Bacon’s Bits: Francis Bacon’s Cubes of Terror

Ever wondered what it’s like to stroll through your nightmares while conscious (and call it culture)?  With the Tate Gallery’s visceral new Francis Bacon exhibition you can go beyond simply observing the artist’s iconic visual disturbances and physically dangle over that dark, cerebral precipice that manifests itself so vividly in his works. Be in it to win it if you adventure to the Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms show – this is the art world’s version of extreme sports.

 “You ready for this?”
“You ready for this?”

Centred around the eidolic cubes that served as a running theme in the artist’s work, Liverpool’s Tate Gallery presents the largest ever Francis Bacon exhibition in north England in conjunction with Staatsgalerie Stuttgart. The thin yet jarring cubes explore spatiality and trap the subjects of the paintings: They are displayed, served up, exposed and confined in this traumatizingly lonely space that is human existence.

The cages evoke a palpable feeling of isolation and psychological torture – a feeling that Artistic Director, Francesco Manacorda, hopes to bring to terrifying life in the architecture of the exhibit (sadist or just a dark sense of shits and giggles, we can’t say).  Aiming to “mirror what Bacon was trying to do” through the manipulation of physical layout of the show, and creating a unique sense of not only viewing, but of being encased in Bacon’s artwork like an external subject, the exhibition is set up to be a Lynchian version of the presently en vogue escape room games – an abrupt descent into madness, piece by piece, like level to level of Dante’s Inferno. Tate Gallery’s got your next date idea covered!

The Pope’s feelin’ it. Study of Valazquesz’ Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953. Oil on canvas, 152.1 x 117.8 cm. Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines
The Pope’s feelin’ it. Study of Valazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953. Oil on canvas, 152.1 x 117.8 cm. Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines

Famed for his eerie and bleak paintings, the unforgettable 20th-century artist produced multiple works depicting people with distorted faces seemingly reaching the crescendo of a piercing scream. The voiceless cries coupled with the spectral boxes are a bad acid trip into one’s own demons that even Jodorowsky can tip his hat to.

Study for the Head of a Screaming Pope (1952), Oil on canvas, 9.5 x 39.4. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven (Connecticut) Study for a Portrait, 1952. Oil on canvas, 26 x 22 cm. Tate Britain, London Head I, 1947-1958. Oil and tempera on board, 100.3 x 74.9 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Left: Study for the Head of a Screaming Pope (1952), Oil on canvas, 9.5 x 39.4. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven (Connecticut). Center: Study for a Portrait, 1952. Oil on canvas, 26 x 22 cm. Tate Britain, London. Right: Head I, 1947-1958. Oil and tempera on board, 100.3 x 74.9 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Bacon is a veritable treasure trove of ontological horror-porn. Be it from his own tumultuous life or simply an uncanny ability to tap into our darkest moments, the Irish-born Brit evokes irrepressible claustrophobic emotions of torment, but he unequivocally makes us feel something, and that is an extraordinary feat in itself – a far cry from trite landscapes and scenes of Parisian cafes. Pop in your Aphex Twin album, and you’ve got yourself a killer duo for a grand foray into mental anguish.  Hell is other people? No, hell is being trapped in a Francis Bacon painting, and it certainly feels like there is no exit.

Two Figures, 1953. 152.5 x 116.5 cm. Private collection Study of a Nude, 1952-1953. Oil on canvas. 151.6.7 x 125.7 cm. Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, University of East Anglia, Norwich
Left: Two Figures, 1953. 152.5 x 116.5 cm. Private collection. Right: Study of a Nude, 1952-1953. Oil on canvas. 151.6.7 x 125.7 cm. Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, University of East Anglia, Norwich.

It might be strange, and it might be uncomfortable, but it will be unique, and it will be memorable, so why not step away from those pretty little Impressionism pieces for a while and experience a disparate element of the art world – the one not of beauty, but of raw emotion. Displaying over 30 paintings and numerous drawings, the Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms is on at Tate Liverpool from 18 May – 18 September.

Alice Bauer

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