Today I went to visit the Francis Bacon exhibition at the Tate Britain gallery. The exhibition is immediately intriguing, as the scale and colours of the paintings jump out at you and invite you inside. I love large scale work, and within this exhibition particularly it really made an impact. The works were bold, bright, strange, surreal, distinctive, some familiar and others not. They flowed well, and even though the rooms were themed, there were no huge significant jumps that caused confusion. I walked around every room at first to decide which two paintings to talk about in more detail, which I found difficult as so many of them were inspiring.
Before visiting the exhibition I had limited knowledge about Bacon and his work. I would be able to recognise them and his style, however I would find it difficult to explain the context behind them. Although it is important to understand the meaning behind his works, my lack of knowledge here did not affect my experience at all. In each room there are themed descriptions, with names such as 'Animal', 'Zone', and 'Portrait', and in addition to these, some of his works have a brief explanation. However, I found that because of the surreal and bizarre elements to his work, I was happy to interpret and discover meanings myself. A review or outside information can often affect your expectations, relying you to continually contrast and compare opinions. I prefer to be blissfully ignorant and decide for myself what I think, and adapt the experience to a more personal level. Saying this, after I left the exhibition I was curious about elements and I have researched and explored his ideas now that I am familiar with his work.
The works were displayed in 10 rooms, which each had a title and description of this theme. This allowed you to get a better understanding of those particular works. The paintings were grouped together in a comprehensive manner, and they followed a story of his life. Most of the works were fairly large in their scale, which allowed them to flow, and I found I could wander in and out of rooms without confusion to what was going on. One room shows Bacon's studio and sketchbooks, which gives an inside aspect and personal view to how he worked, giving you a sense of the painter as a person. There were rough sketches planning out his larger works that were found as he didn't want anyone to see them. I read this was because he said his images were created entirely spontaneously, and it seems he didn't want anyone to know he did actually plan his ideas. The amount of information provided is just enough, as it allows you to interpret his ideas for yourself. It invites you into the creativity and unusualness of them, and some are so bizarre that probably no one but Bacon actually knows what they convey. Unlike museum collections which have true explanations and the history behind the artifacts, the exhibition is a much more free and open minded experience.
This painting 'Triptych' - August 1972 was in the room titled Memorial. This room is dedicated to George Dyer who was Bacon's closest companion and model from the autumn of 1963. He committed suicide on 24 October 1971, two days before the opening of Bacon's major exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris. This is one of the works Bacon made in memory on Dyer. Here is some information I found about the painting on the Tate website. 'This work is generally considered one in a series of Black Triptychs which followed the suicide of Bacon’s lover, George Dyer. Dyer appears on the left and Bacon is on the right. The central group is derived from a photograph of wrestlers by Edward Muybridge, but also suggests a more sexual encounter. The seated figures and their coupling are set against black voids and the central flurry has been seen as ‘a life-and-death struggle’. The artist’s biographer wrote: ‘What death has not already consumed seeps incontinently out of the figures as their shadows.’'
The painting is oil on canvas, the same material used for most of his works. The figures are missing pieces and elements to them suggesting how dead and lost Bacon was feeling. The colours of the flesh are raw, like meat and open wounds. They are dripping onto the ground, washing and wilting away, decaying within the grey morbid tones. The three canvases are large, but not the largest in the room, the sizes stay pretty consistent. They are not the craziest or most colourful works in the room, but they had a real sense of sadness and emotion to them. The flesh colours really stand out amongst the background creamy colours. It looks raw, affected, and pained. There are circles of colour within that appear to be flowing patterns within the skin, the blood flowing and oozing out onto the ground, dripping away slowly.
I wouldn't have know that Bacon is portrayed in the image, unless I had read about it, and this adds an extra personal dimension to it. He is reflecting on their relationship, still painting his friend who is no longer in the world. There is meaning and depth to the work, a huge sense of sadness, lost and guilt. The fact that Bacon includes himself in his works illustrates how they are a personal response to the world around him.
As a textile designer I look at this work in a number of different ways. First of all I am interested by the meaning and story behind the image. I like how you sense the emotion within the painting even without knowing the proper context. Secondly, the intense colours of the raw looking flesh also attracted me, as well as a number of words that came to my mind when viewing the work. Swirling, tints and tones, movement, form, dripping, flowing, sadness, dissection, missing parts, rotting, decaying, confusion, masking, hiding and revealing.
The intention of this painting could have been to reference George and illustrate how the dead are still included in life, even if their physical body has been taken away. It could mean a number of things on a personal level to Bacon, however the fact he was an atheist suggests he believes the living and the dead live as one, like in the image, and there is no such thing as God or an afterlife.
'Figure Study I' 1945-6 Oil on canvas
This painting was in the first section of the exhibition, in the room under the title of 'Animal'. The room explains Bacon's works in the 1940's reflect his belief in, without God, humans are subject to the same natural urges of violence, lust and fear as any other animal. This painting stood out to me very strongly, and even though it was one of the first I saw I came back to it again at the end. I particularly like the mixed use of marks and colours, especially the dark coat against the tangerine orange background. There is a great deal of texture shown within the marks of the coat, and it really conveys the fabric to be a thick, woolen and wintry. The image is a very sad one, and one of contrast, beautiful blooming flowers against a collapsed individual. It appears as if the individual is mourning, and you can feel the sadness is so deep the man cannot bear to even lift his head. The more I thought and looked at the painting, it also occurred to me, that there is no evidence of any flesh or human body, and illustrates how clothing can be so suggestive and expressive in possibility.
The image is medium sized, still fairly large but not as large as some of his greater works. It fits within the room well, as the other works are of a similar size. The colours also work together as a room, however the flowers within this one and the detailing seem to bring it to life more. The works within the room flow as they all illustrate heads and figures, and are not as distorted as his later works. They do however, begin to show Bacon's anxieties and issues.
The colours within the flowers stand out strongly against the man's dark coat, and it is ironic the flowers looks so alive and vivid when the figure is so obviously in emotional pain. There are orange marks continued into the fabric of the coat, and the blue of the flowers bounces off the image when placed next to the orange backdrop. The colours are autumnal, and the thickness of the woolen looking coat suggest it is cold and bleak.
The works within the 'Animal' theme room stand alone, although the theme is similar throughout. However, this particular painting seems to be the most detailed in the room in terms of marks. Where as the others show abstraction to the faces, twisting and blurring, the man's face within this image is completely blocked with the large coat and hat. It is visible there is someone inside the coat, as the bent back deeply suggests this, but the actual flesh is masked with clothing.
I don't know who the figure is meant to represent, but perhaps it is just showing an example of our complex human emotions, how sad and alone we can feel. Death in this matter, can leave you numb and also wanted to corrode away, throwing yourself into your emotions and pain you feel.
From a textile point of view, the marks in the painting are very inspiring especially those used in the tweed material of the coat. They are built up and not overly detailed, however you can realise at one there is a bend form hiding beneath that vast material. The slouched back has been created by the dimensional lines in the coat, immediately suggesting the figure's emotional state. The colours are inspiring, bleak and dark but also bright and blooming. The marks of the petals and flowers and alive and bold in contrast to the emotion of the figure.
I think the intention of the painting is to show and explore human nature and the emotions we experience throughout our lives. The painting suggests so much is such simple ways, and you can immediately see a sense of sadness. There doesn't need to be a lengthy explanation beside it, because as a human everyone can identify with that emotion that is being portrayed. Bacon is not afraid to show this ultimate desperation and sadness and illustrates how one act of the human body can be so suggestive and powerful.