An irregular, irreverent, post-modern account of the surreal, the ordinary, and the bizarre happenings on and around the Felia lavender farm in Crete

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Bacon - no sausages - no eggs

We hurried on down a side street and cut through the grounds of Lindz's old college - beautifully restored now and a haven of light and peace and eventually we came out at the new entrance to Tate Britain - an entrance we had never seen before. We had, apparently, an 11 o'clock slot and guessed that we might have time for a coffee before tackling the dark master of 20th century British art. Lindz ran off in her sweet pigeon toed way to pick up our tickets and Gill and I sought out the new cafeteria to pre-order.

And so we chattered on for half an hour - catching up and simply enjoying the company - until Lindz checked her watch and urged us forward to the entrance. We were a little late for our slot but the uniformed guardian handed us each a 10 page boklet and then swept us inward with minimal hand gesture and a nod. I heaved a sigh of relief - it was not too crowded. There were knots of people lingering close by some of the better known works in the first room but it was not, thankfully, heaving with humanity.

The exhibition was arranged through ten rooms (don't worry - I'll not take you by the hand room by room) and promised some early works that I had never seen before and some later works ditto and there, in the first room, were a couple of early works that I had never seen even in books. Five lavender haired old ladies were huddled in front of an early sketch of what has become known as the Screaming Pope. The ladies were of strictly limited stature and I peered over their heads taking in the purple and the gold, the blacks and the gaping hole where the mouth should be. I have always disputed the screaming part of that famous soubriquet and this sketch was remarkable in that it was absolute confirmation for me that this Pope was not only not screaming (he was shouting) but that he wasn't, ironically, a Pope (a cannily disguised Ian Paisley looked out of that dark background and howled vicious empty rhetoric at me). The likeness has faded by the time Bacon got to the much better know triptychs but the evidence here nailed the lie once and for all - what a cruel and humorous man Bacon was. And the power, the disapproval and the anger, come off that sketch more effectively more eloquently than in the later workings of the topic. This exhibition promised much from this first impression.

In that first room. packed closely with many of his earliest works I could feel the power of Bacon brewing - his style took years to develop but the power was there from those earliest days:

a figure on a park bench - a figure without a head but with a menace painted with pity and insight;

a magnificent painting of a dog chasing its own tail (Bacon is magical with dogs, capturing the immanent tension and movement with a few brushstrokes) and;

finally an eerily pale, almost fading depiction of that tragic, crouching figure with the swanlike neck and the head that is little more than an upturned open mouth full of teeth that would crop up again and again in later years, an image that haunts you forever once seen - or even glimpsed.

And so it went on with room following room of powerful images that speak powerfully - some of them shouting - some of them Beckettian in their bleakness. As the rooms flow on the years pass for Bacon and the technique becomes more studied and the foreground image is layered more and more heavily (in some paintings one wonders seriously whether Bacon could have got more paint to stick) as he constrains his figures in mystical cages. The power turns up steadily until the effect on the viewer is physical.

Tired, emotionally and physically, we entered the penultimate room in disarray having been treated to unexpected (and wonderful) paintings of a man with a bicycle, another stunning dogs- this time in a gutter with his owner invisible from the waist up, and a water spout beautifully forceful and dramatically captured, to be confronted with the magnificent triptychs of George Dyer in death and after. This room has Bacon at full emotional throttle - a master filled with pathos, and insight - a painter grappling with the reality of loss and pointlessness. Here, in this one room one is confronted with the awesome ability of one human being to communicate the unsayable. Confronted with such honesty strength we lingered as long as was decent until we wandered out exhausted into the final room.

Here was the late Bacon - Bacon turned old - Bacon unmanned - Bacon fading. The power had passed from him. To me it seemed sad. Here was Bacon producing copies of Bacon - and poor imitations at that. It was instructive - it reminded me of opera singers who continue long after their instrument has lost its tone and range - instructive and tragic.. I left the girls in that room and wished I hadn't seen it.

Tomorrow - a river boat ride and Rothko ...

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