Sara and I have just returned from a visit to the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, a magnificent gallery designed by the architect Sir Norman Foster and located in the grounds of the University of East Anglia on the edge of Norwich. The fine city of Norwich, in the county of Norfolk is a little over a hundred miles from home, and although for five years we lived in the area we have rarely returned to what is a beautiful part of England. However, we were keen to make this trip, specifically to see a unique exhibition called “Francis Bacon and the Masters,” and having looked forward to the visit for the past couple of months we were not disappointed.
Francis Bacon was a Dublin born figurative painter who died in 1992. We were already familiar with many of his works, particularly those usually on show at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin and at the Tate in London, but this particular presentation of his work not only exhibited paintings that we had previously not seen, but managed to present his pictures in a highly informative and thought provoking manner.
The Bacon works were hung alongside those of other great painters who had influenced the artist, not only in his development of themes, but also in the way in which he interpreted the world. Pictures by Velázquez, Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh and Titian were juxtaposed to provide the viewer with an understanding of their influence upon Bacon and the tremendous respect in which he clearly held these great masters. Several of the works of these fine artists had been brought to the Sainsbury Centre from the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg and were being exhibited in the UK for the first time. It was a privilege to be able to see these works and to gain some understanding of how they shaped the ideas of one of the more controversial painters of the twentieth century.
Prior to visiting the exhibition I had read a number of reviews, not all of which heaped praise upon Bacon’s contribution to this event. Several reviewers, including Jonathan Jones in the Guardian had suggested that seeing Bacon’s works alongside those of such great artists as Rodin and Velázquez somewhat diminished his art, and made the viewer question just how good he really was. One sentence from Jones’ review particularly stood out from the page:-
“Bacon’s paintings are mocked, his talents dwarfed. The jaw-dropping masterpieces by the likes of Picasso, Titian and Rodin that so nearly make this show five-star unmissable also, to my dismay, to my shock, make Bacon seem a small, timebound, fading figure.”
Critics serve a very useful purpose, but personally I like to make up my own mind when I view an exhibition, visit the theatre or cinema, or read a book. Whilst I can appreciate Jonathan Jones’ point of view, and acknowledge that of the paintings on display Velázquez’s portrait of Innocent X is the one that I will probably remember most, I do feel that as a reviewer he has rather missed the point. One of the greatest qualities of art, is the ability to interpret the world in diverse ways. Whilst many of us can look at the same object or scene, we each relate to this in a different way and if we have the skills to reproduce the image, will do so through our own interpretation and appreciation of what we have seen. Surely one of the great virtues of art, is the ability of the artist to give us his unique perspective and then allow us to further interpret this according to our own understanding.
Within the “Francis Bacon and the Masters” exhibition, possibly the most extreme example of this is Bacon’s interpretation of the crucifixion, a scene depicted by many great artists through the centuries. Many art lovers will be familiar with the crucifixion as portrayed by Giotto, Botticelli, Caravaggio, Stanley Spencer, or any of a dozen other well known painters, each of whom gives an individual perspective of a scene, which of course none of them actually witnessed. I have no doubt that in their individuality each one of these depictions gives rise to a range of emotions and critical commentary from those who view them, as they pass through some of the world’s finest art galleries. What is certain is that these are pictures that hold our attention and if we choose, can encourage us to think and reflect on what it is that we see.
In the “Francis Bacon and the Masters” exhibition, the curator had chosen to hang Bacon’s slightly abstract crucifixion, one of his earlier works from 1933, alongside a very conventional seventeenth century picture by Alonso Cano. If each artist had simply been asked to create a realistic reproduction of how the crucifixion scene had presented itself, there can be little doubt that Cano’s dark and brooding image scores highly on this criteria. However, this was certainly not the task which Bacon set himself, and the resulting, superficially much simpler work that he created, presents a ghostly and very personal interpretation which whilst lacking realism, evokes a sombre and in many ways macabre atmosphere.
Is Bacon’s crucifixion scene as great as that of Cano’s? Does his study for a portrait of Van Gogh do justice to the memory of the Dutch master? Can his screaming popes be compared to the luscious image of Pope Innocent X? It certainly can, but is this really the purpose of art? If art has an educational function, it must surely be to encourage us to look more closely at the world and to understand that there can be many interpretations of an event. More importantly, if art has a value, which I most certainly believe it does, it is that of enabling us to think more critically about what we see and to develop our own skills of analysis. We may have our own favourites, our likes and dislikes, but hopefully we look at images with a discerning and searching eye.
This was an exhibition that challenged my own ideas and thinking, not about where Bacon stands in the great canon of artists, but much more about the ways in which I see the world.