Friday, October 10, 2008

Indigestion after a Feed of Bacon

In London last weekend for a cultural expedition, three art shows and a West End play on the agenda: Francis Bacon at Tate Britain, Mark Rothko at Tate Modern, an Irish art show at the John Martin gallery, and a play (Riflemind) directed by Philip Seymour Hoffmann over which I will draw a veil..

Bacon for breakfast on Saturday morning. I have always empathised with Bacon: admiring his dedication to the bohemian ethic, and sharing his life-long weakness for gambling. But I'm not sure I fully bought into his artistic reputation. This show pushed me over the edge. Each painting is a full frontal assault - showing you the reality lurking behind the painted veil. You marvel that such a camp and mincing creature could produce such powerful, visceral and nihilistic images.

The chronological layout is revealing: the artistic concerns map onto the biography. So much to confront and a wealth of incidental detail. The large triptych of the crucifixion has a swastika on the arm of  one of the thieves - its only appearance in Bacon's work that I can recall. Some of the most powerful work is inspired by the tragic and conflicted George Dyer, usually adorned with random splashes of white paint.

There are curiosities: a benign Pope Innocent X with his mouth shut, a couple of broody landscapes and a strange abstract stylised crucifixion.

I then head across the river by boat to Tate Modern - a fresh perspective on London's architecture. It's Saturday afternoon and the gallery is jumping. There are queues into the first Rothko room. It's a disaster. You can't view Rothko with large crowds milling around. His work doesn't give itself up immediately like Bacon's - you need to spend time with each work to absorb it. And in this space with this crowd it's just not possible. Also, there are too many paintings to handle - quantity diminishes the impact. The four large works that normally hang permanently in Tate Britain can be viewed in tranquility away from the hype and crowds associated with a big retrospective - this is the only way to encounter Rothko. His art needs peace and space and time for the imagination to engage - unlike Bacon's, which leaves nothing to the imagination.

Bacon, incidentally, had no time for Rothko,  or abstract expressionism in general.  In an interview with Melvyn Bragg he excoriated Rothko and was particularly dismissive about his use of maroon, a colour he apparently despised. But visual artists are notoriously critical of their peers - unlike writers.

Our third show was a visit to the admirable John Martin gallery in Abermarle Street (near Picadilly). This featured some good Martin Gales (all sold), some formulaic Shinnors (all sold) and some very weak Sean McSweeney's (all unsold). The market for Irish art has become more sophisticated and discerning.