Currently on show at Tate Liverpool is an exhibition surveying Francis Bacon’s use of cages, spaces and structures in his paintings. This “architectural, ghost-like framing device” was first introduced by the artist in the 1930s and was commonly used in his portraits in the 1950-60s. Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms argues that this devise emphasised the sitter’s sense of isolation and trapped psychological despair.
The exhibition is arranged in eight chronological sections. On display are some of Bacon’s most famous paintings from the collections of Tate, Dublin City Gallery and select German museums. The most fascinating works, however, are some rare and newly-discovered sketches and prepatory drawings: it is surprising to see just how significant and fundamental Bacon considered these architectural structures to his paintings, even though they became so subtle and suggestive in the final composition.
Despite the strong works on display, the exhibition is let down by its curatorial analysis, which is not entirely convincing and many of the points it raised, though insightful, could have done with a lot more expansion.
Too much emphasis is also placed on Bacon’s own words, which often seem contradictory to his paintings. Bacon said he wanted ‘to isolate the image’ and the curators would like us to believe that the framing device removes the painting from any context, denying narrative. This seems unlikely in the majority of Bacon’s triptychs, in particular his Triptych May-June (1973, below) which was directly inspired by his lover George Dyer’s death by sleeping pills and alcohol in a Parisian hotel bathroom (not exhibited in the Tate Liverpool exhibition). Some theories may hold (tenuously) with the paintings on display, but more contradictions would arise if other works from Bacon’s oeuvre were brought into the picture.
The curators discuss how the cages change with time – becoming more complex in the 1960s, diverse and stage-like in the 1970s then abstract and polished by the 1980s – but no suggestion is made to reasons for this development. One cannot help thinking that the deaths of Bacon’s lovers, Peter Lacy in 1962 and George Dyer in 1971, were a significant influence.
Examination was mostly placed on Bacon’s framing device and the creation of the ‘invisible room’. There is no distinction, however, between the various types of cages, such as the closed caged in Man in Blue IV (1954) and the open cage in Study for Portrait of P. L., no.2 (1957), both painting of Peter Lacy; the former suggested inaccessibility, but the latter invites the viewer in. Most frustratingly, the curators never investigated what it might mean if the sitter breaks out of the ‘invisible room’ and suggested sense of isolation, as Lucian Freud did in Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969, below), though this was also not on display at Tate Liverpool.
For an exhibition inspired by architecture motifs, there is a disappointing lack of appreciation for the complexities of architectural theories, particularly regarding space and boundary. Perhaps the exhibition catalogue will expand on these ideas; it was not available at the time of writing, but will be published in August 2016 to mark the opening of the exhibition at Staatsgalerie Stuttgart on 7 October 2016.
‘Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms’ is on show at Tate Liverpool until 18 September, before going on display at Staatsgalerie Stuttgart until 8 January 2017.