In Memory of George Dyer, 1971, by Francis BaconTWITTER/mrfidalgo

Over Christmas, I took full advantage of the fact that EU citizens under 26 years of age are granted free access to many French museums (a privilege I already miss). I visited the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and spurned France’s own extensive artistic history in favour of an exhibition of one of my favourite artists: British painter Francis Bacon. Not only was the art on the walls impressive in quality and volume, but the exhibition's approach allowed me to think more, and this more freely than ever before. 

Amongst the many paintings on display were small rooms where excerpts of books from Bacon’s personal library were playing in English and French. In contrast to many galleries and exhibitions, the walls were not littered with quotes from the artist, video interviews or articles; the literary extracts were the only insights into the artist’s process on display until a video at the very end. This approach may well have been a solution to the artist’s reluctance to give interviews, and his particularity about how they were conducted. Nevertheless, it was certainly refreshing to simply observe artwork and the artist’s potential sources of inspiration, rather than having an explanation of each piece spoon-fed to me as I looked at it. 

The exhibition's approach allowed me to think more freely than ever before. 

It is indeed intimidating to draw a unique interpretation from a painting on a white wall, plucked from the time period in which it was created. However, the small amount of context provided by this exhibition seemed to me to be the perfect middle ground between an excess and a lack of information. For me, exploring art is about expanding my perspective on visual imagery and the world around me rather than memorising others’ explanations of artworks. If we are going to spend our time in the gallery reading a message out from a caption, does the artwork need to be on the wall at all? This is not to say that artists must create a clear (potentially crude) message such that everybody ‘understands’ their work, but rather that they can use their art to convey anything from a strong message to a subtle invocation. This power comes with the understanding that everybody’s interpretation will also be personal to them. 

This perspective is particularly relevant to Bacon’s work. Given that Bacon was known to have relationships with men, it is easy to approach his work through the lens of sexuality. His depictions of raw (almost meat-like) dynamic figures, sometimes in pairs, could certainly invoke sexuality. This said, the raw dynamism could equally be an emphasis on the human body as an organic form, especially as Bacon produced many studies of the human body often in contrast with brightly coloured geometric backgrounds. Many others have thought that these depictions are Bacon’s way of expressing human vulnerability and existentialism (as it is thought Giacometti did with his long thin figures) and that Bacon’s screaming popes are symbols of existential dread. Hopefully it is clear that there is no one ‘correct’ explanation for these paintings, as it is no longer within the artist’s power to control what the works invoke for you. 


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As for art’s role in the contemporary world, the context is all around us: Brexit, LGBT History Month, the environmental crisis. Artists will have no difficulty portraying strong messages if they wish to do so. Take for example Banksy’s topical exhibit in the 2019 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, in which an ‘Arrivals from the EU’ customs gate is padlocked shut and says ‘KEEP OU’ while a characteristic rat attempts to break the padlock using a letter ‘T’. I do not think that artwork needs an accompanying 250 words of text in order to be understood. Perhaps curators should take a leaf out of the Pompidou Centre’s book and let art speak for itself

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