A reflection on global art blockbusters and our capacity to find intimacy, new insights and meaningful confusions while surrounded by hype, crowds and spectacle.
Everytime I go for an art exhibition blockbuster I brace myself.
How to go with the flow (meaning, the crowds)? How to comply with the half an hour entry slots? How to accept the pricing? … And how to take in the hysteria, in general, that comes with joining in a ‘must-see’ event?
Expectations raise-up while behaviour standards lower-down… we become more pushy, less patient, less meditative. We become louder, faster to judge. We become consumers of art in its trashiest sense, perhaps. We become consumers of spectacle…
… Or not?
This year I have been binging on art & craft blockbusters. Mostly in London (V&A — Dior; Royal Academy — Gormley; Tate Modern — Eliasson) but today I also did so in Paris: Pompidou — Bacon. The previous three exhibits (plus The Hayward Gallery — Bridget Riley, which I am not sure counts as a blockbuster) had been experienced with my son: we stood the queues; brandished our tickets; lived piece by piece of art in close communion with the masses — the respectful, middle-class, well-dressed and well-coiffed masses. No chance to attain any moment of solitude and intimate connection with the works; in this context, the only thing to strive for is: spectacle, please!! Let’s make sure it is AMAZING.
These London-based exhibits did the job. With the exception of Dior (!) they did well by a nine year old boy. I was pleased, entertained and proud to be carrying my progeny into great examples of world-class blockbuster art (the art ‘everyone is talking about’). Tick! I am an accomplished 21st Century mother.
Now, I am in Paris. By myself. No mothering distractions. Just me and the hype. Or me and the art. Disturbing art, at that. Disturbing art I have engaged with a few times before.
So what has happened today? How have I experienced Francis Bacon, chez le Centre Pompidou?
The answer is that I have experienced his works and his inspirations in a surprising new light. And I have valued every second of it.
Let’s start with le Centre Pompidou, and how it crashes on you every time you visit. The last time I was here was… when? nine years ago? could it be so? It might well be.
I have arrived via Chatelet Les Halles, the mega-transport hub of Paris city centre: so incredibly confusing and so well-signed up. A wonder of global city navigation techniques. They are frustrating but they work. They got me to where I wanted to get to, without the need of my phone and my (by now, ubiquitously unbereable) google maps app. Hooray! I can make my way as a stranger following analogue ways. I will find my way to the Pompidou, no matter how tired and confused I am today. Exit 3. Flêche. ‘Par ici, madame’. ‘Merci, je vois. Parfait’.
I arrive early. The Pompidou has just opened its doors and it is prepared for the hordes of art-thirsty punters. Ridiculously long queue line markers are ready for what may be descending on this place later. When I arrive these lines are deserted and it feels quite theatrical to step into them. I race through them, just for the sake of it.
The check-point, at the entrance to the building, is an impossibly complicated arrangement for securité’s sake. An aged gentleman spends what feels like ages emptying pockets and going in and out of the magnetic doors, without luck. The doors keep ringing on him! ‘Messieur, est-ce que vous avez de la monnaie?’ ‘Non.’ ‘Des clés?’ ‘Non.’ ‘Un autre portable?’ ‘Non.’ ‘Des medicines?’ ‘Oui, j’en ai un inhalateur pour mon asthma’. ‘Ah, ça y est, messieur. Mettez-le ici. C’est parti.’
Then there is the cloackroom and its wonderfully ancestral arrangements. No lockers but one-on-one service, meaning long queues, bien sûr. Let’s have a chat over every piece of ‘manteau’ and every ‘sac’ each of us carries. It is impossibly fun.
Bon. Time to get up, to the sixth floor, and experience the art at long last. I have the 11.30am slot at a gallery that has opened its doors at 11am.
This ‘Bacon En Toutes Lettres’ exhibition [translated into English as ‘Bacon: Books and Painting’] is otherwordly. Despite the crowds, despite the hype and despite the complicated arrangements that make it an epic adventure for any of us to get up here, it does feel special and strangely intimate.
It takes me a while to understand the concept: The artwork is hanging on the walls, without much explanation while, on six separate cubicles, we get the chance to listen to readings of six excerpts from books believed to have been deeply influential to Bacon and extracted directly from his library.
We get the texts in print. But it makes a difference to get into the pods and listen.
I need a bit of time to figure myself out in each of the pods. I must make an effort to descend into a listening mood.
You may arrive in the middle of a French version or an English version of the text being read. All of the texts are read in both languages, in an uninterrupted loop.
I like listening to both versions a few times. The readings are delivered with poise and gusto. It is a joy to listen. And it is a joy to read. A memorable experience I will treasure for a long time.
Then… there are the paintings. Experiencing them alongside the readings gives me some mixed feelings to start with. I am at a loss: do the readings complement the visuals? Do they contradict them, distract from them, or take us in a completely different direction?
I felt the readings took me somewhere else, far away from the artworks. I loved the strong feeling — and repellence — produced by the paintings but I needed some distance between the visual experience and the literary experience: for me, the words and the pictures did not complement or speak directly to each other in a straight forward (or in a mutually enhancing) way.
I did not like looking into the tryptich that was supposed to have been directly inspired by Aeschylus’ ‘The Eumenides’ in The Oresteia straight after listening to that excerpt being read out loud. The reading caused a profound impression on me that was not matched by the painting. That is: I needed to cleanse my palate, to free my mind off the words, before being able to engage with the visual.
For some reason, the dense mindscape I had travelled to inside the listening pod felt crude, flat, even, when looking at the tryptich that — just before considering the text — had felt so rich, so textured and strangely enticing.
After a while, the visual experience worked its magic again and it took me somewhere powerful. But it did not speak the words of Aeschylus. It spoke another language I did not want to mix with the reading.
I realised, very strongly, that literary words produce a deep enchantment on me. And that, when meaningful enough to me, they tend to win over anything visual.
The power of the visual can be strong… but in my imagination, it seems to play second fiddle to what words can convey. So I need to forget the words a little, so that my eyes readjust and engage with what I see before me, at another — perhaps more primitive – level.
In this exhibition, I have been reminded that I tend to experiene the world in an intensely cerebral way, meaning: I tend to experience things more powerfully when they are worded concepts.
Francis Bacon does something indescribable to you, by producing a version of reality that is so real and yet… so non-literal or so non-figurative in a classic sense. When you listen –or you read –his literary influences, you are transported somewhere very richly articulated (sometimes thousands of years into the past). But it becomes clear that words act very differently to paint… and, the way my brain works, such words force me to revert into my need for lines and dots as a way of making sense of feelings. (I can imagine finding a transition between readings and the works of Kandinsky or Miro far easier to mirror…)
Not every reading affected me in the same way, but Aeschylus The Oresteia, T.S Eliot The Waste Land, and Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness were delivered in ways that went far with me. Then I got caught on Michel Leiris Mirror of Tauromachy, which reminded me of why I cannot write-off bull-fighting so easily, despite my Catalan roots (Catalonia has been the first region in Spain to ban the practice); and I smiled wisely at Georges Bataille Chronicle. Dictionary where we hear a few brutal truths about our need to block the Slaughterhouse far out of sight. The Birth of Tragedy by Nietzsche did not have as much impact because I knew the text by heart as a teenager. All in all, extraordinary texts, all of them, well delivered in the most special and thoughtful of settings.
So did I re-connect with Bacon in newly meaningful ways? How did this compare with my experience of his tryptichs at Tate Liverpool a few years earlier (and without the crowds)?
I must say yes, I connected anew with the artist and his twistedly accurate representation of the ‘real’. I did so, not directly out of blending words with images (interesting that the listening pods were isolated, inside the exhibition halls but enclosed and devoid of any visual distraction). Rather, I managed this connection out of feeling disoriented and feeling the need to take time, lots of time: time listening, time forgetting what I had listened to and time to look back at familiar paintings that looked different in that setting.
I also managed the new form of connection by taking the time to look very attentively at the blockbuster crowds and their particular dynamics . All of these fashionably dressed people stopping over the paintings, photographing them, annotating them, looking in awe, in disgust, in confusion. And then these people reading, entering the pods. Doubting how long to stay in. Staying long, quite long.
Many of us took quite a long time to experience this exhibit. This is a first at an art blockbuster, in my book. We were keen to listen, look, listen again. And then, most memorable of all, we experienced a form of strongly bound communion: we gathered closely over each other, very closely, in order to watch attentively a film of Bacon being interviewed.
The entire cohort of viewers at the exhibition wanted to see this film from beginning to end. So we all stood obediently, hanging on every word, on every smile of this generously cheeked and gently sounding artist who wanted to tell us, convince us, that he did not intend to express horror in his work, just to show reality in intense ways, as intense as he could make it, as intense as it is necessary to do so in an age of precise mechanical reproductions.
I believed him, I thanked him, and I was thankful also for the words he vowed to read so often, the words — sentences, passages — that we were lucky to listen to in the unusual setting of an art museum.
I left this blockbuster feeling engrossed and not at all caught by the spectacle or the hype. I felt I got the chance to experience some powerfully intimate moments, just for myself, while sharing some wonder and intensity with ‘the masses’.
I tried to engage with Christian Boltanski’s exhibition next but I could not. I needeed space to think, digest and cleanse up. I needed time to look out of the window and time to drink a glass of something nice and expensive. And so I did, ending very pleased with myself and full of many intensities… the kinds of complex and confusing intensities we all seek when craving for art. (Never mind the spectacle.)