Saturday, 13 December 2008

Bacon & Rothko at Tate

image copyright the Estate of Francis Bacon/DACS 2008, from Tate Britain website

It would be no understatement to say that in the last few days I've learned everything I need to know about painting from Bacon and Rothko - that is, everything I need to take me into preparing for my degree show this year. Not to say that I won't happily consult my tutors, but it feels as if there are a large number of significant ideas floating round my head, thanks to these two.

Even if you're not preparing for an art school degree show, I cannot highly enough commend these two current excellent exhibitions at Tate Britain and Tate Modern in London. If you have any interest in either artist, I absolutely recommend that you go, and go soon (Francis Bacon ends on 4 January 2009, and Mark Rothko on 1 Februrary).

While you're there, you can also take in the Turner Prize exhibition (at Tate Britain, until 18 January) and Cildo Meireles (at Tate Modern, until 11 January) - tasty sidelights that all in all make the London Tate experience worth a two day break, and almost in themselves justify becoming a Tate member. Because the Bacon and Rothko both repay repeated viewing. The more you see them, the more there is to see. The more you know about them, the more there is to see. And there is ample opportunity to know more, whether from the excellent audio guides, the TV clips of Bacon playing at two separate locations in Tate Britain, or from browsing the large selection of books on both artists in the ubiquitous Tate shops.

Okay, I'll stop raving and step back a bit. I went to London to see these shows on a School of Art trip. Unfortunately modernism lecturer John Harvey became ill at the last minute so was unable to offer his knowledgeable commentary to add to the experience, and to cap it all I missed the early train after driving uncharacteristically slowly to Aberystwyth due to icy roads. Sympathetic rail employees in the waiting room began an extended discussion about the nature of modern art, which focused largely on the idea that modern art could be interesting, providing there was some evidence of craftsmanship or skill. So take note, School of Arters. People are willing to give our stuff a chance, but not if they think we've just thrown it together without any thought or skill. Or just flicked a light on and off.

from Rail Journey (Aberystwyth to London)

Finally it was time for the next train. Having been duly serenaded with the rail employee's version of 'We're all going on an - arty holiday!' I boarded and spent a pleasant journey doing a little photography (more results to follow, on Facebook and here). I did my own thing then had an early evening at the hostel, unintentionally frightening the other SoA girls booked into my room ('Whose coat is that?!' 'It's me!' I said, raising a sleepy head.) And the next morning it was... Bacon after breakfast!

The Tate Britain Francis Bacon exhibition brings together a large range of his work from about 1945 (very little survives from before this time, as Bacon was ruthless about destroying or 'losing' work that didn't satisfy him). There are a number of the screaming popes, and screaming businessmen, and the triptych crucifixion that cemented his reputation. Now I began to ponder these businessmen, in their outline cubes. Fish tanks, perhaps. Tesseracts, a portal to another dimension. The answer came in the exhibition catalogue and the Arena programme screened by Room 19: the bulletproof glass screen used for trying the leading Nazi criminals after World War II. Except, the trial with the glass screen took place in 1961. Things kept behind glass: taxidermy, stuffed dead animals. Shop mannequins. Zoo animals. Things we need protection from. Things that need protecting. In the later triptychs, enclosing the precious moment or persons. Dangerous and in need of protection at the same time. The glass globe for the Rose, in Antoine de Saint-Exupery's Le Petit Prince. Bacon said he was looking for ways to take the image out of the plane of the picture. Hence also the circular raised dais used in so many mid- to late paintings: a stage, an altar, one of those rotating platforms they used to use in car showrooms. Here is the private, on display. The ecstasy, the wounds, the grief. There to worship, or to observe as voyeuristic consumer. There are many other potentially religious/materialist aspects to the work that make the Bacon exhibition a nice counterpoint to the Rothko (or vice versa).

The long and the short of it is, that I spent a very, very long time with Bacon, and quite a long time with Rothko, and I saw Runa Islam's Be the first to see what you want to see when you see it (2004) a number of times, and Cildo Meireles once (properly). And there is so much more to talk about that I will go and digest my Bacon for a bit longer, before writing further.

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