condition, with such stunning and luridly surreal works spinning around your head; mouths screaming in pain/ecstasy, gore-soaked mounds of flesh shaped into faces, naked human beings ready to pounce and kill like animals, etc. Living in the frail beginnings of the 21st Century, seemingly stuffed with just as many streaming images of grotesquerie as in Bacon’s time during World War II (one of his main inspirations, lest we forget) and, with the Chuckle Brothers recently winning a BAFTA, no sign of things getting any less sinister and perverted, where do we go from here? As a race of beings lurching from one catastrophic humanitarian crisis to another in endless cycle, why not take Bacon and his work as founding life lessons for us all to learn and build from? Doesn’t sound so daft if you think about it.
Mirroring Bacon’s own philosophy, in art as in life, we have nothing to lose; no heaven to reach and no hell for the wicked, so why not live, as individuals, for the ‘now’. Recognise the moment for what it is, indeed as life itself only ever truly is; fleeting, often horrible and heart-wrenching, but with clear potential for fun, ecstasy and vibrant excitement. There is a pertinent humanist message that I get from Bacon’s work that is impossible to ignore; perpetuate the misery in your daily lives or grab the love, excitement and fun while you can – because we’ll all be corpses in no time. It’s that ever-present sense and importance of the ‘now’ that Francis Bacon reaffirms in me.
Start with Bacon’s inspiration and I don’t think you can go far wrong, mate. Francis Bacon, from the Base onwards.
The major retrospective of Bacon’s work opened on 11 September 2008 at Tate Britain, London. It is billed as the largest retrospective of his work ever mounted, containing around sixty of his works. In January 2009, it will travel on first to the Prado Gallery in Madrid, Spain, and then the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it will end in the summer of 2009.
One sunny Winter day, towards the end of January 2009, an old man approached the White House from Across Pennsylvania Avenue, where he’d been sitting on a park bench. He spoke to the U.S. Marine standing guard and said “I would like to go in and meet with President Bush.” The Marine looked at the man and said, “Sir, Mr. Bush is no longer president and no longer resides here.” The old man said, “Okay”, and walked away.
The following day, the same man approached the White House and said to the same Marine “I would like to go in and meet with President Bush.”
The Marine again told the man, “Sir, as I said yesterday, Mr. Bush is no longer president and no longer resides here.”
The man thanked him and, again, just walked away.
The third day, the same man approached the White House and spoke to the very same U.S. Marine, saying “I would like to go in and meet with President Bush.”
The Marine, understandably agitated at this point, looked at the man and said “Sir, this is the third day in a row you have been here asking to speak to Mr. Bush. I’ve told you already that Mr. Bush is no longer the president and no longer resides here. Don’t you understand?”
The old man looked at the Marine and said “Oh, I understand. I just love hearing it…”
The Marine snapped to attention, saluted, and said “See you tomorrow, Sir.”