Tuesday, January 29, 2013

BACON'S SCRAMBLED STUDIO: FRANCIS & MARGARET


Francis Bacon's Studio, The Hugh Lane, Dublin
The article in The Australian Magazine told of the plans for the Margaret Olley studio to be relocated from her Federation home in Sydney to the art gallery near her birthplace in northern New South Wales, the Tweed River Art Gallery. She had left money in her will for this move to be funded. Just why the room could not remain insitu was not explained. It seemed odd that the movement of a place so cluttered could even be contemplated. What rationale, what strategy, is required for the precise relocation of the chaotic and ad hoc? Can something random be rationalized without changing its casual, 'everyday,' status - its inherent nonchalance? - see http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/08/tweed-art-gallery-not-too-twee.html
Margaret Olley's Sydney studio
Then there is the issue of light and vistas. Margaret Olley had often spoken of her much-loved workplace, pointing out the subtle variations in the natural lighting of her studio with the time of day. She had also told of the importance of her garden for the room, and of the significance of the views into it. She had frequently shown these glimpses in her paintings of her studio that explored the wonderful complexity of detail that surrounded her - literally. There is a photograph of her in her studio, sitting in a ceiling-high sea of chaos. Was the proposal to move all of this serious?



This was the artist's 'mess' that was going to be relocated. But how could the natural Sydney light and the temperate garden be transposed? There seemed to be a problem with this idea that wanted to move thousands of items some nine hundred kilometres north and replace them in their identical shambles of a relationship, in a precise space, place and pre-determined, 'identical' organisation, all with a character and presence that tries to match that of the original muddle. Is there an issue with provenance here? Can the integrity of a studio be taken holus-bolus and put elsewhere for public display without it becoming something else - perhaps another remote 'art' object itself; or worse, a copy or reproduction of the original? Does a studio hold real sense only for things silently and secretly intimate and personal? Does a studio have any relationship with output? Is staring into an artist's workplace like looking at the artist in underclothes, or in the shower? Is this just a voyeuristic occasion?


The report noted that architect Bud Brannigan had travelled to Dublin to confer with the curator of the Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane. This gallery had Francis Bacon's studio on display. It was said to have many more items in it than the Margaret Olley studio that, ironically, was being itemised by her friend and Brisbane gallery owner, Philip Bacon - (no relationship). What is the world coming to when studios are compared in such a quantitative manner? One wonders why the different areas and other dimensions were not mentioned! It is this attitude, approach, and the curatorial rigour required, that seems to intrude into and distort the very best intentions in the concept of relocation that appears to want to preserve something meaningful of the artist - the aura of the source and sorcery of the mysticism of creativity as real place and factual daily detail. Still, the idea intrigued. Dublin had to be visited in order to see the results of the Bacon move. Just what should one expect? What might the experience be?

Dublin proved to be an enigma. One gets a feeling for a place through its stories and published images. Dublin has a marvelous reputation - pubs, grand graphics, sweet names, genius, Guinness, doors, bridges, Wilde, Behan and Joyce, and more: more Guinness. It was 'flavoursome' indeed. Yet the arrival was as boring as that at any airport, perhaps a little more perplexing in its Irish way. The sprawling buildings and the usual processing of passengers offered no revelations. Queues, patience, time, discomfort and frustration all mix to mess with the fatigue of distance and time. Eventually one gets clear of all of this testing and checking only to discover that, even with the delay of immigration, the bags had not been delivered to the endless conveyor belt. This wait only made the appearance of one's luggage a greater delight. All still in one piece too! Free at last after not being challenged by Customs. Moving into the open space and the chilled, sharp air of Ireland, one was left with a new problem: where were the buses? Airports remain a constant source of frustration.

Signage was of little assistance. Once one had exercised some creative interpretations, the guessed direction did reveal something that looked like a likely bus stop in the distance. On closer inspection it turned out to be so. A bus arrived: not ours. But where was the one we had booked? "That's over by the church," said the attractive lyrical accent accompanied by a matching gesture that was directed at the distance. A five-minute struggle with bags over kerbs and ragged pavements that aimed for the crucifix, finally revealed a parking space full of buses. It was strange to see these giants hiding behind a church, all neatly arrayed. But what was a church doing in the middle of airport parking and roads? Why were these buses so isolated? This was Ireland, so why worry? Its reputation for the obscurely rational irrational revealed in most Irish jokes remained intact: "In which direction is the . . ?" "Oh, I wouldn't go that way." "Why are these two clocks in this railway station telling two different times?" "Why have two clocks telling the same time?" Relief came when our bus arrived, on time. We could sit and relax at last, and enjoy the trip to our guesthouse in central Dublin.


After settling in, we decided to explore the city. We stepped out into Talbot Street and headed for O'Connor Street - the spire. What was the aspiration, the inspiration, for this cliché landmark? What significance for place did this mighty gesture hold? It seemed strange, but the eye kept returning to it to gauge its reality. It was high; it was fine - so fine; so high; really fine; really high! It was quite wonderful in a strange way that made it feel something unbelievably alien but exciting, like finding a needle in a haystack.
 Haystack seemed a good analogy for Dublin at this time of day. Late Sunday and it was still just a messy crowded chaos of people walking willy-nilly while shopping in stores that are everywhere else too. This was not the Dublin we envisaged. So we strolled to the Liffey hoping for a revelation - those bridges, layer after perspective layer reaching over a twisting gleam fringed with classical Georgian buildings. We were greeted with the mud, stains and trash that are revealed by low tides, and crowds moving over one pretty structure somewhat mindlessly like soldier ants. Why could I not see the other bridges? Where were the grand buildings. Those before us were the typical flat facades of a bland city - warehouses. The only enjoyable characteristics were their colours and their reflections in the muddy wash that seemed to wallow in this game with the ordinary, creating wonderful ‘impressionistic’ images.


We decided to retreat to the pub. An Irish pub in Ireland! This should be astonishing. Sadly it seems that the fake venues have manipulated the clichés so much that the real thing becomes a disappointment. There was no music or song, just the noise from the television set that was showing the match of the day live. It was the centre of attention. Even the barman had to be prompted to serve us. But there was Guinness. Ah! Real Guinness at last! Made with Dublin water. Gosh, there was not even that wonderful difference that folk dream of, even eulogise - but it was still good, and helped to ease the fatigued body and to encourage the forgetting of the frustrating thoughts about this disappointing dump, Dublin. Was it all due to our tortured time zones? Another pint, a meal and bed ended the day.

Dublin had always been on the list of 'where to go' because of one book - Kells. Trinity College has had the Book of Kells on display for years. Hours have been spent drooling over the details of the Thames & Hudson facsimile edition; so seeing the real thing was something that had been anticipated for years. Just what did this vellum look like; feel like? Was the book still turned page by page every day? We set out the next morning for Trinity College. It is interesting how one can map a place by exploring Google Earth and Maps, and Streetview. We knew where to go and how to get there without asking. It was directly over the bridge seen yesterday. So we headed for the spire. We had not noticed before, but the lower portion of the spire, that part that was as tall as the adjacent buildings, was a patchwork of mirrored splotches in the sea of satin that continued up beyond to the extreme top of the needle point. It was not only the height of this structure that dazzled belief, but also it supremely elegant tapering to nothing - and it remained stable and vertical too.


Turning left took us along O'Connor Street to the Halfpenny Bridge and onto a grand boundary fence that could only be that of Trinity College. Following this bold edge led us to the iconic central meeting place of Dublin - the main entrance of Trinity College off College Green - a space framed by the massive Bank of Ireland. Was a building of this astonishing scale really built as a bank? It was only later in the day that it was discovered that this was the first parliament house. Entering Trinity through a modest, central doorway in an old timber screen, took us over hexagonal timber setts and along a short vaulted passage into academic courtyards - KEEP OFF THE GRASS: NO BICYCLES. The axial alignments took the eye to the left and right and into the distance under a central Gothic revival tower. Trinity library was to the right.
Trinity fence

Entry to Trinity College from College Green
Bank of Ireland Centre, College Green, Dublin
 Trinity College, Dublin
The entry was through the shop, a cheeky move that is usually left for the exit. This commercialism predicted the exuberant display about various significant books - their histories, details, stories and making. Only after passing through this informative maze was the real book revealed - the real Kells completely sealed in a Chubb display case, safe, secure and distant. No page turning here! The gallery 'guard' was dozing in the corner. He had nothing to do when there was this quality of enclosure. He didn't even seem to worry about enforcing the NO PHOTOGRAPHY signage as the American clicked away undisturbed.

So this was Kells. Simply stunning: dirtier than the facsimile that presented itself on perfect gloss paper and in precise new inks. It is always interesting to see the real word with its textured scratches, muddy spills, decaying splotches and messy grubbiness - yet so fine; so astonishingly delicate; so unbelievably beautiful. Returning to the maze, the main item of interest was the making. Velum. Did the quill really make such an annoying scratching noise when transcribing with such apparent fluency? Binding involved stitching with linen thread. I never knew that the ridges on the spines of old books were functional and not decorative, being the cords which the velum pages were stitched to, over which the calf skin covering had been dressed. Like most superceded functional necessities, it seems that this moulding of the spine remained as a decorative forming when the binding technique had developed alternative methods of construction.



One can only be amazed enough for a limited time before it becomes a self conscious re-enactment, so we exited up the newer concrete steps to the old library above. What a bonus. A double-height vault with walls of book spines on each side, all accessed by old, flimsy, wooden ladders. It was the classic vision of book storage, complete with lines of marble busts marking each stack with an icon of learning. This array was all behind the maroon rope barriers that directed one down stairs and back to the shop. A double whammy!

Saint Stephen's Green
Days in Dublin only became more relaxing and enriching. Saint Stephen's Green became the place for retreat after walking kilometers, discovering the classic buildings, the doors, the Pugin church, (not even indicated on the map!), the canal, the other bridges, and more. It was only on the last day that there was time to seek out the Bacon studio. This had not been researched in any detail, so the city was explored, gauging direction by nose alone - always an interesting process of discovery. Go north and east, I think.

The Hugh Lane, Dublin
Discovering the destination without any detours is always very satisfying. The light was fading as the day closed and the students relaxed after their excursion. The Hugh Lane Gallery stairs were layered with frollicking uniforms framing the entry like Laocoon groupings. It must have been the end of a school excursion. The information desk advised that there was no charge and happily passed over a map of the gallery that showed the location of the Bacon studio. After moving in through the main doors, the gallery revealed itself as a bright, white set of modest spaces strung together with an axial arrangement of doors that pierced the core of each with a set of beautifully and richly detailed timber architraves, repeated identically one after the other into the distance, on and on until they terminated at a glass sliding door - the Bacon area.

The various white galleries had differing shapes and proportions and other axial extensions. Some had natural lighting. Each displayed a nicely modest number of paintings in an arrangement that gave the small place some sense of grand scale without being overbearing. The glass door slid open automatically on approach, allowing the blare of the Bacon audio to spread into the other quieter gallery areas. Up some stairs one discovered folk aligned on a bench, watching Malvern Bragg interview Francis Bacon - a very young Bragg and Bacon. It was, as is usual for Bragg, a good interview. It was only Bragg that the dying Dennis Potter would let interview him in his last days. Bragg's sensitivity is shown in his foreword to the published text when he tells how, after the event, he left the studio and walked out into a dark, late London and wept. Here we saw Bragg asking his usual probing ordinary questions without any judgement, only a genuine interest. "Do you draw and sketch before painting?" "No," replied Bacon, "as this would only mean that I would be painting a drawing. I like the immediacy of paint on canvas."

This point was again made when Bragg asked Bacon more about why he used the reverse side - Bragg called it "the wrong side" - of the canvas. Bacon said that he had discovered quite by accident that the reverse side of the canvas was coarser than the front and took the paint more aggressively quickly. It did not allow for any retouching. When Bragg asked what Bacon did to canvases that he was unhappy with, Bacon said to a disbelieving Bragg that he destroyed them. "Destroy them?" "Yes, I cut them up."


On entering the studio, Bragg was surprised, as the walls were all daubed in paint. "I test out my colours on the walls," explained Bacon. And so the interview went on. When asked about his creative process, Bacon fumbled for words and then admitted that he had thought about this before the interview, and asked if it would be all right for him to read from the notes he had scribbled on a piece of paper in his pocket. Bragg agreed, and a self-conscious Bacon read his own words, putting some doubt on his claims that he prefers the risk of immediacy – the challenge of the moment.



After watching the endless loop of video to where I had started, I wandered around looking for the studio. There was a display in a couple of glass benches that held some Baconalia: books of the era; early photographs; some images of his early sources; and the like. Still, no studio. Then a recess in a wall was noticed. It was the size for one person and it was occupied. What was this? A toilet; a confessional? When vacated, I positioned myself in this nook and found myself framed in glass in the open door of the studio looking at all the mess and mangle of a mysteriously silent but real still life. It seemed that Bacon painted with Dulux Matt Vinyl paint. The brushes were so numerous that one sensed that he might use them just once before they hardened into their final form seen here as more than several sets sprawling everywhere.

What was one to make of this? One had been told that the room linings and the contents were all original, just as Bacon had left them. So what? One was left stranded on a point. One could not even see behind the door on the right. It was an odd feeling of exclusion - KEEP OUT; LOOK ONLY, a little like the Trinity grass. How long was one to stay? What was one to look at, out of so much of a mess? The situation did little more than emphasise one's isolation in the world where one was an outsider - the observer only.
 
Stepping out and around to look for other vantage points took one the full circle without any revelation, so off again. Two peep holes were discovered, one directed to a few brushes, the other to a swatch of paint smudged on the wall. So what was one to do with these chosen details? Further around, two windows at the exterior gallery floor level were discovered. These allowed one to look down into the studio as a stalker might purve on his subject. It was an awkward situation, more alienating than the vertical glass coffin in the doorway. One felt exposed here, extremely self-conscious.


So that was it - Bacon's studio. Was the effort worth it? The effort to get there was because it opened up more of Dublin as well as the gallery, but the task of shipping this space and its components and reassembling them - was this effort worth it? Many questions arise on this issue. The studio has newspapers scattered around the floor and piles of books tumbling down onto paint tins and brushes. A couple of canvases lean against a paint-smudged wall. Two easels stand as icons in the clutter. Does one see this as a composition, for it must have been so perceived for the place and its pieces to be repositioned? Does this awareness change even simple pieces of paper that have been strewn about in an unselfconscious manner? This is the core question. Can anything scattered so unself-consciously that has been relocated self-consciously remain the same?

 It seems to me, no. So what is this studio other than a display recreated for visitors - tourists - to look at: an attraction? Is there any more meaning in this piece of theatre than this: the making of a place to entice inquisitive numbers of people seeking an 'interesting' emotional, even a pseudo-educational, diversion? - see http://springbrooklocale.blogspot.com.au/2012/06/who-or-what-is-tourist.html

Provenance is held only in each small part that has been stripped away from its context and repositioned into its newly planned and documented location. One can imagine the process: do you think that this rag should be crumpled differently? Does this book need to be at a different angle? Should we move the brushes a little to the left? . . . etc. How one might cope with the continuing aging of the pieces is another issue. Here the conservation conversation might be: Should we replace the rusting, leaking tin of paint with something that might have been as Francis had left it? . . . etc.
 If there is any concern with this analysis, then one needs to ask how a copy of an original differs from the original. Just what is the difference between the original Picasso and the perfect copy? The answer is none if one considers the studio relevant, because the first was a response to Bacon's activities; the second, a reconstructed copy 'after Bacon.' The difference between the original studio insitu and the relocated one is immense, both intellectually and physically - psychically too. The Dublin Bacon studio has a rich shambles inside, but outside is all pure white, stainless steel and Pirelli studded rubber. The attempt to show the memorable steep stair with the rope rail access that led to Bacon's loft studio becomes a framed view of what one presumes to be the original stair now relocated, viewed through a glazed floor panel outside the vertical glass coffin viewing box. This seems to sum up the problem of relocation and new context. There is no way that the stair can be experienced in relation to the studio as Bacon would have sensed it. It is an item behind glass located in the slick and smart environment of the white gallery - an exhibit. It seems that the importance of this Dublin-located studio is the display of Baconesque relics in the same manner as cathedrals display parts of saints. This is hagiography at its most blatant.
So what hope is there for the Olley studio? This will really be no different. All one can say is that it is being done, and should be, because Margaret Olley wanted it to be. It will just become a tourist attraction for gallery visitors to gawk at. In this circumstance, to reverse the cliché, more is less. Put simply, eggshells, for this is all studios are - places in which subtle things are lovingly created - cannot be put back together again, in the same way as eggs cannot be unscrambled. Humpty Dumpty proved this. It should have been known. The rambled mess should have just been left alone if we wanted to keep something with even the slightest sense of substance and meaning. Both Bacon's have a problem - Francis and Margaret’s.



* * * * * * *

 There is a postscript to the visit to the Bacon studio. On leaving the gallery spaces, one is directed through the retail shop - where else? Here I searched out a couple of images of the Bacon studio as photography was not allowed in the gallery. Looking at the postcards, my eye was caught by some Bacon sketches. But didn't Bacon say that he never sketched, only painted with the brash immediacy of wet paint on the unique challenge of wrong side of the canvas? These two postcards showed Bacon exploring ideas and set outs as drawings. Didn't I see a tee square in his studio? One does not use a tee square with immediacy. It seems that Mr. Bacon has been rather loose with the truth. Was he just concerned only with his image - creator of the instantly meaningful brushmark? It seems so. He was particular with the words he wanted to use to describe his approach and chose to read them. This only adds a greater enigma to his studio. Can the mess really be an 'honest' mess? Doubt has to be raised about this. It is too easy to suppose that it might be. There is a certain romance in the idea that art can arise from chaos: mystery from mess made by the rebel nonconformist who holds the power of vision that sees things differently. One has only to look at Margaret Olley's paintings and her carefully assembled subjects to discover how self-conscious her collected still life collage - her studio 'mess' - really is. The slightly disturbing matter is that Miss Olley kept her subjects exactly as she had depicted them for years after they had been painted. Is this phobia the driving force behind keeping her studio as a relic? Has the Bacon studio a similar problem, perhaps rooted in someone else's phobia?
A further problem with such quirky promotional displays of iconic artists' workplaces is that messiness becomes equated with desirable artistic outcome, encouraging the charlatan to create a mess and act differently to give the impression of what is hoped will only be seen as an artistic genius. It seems that the only good that will come out of such exhibits is an increase in visitor numbers. The end result is the perpetuation of the idea of art as exhibitionism. In this regard, Coomaraswamy's question: 'Why exhibit works of art?' needs to be seriously considered.


 * * * * * * *

Thoughts linger on this issue. It is very complex. Consider Bacon's little room located in a dimming Dublin. As it was approached from the street, it was the artificial lighting that highlighted the art gallery, made it a beacon that welcomed its discovery. On entering the gallery from the cool, outer dark, the bright, white light of the gallery spaces was truly invigorating. The movement into the Bacon display area was matched with a drop in lighting levels - a softening of the light. This was for the video presentation. Lighting levels dropped further as one explored the outer zones of this space that were the fringe areas around the studio display. Down lighting was part of this context for the studio, bearing no relationship with the original place or location of the workroom, just with this gallery. Peeking into the studio, one saw a space not only frozen in time, but also fixed in light. The artificial lighting of this interior was as false as the display itself: there was no natural variation here, no subtle changes that told of outer events.



Now it occurs to me that this display is nothing other than a Victorian peep show, a diorama, but not as exciting, mysterious, or beguiling. In the same manner, it has all of the characteristics of the old 3D photographic viewer - put in the twin image, hold it up to the eyes and behold the Bacon studio in all of the identical remote glory that can be seen through the looking glass of this tiny spec of a display in Dublin city: one context is a gallery; the other the armchair in the lounge where the imagination can be teased with visions of tourist destinations in the comfort of one's home. Well, it might as well have been a piece of this personal luxury, given the circumstances of the display and the singularity of the main viewing point. It may have been better.


And Dublin? As time passes and distance extends, the memories enrich. Is Dublin built from the stuff of longing?


P.S.
 In a report by in The Sydney Morning Herald of 1 June 2013, Treasures of Olley's life go under the hammer, Andrew Hornery writes about the items that will not be required for the relocated studio:

'The goods and chattels are items from the artist's home that will not be part of the re-creation of her famed painting rooms at the Tweed River Art Gallery.' see http://m.smh.com.au/lifestyle/private-sydney/treasures-of-olleys-life-go-under-the-hammer-20130531-2nh7m.html

So it seems that the studio is a reconstruction of a set of carefully selected items only - a new creation for tourism. The unwanted items are to be auctioned. What criteria have been used to make the selections? What part of Olley's life will be discarded? Are we to see only Bacon's vision of Olley? What 'treasures' are being denied to the public in this display? 

Is it ever a good idea to relocate and display the intimacies of one's life and pretend that nothnig has changed? I recall how, even when the location had not changed, Wordsworth's and Beatrix Potter's world had been santisied. One saw 'everything' - execept the privy, and, upon further reflection, much more too. Why was the lock of hair there; the suit of clothes: to suggest something personal an complete? One saw only a curated vision: a created vision shaped by others. One can suppose that there is little wrong with this as long everyone knows it is simple theatre for tourism, nothing more. How bored must we become to endure these fantasies?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.