by Elliot Davies
Photos are nice but photography can stop you from really getting to know the decaying fleshy inevitability of your subject. Tate Liverpool put on a back-to-back exhibition of two of the 20th century’s most vital painters of bodies. Here we have two unique minds who justified their medium’s relevance through portraying what photographs couldn’t: nightmares, neurosis, and the unspeakable.
Have you ever experimented with mindfulness? I have. I nearly suffocated.
I’m paraphrasing and simplifying things here, but mindfulness seems to involve allowing yourself to fully appreciate everything that’s happening to you at that precise moment in time. If you’re out walking, for instance, entering a state of mindfulness might involve appreciating the pressing of your feet on the pavement; the ruffle of your sleeves on your arms; the uncomfortable tightness of your underwear; the bite of the air; the scent of the traffic; the haircuts of the other pedestrians.
When I tried mindfulness, I was sat on a bed with my eyes closed. All I had to focus on was the feel of the carpet beneath my feet and of the bed beneath me. And, of course, the crushing silence of the bedroom. Apart from that, I was completely alone with my thoughts. And it was horrible. I forgot to breath.
Maria Lassnig once sat back in a chair in her studio. She could feel the cushions pressing against her back. She could feel the weight of the arm-rests beneath her arms. To all intents and purposes, she achieved a state of mindfulness. But it was no comfort to her. She perceived herself as some kind of woman/chair hybrid:
That’s Armchair Self Portrait I (1963). This exhibition is divided neatly into seven themed areas, and you’ll find the above in the Kitchen/War section. Armchair Self Portrait depicts the physical sensation of sitting. Like most pictures in the exhibition, it deals with internal sensations and perception. Lassnig would only abandon her focus on the inner world when “events in the outside world were stronger than me.” Thus we find works like Fury of War (1991), in which Lassnig is a soldier, all rage, who has become one with her weaponry:
The dehumanising effects of war there, portrayed much more vividly (and, arguably, disturbingly) than any photo could ever hope to. Sure, photos can effectively capture the horrors or war, but you might be hard pressed to find a photo that so communicates the inner turmoil of the soldier as he listlessly tosses another limb on the pile.
When, in my painting, I became tired of analytically depicting nature, I searched for a reality that was more fully in possession than the exterior world, and I found it in the body house in which I dwell, the realest and clearest reality, I only need to become aware of it in order to be able to project its imprints as fixed focal points onto the picture plane.
Maria Lassnig, 1970
So the focus on what happens on the inside is partially born from an undeniable truth – that nobody knows what goes on within you better than you do. But Lassnig’s approach is also a reaction to photography. Photographers were, according to her, “prosthesis artists”. Artists who painted using photographs as a source were even worse.
And speaking of artists who painted from photographs, Francis Bacon! Lassnig admired his work, but because of his flawed approach, she insisted that she and Bacon were no “kindred spirits”.
I think that the very great artists were not trying to express themselves. They were trying to trap the fact, because after all, artists are obsessed by life and by certain things that obsess them that they want to record. And they’ve tied to find systems and construct the cages in which these things can be caught.
Francis Bacon, 1966
Francis Bacon constructed cages – transparent yet invisible frames within frames. He insisted that his frames were in no way symbolic. They were simply there to “concentrate the image down”. But it’s impossible to not look at the screaming face in Study for a Portrait (1952) and not see a man rotting in isolation in his own personal hell:
These are paintings of hell. Whether he intended to or not, Bacon created hell on Earth. His hell is a gallery full of ringed-off exhibitions. Your hell is to spend your eternity on display, your lonely torment exposed for all to see. Paraplegic children crawl aimlessly; chimpanzees scream faintly in the distance; popes writhe in agony; and your face becomes a melted nightmare.
After the arrival of photography and the death of god, this is a new approach to painting. Bacon’s visceral world runs on its own unholy logic. It’s full of impossible spaces and unlit rooms, where the only brightness comes in the form of nauseatingly lurid orange expanses.
Unfortunately, Tate Liverpool lit this exhibition far too well. These are dark paintings, and when you shine a series of spotlights on them, the subject must compete with numerous distracting reflections. It sort of spoils the effect. A much better approach would have been to cast this gallery into the sort of sepulchral gloom that’s used in the Rothko gallery at the Tate Modern.
But whereas the clinical lighting almost diminishes the impact of Bacon’s work, it actively enhances Lassnig’s power. This is particularly true once the exhibit reaches the latter stages of her career. In a small collection dubbed “What Next”, we see what happened when Lassnig’s preoccupation with body awareness was allowed to reach its logical conclusion. As her own body began to weaken, her paintings became unbearable.
In Hospital (2005), she’s little more than a gasping, desperate face, lying bewildered between two exhausted, barely-human bodies:
Viewing that under the stark gallery lighting is even more exhausting than a forced three hour mindfulness session.
Maria Lassnig & Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms runs at Tate Liverpool until September 16, 2016. Once again, our “review” (for want of a better word) has gone live right at the end of the run. Sorry about that.