The Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms exhibition at the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart examines the use of architectural structures and spaces in a collection of over 30 of Bacon‘s works. The exhibition includes many iconic pieces from the artist's career, with a renewed focus on his compositional tools, and the recurring symbolism and themes that Bacon addressed through his practice. To mark the opening earlier this month, Sotheby’s hosted a champagne reception at the gallery that was followed by a curator tour and dinner. Ahead of the event, Sotheby’s Oliver Barker spoke to the show‘s curator Dr Ina Conzen about the significance of the exhibition and the enduring appeal of Bacon.
Oliver Barker: The exhibition Invisible Rooms focusses specifically on Bacon’s construction of the pictorial space and the use of ‘architectural frames’ that are so prevalent within Bacon’s work. How did this exhibition come about and what can you tell us about the reasoning of focusing on this particular aspect of Bacon’s work?
Dr Ina Conzen: Of course Bacon is primarily known for his thrilling depiction of figures. But where do his physical dramas take place? Always in internal spaces, in the best paintings the artist stages his figures in complex, constricting spatial constructions. Astonishingly, his elaborate pictorial strategy has so far never been specifically examined in an exhibition. Bacon always liked to talk about how important intuition was to him – we unmask him as a brilliant pictorial strategist who quite rationally assigns a place to chance.
OB: The confinement of his subjects in these ‘boxes’ or ‘cages’ were just, according to Bacon, purely a formal tactic to concentrate the image. However, there is also an overwhelming sense of psychological claustrophobia in these works and of the human subject being akin to a caged animal. Would you agree?
IC: Yes, definitely. In one room we show four portraits of screaming Popes along with our Chimpanzees and the Study of a Baboon from MoMA – and it becomes entirely clear that the cage motif has a content-related dimension. These paintings: they testify to a withdrawal of freedom, of being helplessly exposed not least to us, the viewers of their wretchedness; for Bacon man and beast were very close to one another in their existential subjection, their certainty of death…
OB: Alberto Giacometti was another artist who was prevalent in the use of figures within frameworks. Like Giacometti, Bacon’s paintings and certainly those of the 1950s can be seen in Existentialist terms. This seems to be a very European sentiment in this period, why do you think this was?
IC: After the horror of the Second World War, the failure of all humane values, people thought in different categories about human existence; existentialism, in its negation of transcendence, was close to Bacon’s sense of life. He sums this up when he effectively says that man is born and dies, and that in between he can only give his pointless existence a meaning through his instincts.
OB: Do you feel that the closeting and the employment of these confined spaces are evocative of the clandestine homosexuality in post-war Britain that Bacon experienced?
IC: I think the isolation of his figures by means of cages, pedestals, railings etc is more of a general expression of the fleetingness and hopelessness of human existence; but it seems obvious to me that the vehemence of his representation of the body, in particular the copulating couples or Bacon’s lover Peter Lacy and above all George Dyer, clearly has something to do with his intensely experienced sexuality.
OB: There are 40 paintings in this exhibition spanning across all periods of his career. Do you feel his use of these structural devices changes over time?
IC: In the dark paintings of the 1950s, when most of the depictions of Popes and the incarcerated Suite Wearers were produced, the ghostly framework plays a particular part; most of the seated figures are literally screaming at their cages: a cry for space. From the 1960s onwards Bacon worked with strong colour contrasts, and the cage, the plinths and podiums increasingly become a stage. The figures are set out like exhibits in a museum, to stress their ‘artificiality’ and to turn us, the viewers, more and more into voyeurs.
OB: There are some fantastic examples of Bacon’s work residing in museums in Germany and there is a distinguished history of exhibitions in Germany; such as the1985 retrospective at the Tate Gallery which then travelled to the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart. Can you tell us a little about the reception in of Francis Bacon in Germany?
IC: Our exhibition includes many works from major German museums; and their purchase history reveals that Bacon was valued highly in Germany very early on. In 1962, for example, the Mannheim Kunsthalle bought its Pope II, and our Chimpanzee was acquired in 1964.
OB: Within the art market Francis Bacon is one of the most desired artist’s and one of the most expensive in terms of auction results – second only to Picasso. Why do you believe that people are so drawn to him and to his work?
IC: Bacon’s paintings leave no one unmoved, his figurative painting addresses us quite directly. And he is technically – even though he had no academic training – breathtaking; Bacon’s biography is exciting, and the recognition value is high, all aspects that appealed not only to museums but also, and particularly, to private collectors.
Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms is at the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart until 8 January 2017 - View highlights