Franziska Nori

Francis Bacon

The following text is an excerpt from the catalogue “Francis Bacon and the Existential Condition in Contemporary Art”, edited by CCC Strozzina, Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi and published by Hatje Cantz Verlag (www.hatjecantz.com).


Franziska Nori

Francis Bacon and the existential condition in contemporary art

“When you can give a name to things, you lessen the suffering in the world”. Paraphrasing this statement by Albert Camus we might say that when one is able to find words to recount a painful experience then something changes in a human being and in his or her perception of the world. This experience becomes visible, verbalizable and thus shareable. An idea of solidarity is created, an emerging from solitude.
Francis Bacon and the existential condition in contemporary art proposes the work of artists who explore the theme of existence. Their works give form to states of mind and questions that a human being poses in his relationship with the most intimate and emotional sphere of his self, but also with his body, either his own or that of others, and the surrounding world. The starting point is a group of paintings by the great master Francis Bacon, whose work enters into a dialogue with that of five contemporary artists: Nathalie Djurberg, Adrian Ghenie, Arcangelo Sassolino, Chiharu Shiota and Annegret Soltau.
The exhibition has provided the opportunity to gather together contrasting sensibilities, over and above the temporal and cultural differences that exist between the various artists. The works of Bacon are in a certain sense subjected to a test of their modernity through a comparison with five artists who in different ways in terms of form, choice of style and sensibility, are characterized by an aptitude for research that is either similar or comparable with the almost obsessive intensity of his work. The intermingling of figurative and abstract art, the transfigured bodies, the autobiographical references, the use of different iconographical sources, tension and isolation as metaphors for the life of mankind recur as fundamental components in the works of the five contemporary artists placed alongside those of Bacon.

The aim of the exhibition is not to try and create direct connections or links of cause and effect between Bacon’s works and those of the other five artists. The exhibition route has been designed in such a way as to enable the spectator to become physically engaged in spaces that make possible an immersion in the aesthetic and emotional dimension characterizing each of the different artistic positions. Proceeding in what might be described as a “wave-like” rhythm, the works of Bacon punctuate the beginning of the exhibition route to then return like an echo through the rest of the exhibition, enabling us thus to compare very different personalities who nonetheless share a common willingness to involve the public in an existential reflection on contemporary living. The first two rooms of the exhibition house works belonging to various moments of Bacon’s production and illustrate some of the central themes of his work – the human figure, for example, which is represented deformed and contorted in a state of isolation within empty spaces.
Among the various works on display are some unfinished canvases – kept by Bacon in his study for many years and after his death entering the collections of the Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane. The latter are being exhibited for the first time outside Ireland, allowing the public of the CCC Strozzina to appreciate more fully even the more technical aspects of the artist’s work.
Barbara Dawson, the person responsible for the section of the exhibition devoted to Bacon and director of the Irish institute that since 1998 has taken over the artist’s London studio, preserving it exactly as it was, has made a selection of works that prompt far-reaching reflections on the artist’s intense process of visual research, juxtaposing both completed and unfinished works with a selection of photographic and documentary material from his studio: reproductions of great masterpieces of the past, stills from films, his own portraits and photographs of friends, pictures taken from books and magazines – material used by Bacon as working tools for the creation of his own art.
The artist accumulated these materials in his studio almost obsessively, using them repeatedly and allowing them to become damaged. He scattered them in part over the floor, walking over them, allowing time to make them fragile, deteriorate the supporting materials or wear down the surface of the images. As David Sylvester vividly describes, Bacon did not merely study these images but manipulated them, folding them, cutting them and then piecing them together to be used as models for his deformed representations of human figures that appear devoid of any cohesive resemblance.
The heterogeneous subjects of the documentary and photographic materials which Bacon used as models have a connotation as bearers of a visual content, no longer as auratic objects in themselves. In this taking possession of visual material that was drawn from the mass media of his time, Bacon decontextualized the fragments and then reassembled them according to his needs, using an extremely contemporary working method, a sort of manual process of digital copy & paste. The subjects that emerge completely lose their original connotation and take on their own aesthetic independence and a new symbolic significance.
Following the initial section dedicated to Bacon, the exhibition continues with the contemporary artists, starting with Natalie Djurberg. Her works raise existential doubts and queries that oscillate between life and death, fear and desire, exploring such disturbing taboos or complex aspects of the human condition as vulnerability, solitude, sexuality and death. The installations and videos of Djurberg presented at the exhibition, thanks to the collaboration with the Fondazione Prada, are particularly representative of her approach, in which often crude and violent content is expressed with disturbing and grotesque images, according to a style that is only apparently playful. The bodies of her figures are represented as matter in a state of transition, subject to processes of decomposition and deformation that are accentuated by the use of a pliable and ductile material like plasticine.
The exhibition proceeds with the room dedicated to Adrian Ghenie who is represented by a series of recent works produced expressly for this event. The Romanian artist creates paintings in which he combines personal memories and emblematic images from recent history, drawing on such sources as catalogues or history books, stills from films and above all images taken from the Internet. He investigates the theme of memory, where traces of the life of a single individual merge with those of historical events, with images from the past whose clarity absorbed by time has yielded to material and visual traces with a collective significance. The human figure is almost assaulted, particularly the face where the individuality of a person is most evident, with an overpainting that annuls and corrupts, obliterates and renders the subject almost impossible to recognize: at times well-known negative characters in European history, at other times anonymous figures. A strong sense of realism coexists with drips and pours of paint or abrasions of the various paint layers and colour backgrounds in a fusion between figurative and abstract art. The figures almost appear to struggle against their own dissolution within closed spaces, domestic places that emanate an estranging familiarity. What strikes us particularly is the solitude of the individual, the silence of the painted landscapes that resemble portraits of our inner self.
In the following section of the exhibition the human figure represented by Bacon is reproposed, in particular through a selection of portraits, photographs and documentary material that the artist used, with almost obsessive fervour, in his study of the various states of the human figure, such as Eadweard Muybridge’s studies of the body in motion, images taken from anatomy or surgery books, but also photographic portraits of his closest friends commissioned by the artist and used repeatedly as models over the years.
The human body is once again, albeit in a very different way, the raw material characterizing the intense work of Annegret Soltau, represented in the exhibition by works from various stages of her artistic career. In her early performative experiments Soltau used a black thread which she wound around her body in such a way that it cut deeply into the flesh. Other works illustrate the German artist’s transition to photography, where the ephemeral event of the performative action is frozen in time. Soltau then uses the photographic representation itself as an object on which to intervene with the application of black threads sewn directly onto the photographic paper a posteriori. The violence of these works is in stark contrast with the minimal compositional sobriety characteristic of her style. In a parallelism between the corporeal and physical dimension and the mental and existential dimension, the wounds, the constrictions and the fragmentation of Soltau’s faces and bodies become an instrument for reflecting on her own person, to then acquire a broader and more symbolic significance regarding the human figure in general.
The intersection between the physical and perceptive experience and a mental experience we might call mnemonic lies at the heart of the site-specific installation created for the rooms of the CCC Strozzina by Chiharu Shiota. The artist worked for several days at the exhibition venue, weaving an inextricable web with a black thread. A sort of performance closed off to the public that left visible traces of the artist’s passage. As often happens in her work, the dense mesh ensnares familiar objects of everyday use which are thus removed from their normal context and function. In the specific case of the Florentine installation the objects in question are some abandoned old doors of Palazzo Strozzi. The Japanese artist confers new density to a space in which time seems to stop still and congeal, causing hidden, forgotten or imagined connections to emerge. Shiota seems to translate emotional states and existential reflections into a three-dimensional dimension, gathering together memories, dreams, autobiographical elements and traces of a past that take on an evocative physical form with a universal poetical value.
Together with this installation we find one of the most important works in the exhibition, that considered to be the very last work of Francis Bacon, the self-portrait found on an easel in his studio at Reece Mews in London when the artist died in Madrid in 1992. The face is almost complete, while the body is merely sketched out with light brushstrokes that seem to dissolve on the raw canvas. We do not know whether this is in fact a self-portrait or instead the face of an old friend or a profile taken from one of the iconographical sources the artist collected. Once again, however, we clearly perceive the theme of the isolation of the figure, here even more emphasized by the silence of the spatial emptiness in this last, authentically “unfinished” work.
The exhibition ends with a site-specific installation by the Italian artist Arcangelo Sassolino, whose work is distinguished by his ability to create powerful forms, objects and mechanical systems that shun any concession to narrative, yet create the conditions for an existential experience. In the case of the work made for the present exhibition two pistons pull taut a heavy rope linked to two beams placed against the thick walls of the two entrances of the room. The system enters into operation at unexpected intervals, taking the rope or the wood of the beams to the limit of their resistance, their potential giving or breaking point. This precarious play of balanced forces applies in the relationship between the entire system and the architecture housing it, but above all in the relationship between the object and the spectator, who is placed in a psychological condition of tension and direct confrontation with the risks of the work.

What the artists present at the exhibition have in common is a profound lucidity in dealing with the often painful themes of existence, even though they are approached from different perspectives and with a variety of stylistic forms. Frequently they depart from an autobiographical reference or content and succeed in creating aesthetic experiences that produce a visual and physical impact in the onlooker, giving form to emotional and mental states common to many people which are thus made manifest and shareable.
Another element we might identify as common to these various artists is the importance attributed to the place of study, the physical space in which they elaborate their work in a temporary retreat from the world, as if they were listening to their own “inner sounds”. The studies of these artists are not places of mass production where numerous assistants work on the material execution of pre-conceived works, but are primarily places of reflection in which the artists proceed in a process of depersonalization through which precise formal syntaxes make possible the synthesizing of various reflections and conceptual and visual influences, producing thus the object of an interpersonal experience and therefore one with a collective validity.
The considerations preparatory to the putting together of the exhibition revolved around the issue of why the works of Francis Bacon still have such strong resonance today. Bacon’s work was emblematic for the generation that lived through the period following the end of the Second World War. Our research aimed to discover whether that experience of the absurd still has an echo in the contemporary world, as an individual and collective existential experience.
Bacon’s works are often indicated as representations of the concept of the absurd, as the philosophical experience of an abstract Weltanschauung. However, Bacon appears to aim above all at an existential examination of the autobiographical self. “The embryonic idea of the radical irrationality of existence”, wrote Steven Madoff in an exchange of e-mails during the preparation of the exhibition, “is the trajectory of the postulation of the human experience worked by Bacon. His figures are born from the crucible of a non-necessity and an innate lawlessness, which rises from the energy of chaos to an emotional and, by extension, biological exhaustion, whose central point is the fury of the flesh.”
If the existentialist philosophers and intellectuals of the 20th century expressed a reflection that was born from the unprecedented traumatizing experience of the two world wars, today we see a sort of nouvelle vague of intellectuals who depart from phenomena that are more typically individual. Spurred on by a post-modern pragmatism, subsequent to the collapse of the great 20th-century utopias, the latter work with an awareness of the impact of personal impulses on the paradigms of the dominant culture. They seem to depart from observations on the self in its relationship with reality and the conflicts of everyday life, primarily the state of material precariousness of the younger generations and the crisis of a system of collective values that has led to the conviction of having to find individualistic solutions to phenomena for which society as a whole should take responsibility.
Within reflections we might call neo-existentialist, the central theme is the body, the interface defining and circumscribing the quality of interpersonal relations in an increasingly aestheticized society. The body becomes an object to be moulded and controlled, generating anomalies and conflicts verging on pathology. Michela Marzano, professor of moral philosophy at the Paris Descartes University and author of an article in the present catalogue, analyzes the various conflicts of a person in his relationship with the dimension of the body. Confronted by profound changes in society and increasing ethically controversial progress in the field of science and medicine – from genetic manipulation to the use of animal or artificial organs in human transplants – a fundamental reappraisal and verification of the concept of the body is essential. According to Marzano, it is the instrument through which a person expresses and materializes inner states, malaises and individual pathologies that increasingly assume the status of collective phenomena; from plastic surgery to anorexia, from the violence suffered especially by women and children to violence that is self-inflicted, issues which are also explored in the works in the exhibition by artists like Nathalie Djurberg and Adrian Ghenie.
Mehdi Balhaj Kacem, the Algerian philosopher who lives and works in Paris, investigates such themes as memory, evil and the fear of death, central ideas in the expression of the artists represented at the exhibition. A pupil of Alain Badiou, Kacem explores the nature of evil, a phenomenon man has always been attracted by and which philosophical studies traditionally have only examined as a collateral factor in more major issues like truth, science, politics or art. It is contemporary entertainment culture particularly that seems most susceptible to the allure of this concept, which finds trivialized expression in such musical genres as rap or heavy metal, or in video games, films and television programmes in which violence and evil are normal, everyday phenomena. Kacem defines evil as “that added suffering which only man brings into the world. Animals do not know the concept of torture” (see the interview with Gero von Randow; Die Zeit, 3 October 2011). Kacem claims that this added suffering is expressed in the “scientific nature” of man, where science should be understood as man’s capacity to produce instruments that maximize the attainment of an atrocious goal, identifying a direct link between the cultural topos of the original sin of Christian origin and the ecological apocalypse induced by man.
Also intriguing is the idea of the sublimation of existential fear that Kacem touches on when reflecting on contemporary art. Artistic production, according to Kacem, makes it possible to confront the eternal sentiment of the fear of death, by exploiting it and channeling it. In the creation of a work of art the relationship with death is experienced as the capacity to generate an emotional impulse that enables the artistic work itself. Providing a sort of indirect interpretation of the work of artists like Arcangelo Sassolino or Chiharu Shiota, who refers to her work as a search for an “absence of existence”, Kacem identifies the power of art as the capacity to face the fear of death, to shock and traumatize, generating nonetheless a paradoxical pleasure of the intellect: “It is our Aristotelian nihilism, our relationship with the meaning of power and brute emotional violence.” (see Conversation between Mehdi Belhaj Kacem and Djamel Kokene , 8 April 2012). The art object, also to be understood as a conceptual and not necessarily material object, becomes the symbol of a new sense of control and reappropriation in the relationship between human existence and reality. Fear ceases to be an immobilizing force and becomes instead a creative driving energy.

The present volume aims to be an instrument for reflection on these various themes through the descriptive entries on the works of the artists involved and the essays of Michela Marzano, Martin Harrison and Barbara Dawson. The latter two contributions are fundamental for a reappraisal of the work of Francis Bacon in the light of the most recent studies. Harrison, an eminent scholar of Francis Bacon and editor of the catalogue raisonné dedicated to his work, formulates reflections that contribute to an understanding of the fundamental importance of the artist’s visual archive, illustrated in the exhibition by materials from his studio. Dawson, on the other hand, focuses particularly on the meaning and importance of Bacon’s unfinished works, whose role in Bacon’s artistic production provides the cue for further possibilities of study and analysis.
In addition to the catalogue, as in every CCC Strozzina project, a further stimulus to reflection is represented by the programming of conferences and activities that will be held throughout the period of the exhibition, from those for schools and universities to those for families and adults. The programme of Thursday lectures in particular will deepen our understanding of the work of the artists, with interdisciplinary analyses geared to interpreting the themes of the exhibition. If, on the one hand, Barbara Dawson herself and the artists Adrian Ghenie and Arcangelo Sassolino will interact directly with the public, on the other there will be contributions by experts of the calibre of Franco Rella, philosopher and teacher of aesthetics who will explore the themes of the body and evil, Luigi Ficacci, one of the most important Italian scholars of Francis Bacon, Federico Ferrari, philosopher and art critic who will examine the theme of the self-portrait, and, thanks to collaboration with the Fondazione Studio Marangoni, Giovanna Calvenzi and Nicoletta Leonardi, who from the viewpoint of photography scholars will deal with themes like the genre of the female self-portrait and the role of the archive in the recovery of a new outlook on everyday life.
As well as thanking the Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, all the artists and the galleries involved in the collaboration which made possible the staging of the exhibition, we wish in particular to underline the moral and organizational support of the Estate of Francis Bacon, which in its capacity as trustee of the artist’s work contributed to the realization of this project.

 

Franziska Nori is director of the Centre for Contemporary Culture Strozzina (Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, Florence), where she has been responsible for the artistic programme since March 2007. Among others she curated the exhibitions Emotional Systems (2007), Art, Price and Value (2008), Gerhard Richter and the Disappearance of Image in Contemporary Art (2010), As Soon As Possible (2010), Portraits and Power (2010), Virtual Identities and Declining Democracy (2011) as well as a series of site specific installations presented in the Courtyard of Palazzo Strozzi by artists such as Michelangelo Pistoletto, Yves Netzhammer, Wang Yu Yang and Loris Cecchini. She has graduated in cultural anthropology, romantic studies and art history at the Johan Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt. From 2000 to 2003 she was head of the department for digital art and culture at the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) in Frankfurt, which conceived the first museum collection for digital artefacts (digitalcraft.org) along with exhibitions devoted to phenomena in digital culture, including I Love You, about the world of hackers and computer viruses, and adonnaM.mp3, an analysis of file- and network-sharing on the Internet. From 2005 to 2007 she has been a member of the scientific committee of the New Media International School at the University of Lubeck. In 1998 she was appointed by the European Commission to draw up an appraisal of future strategies for European museums work with digital cultural heritage. Since 1994 she has worked as an independent curator for modern and contemporary art for international institutions including the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, the Museum fur Moderne Kunst in Vienna, the Museo Nacional Reina Sofia in Madrid, the Fundación la Caixa in Palma de Mallorca and the Fondazione Lucio Fontana.



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Francis Bacon and the Existential Condition in Contemporary Art

 
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