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 binged on art & craft blockbusters. Mostly in London (V&A — Dior; Royal Academy — Gormley; Tate Modern — Eliasson) but today I have also done so in Paris: Pompidou — Bacon. The previous three exhibits 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 was: spectacle, please!! Let’s make sure it is AMAZING.
These London-based exhibits did the job. I was pleased, entertained and proud to be carrying my progeny into good examples of world-class blockbuster art (the art ‘everyone is talking about’). Tick! I am an accomplished 21st Century mother.
Today, I am in Paris without mothering distractions. It is 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 literary inspirations in a surprising new light. And I have valued every second of it.
Let’s start with le Centre Pompidou, and how this wonderfully ugly building manages to impress you every time you visit.
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, the lines are deserted and it feels quite theatrical to step into them. I race through them, just for the sake of it.
The entry check-point 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 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 hangs on the walls without much explanation while, on six separate cubicles, we get the chance to listen to readings out of six books believed to have been deeply influential on Bacon. They have been extracted directly from his library.
We get the texts in print. But it makes a difference to get into the cubicles and listen. I need a bit of time to figure myself out in each of these pods. I must make an effort to descend into a listening mood. But I soon discover that it is worth it.
You may arrive in the middle of a French or an English version of the text being read. 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 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.
For instance, I did not like looking into the tryptich that had 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 of the words, before being able to engage with the visual.
For some reason, the dense mindscape I had travelled to inside the listening pod made me see the tryptich as something crude, flat even, despite the fact that the same paintings had felt very rich, textured and strangely enticing before I entered the pod.
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.
At this point, I realised that, for someone like me, literary words tend to win over anything visual. The power of the visual can be strong… but in my imagination, it plays second fiddle to what words can convey. As such, in this exhibit, I needed to listen to the words but then try to forget them, so that my eyes could readjust and engage with what I was seeing before me, at another, perhaps more primitive level.
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 out of blending words with images. 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 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 a very long time to experience this exhibit. This is a first at an art blockbuster, in my book. We were keen to listen, look and listen again. Then, most memorable of all, we came together: we gathered closely over each other, very closely, in order to watch 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 that he did not intend to express horror in his work; what he intended, he said, was 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 mechanical reproductions.
I believed him, I thanked him, and I was thankful also for the words — sentences, passages — he is supposed to have read so often. I felt very lucky to have listened to these words in the unusual setting of an art museum.
I left this blockbuster feeling engrossed and not distracted by 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 (at the next rooms, in the Pompidou) 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, 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.)