Francis Bacon Retrospective, the Grimaldi Forum, Monaco
2 July and runs until 4 September.
By SHANA BETH MASON, JUL. 2016
For all of its imagined glamour, Monaco doesn’t offer much in terms of art galleries or institutions. Secondary market work does find its way into tiny storefronts (dwarfed by the incessant number of real estate and private yacht sales firms), but the principality doesn’t have a national or state-owned art collection open to the public. So its surprising that one of, if not the, most comprehensive exhibitions by an institutionally-adored artist is posited in the tiny city-state.
Francis Bacon: Monaco and French Culture reads like a “Bacon For Dummies” class. It is curated by Bacon’s longtime friend and art historian Martin Harrison and will travel to the Guggenheim Bilbao in September, where the focus will shift towards the artist’s relationship with Spain as a cultural haven. It is presented chronologically, from his first documented work in 1929 to a never-before seen work (among his last) in 1991. Bacon’s canvases are interspersed with candid photographs of him, his family, his entourage and, in rare glimpses, his tortured lovers. His movement from abstraction to figurative studies is perceivable to the naked eye. Had you never encountered Bacon before, this exhibition would be your cheat sheet. Each wall text enhances obvious visual parallels Bacon created between his works and those of Tolouse-Lautrec, Soutine, Guilllame and Velásquez. How about some extra credit? Original works from the aforementioned artists are all placed alongside their respective Bacon counterparts.
Initiating a new audience to Bacon and contextualising his complex relationships with those around him seem to be the primary objectives of this exercise. Harrison appears to have taken no risks in the show’s physical presentation or its intellectual thesis. The viewer is meant to proverbially “pay homage” to the major works on display; often hung in complete isolation, dimly lit from above, and in the case of Studies of the Human Body (1970), possessing a sweeping circular mini-stairway leading up to the “altar” where the work hangs. A strategically-placed bench in front permits further adoration, and in one eerie moment I swore that the overhead lights just ever-so-slightly swung to and fro over the triptych; the drama exponentially heightened.
I had been taught to be aware (and wary) of this kind of exultation of contemporary art, in that regression is inevitably triggered; if Duchamp aimed to destroy the “ghost in the machine” of art, signifying that art was nominal and not wedded to history or religion, then this exhibition would have been his worst nightmare. But, if an exhibition can serve as a teaching device or a bridge to the general public, rather than a repeated gesture of condescension in expecting that its viewers immediately apprehend all subject and context related to what’s on view, then it can be successful, too. This thoroughly-researched exhibition was the latter. It was “textbook”, but inspired. It was visually “predictable”, but no less breathtaking in scope and scale.
It didn’t matter that French culture or Monaco wasn’t blatantly advertised, because when you’re presented with some of Francis Bacon’s most outstanding works in tandem with Impressionist gems, none of the lofty preoccupations of the “art world” seem to take hold. Hands-down, this was Bacon at his best.
Shana Beth Mason is a critic based in London, UK. Contributions include Art in America, ArtVoices Magazine, FlashArt International, InstallationMag (Los Angeles), Kunstforum.as (Oslo), The Brooklyn Rail, The Miami Rail, SFAQ, and thisistomorrow.info (London).
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