Friday, August 17, 2007

Museum of Art Lucerne Presents Vis-a-vis. Bacon & Picasso - A Direct Confrontation

Museum of Art Lucerne Presents Vis-a-vis. Bacon & Picasso - A Direct Confrontation


Pablo Picasso, le déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1960. Oil on canvas, 130 x 195 cm. Private collection. © 2007, ProLitteris, Zürich.

LUCERNE.- This year the Museum of Art Lucerne is holding – astonishingly, for the very first time with such range and ambition – a direct confrontation of the late phases of the work of Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon. Nine important paintings by Bacon made between 1955 and 1986 face a larger number of works of all genres by Picasso: four sculptures, 13 paintings and five drawings, with one exception all painted after 1960, and – installed in a special cabinet – a large selection from Picasso’s series of 156 etchings made between 1968 and 1972. This Suite 156 can be seen as Picasso’s last creative flourish before his death and, along with Suite 347, as his final legacy within the field of printing.

The exhibits include such well-known masterpieces as Picasso’s largest and also most stripped-down version of the Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1960) or the first painting from an intense phase of engagement with the theme ‘Painter and model’, 25.20.1964. Typically, Picasso painted it on his 83rd birthday. Both of these works have been shown in many of the artist’s major exhibitions. Similarly, such works as Bacon’s large triptych Studies of the Human Body (1970), the threefold Portrait of Henrietta Moraes and his self-portrait from 1972 were shown in his major exhibitions. In this exhibition, however, visitors will be able to discover many works which have not been shown for a long time, or are only seen very rarely.

Forty years after its production, Picasso’s late work continues to celebrate fresh triumphs. Though Picasso was convinced that ten or twenty years would have to pass before his late paintings were valued, today’s interest would probably far exceed his expectations. His violent figurative painting may in fact occupy a logical space within the development of Picasso’s work and personality, but many of his contemporaries saw it as a rare lapse. Only a retrospective eye can recognise the doors that Picasso’s late work opened up for (figurative) art.

Both formally and stylistically, and in terms of its potential to throw up fundamental questions of art and of human existence. It may be for similar reasons that the already considerable esteem in which the work of Francis Bacon is held has also continued to flourish. The evidence for this lies not only in its recognition in the form of one solo exhibition after another (last this winter in K20 in Dusseldorf or a US tour that closes end of July at Albright Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY), but also in the seemingly incredible rise in the value of his works on the market, taking Bacon into strata hitherto reserved solely for the major Impressionists, Picasso or the heroes of Abstract Expressionism.

Such successes aside, there are so many parallels between the two artists that it is surprising how rarely they are brought together. Of course we know that Picasso was the trigger for Bacon’s artistic career. Bacon’s statements on the subject are constantly quoted. But there are few direct references in the work itself, they can at most be seen in individual instances when Bacon resorts to Picasso’s Surrealist motifs, hence chiefly in his early work from the 1930s and 1940s. Accordingly, the exhibition Bacon – Picasso. The Life of Images (2005) at the Musée Picasso focused upon that era, and the sole example of Picasso’s late work in that exhibition was a nude drawing from 1972. Olivier Berggruen aptly wrote in the catalogue for the show Francis Bacon and the Pictorial Tradition, held a good year previously in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Fondation Beyeler, that actually it was more a matter of ‘illuminating that relationship … from the point of view of their shared interests than of reconstructing specific patterns of influence.

This cognitive interest also underlies Museum of Art Lucerne’s exhibition Vis-à-vis. Bacon & Picasso. At the same time it legitimates the fact that the exhibition, with the exception of a Bacon triptych, comes entirely from a private collection. For once it will not be a question of linking together exactly the ‘right’ works to illustrate a thesis, but of using the juxtaposition of exemplary works to examine Bacon’s and Picasso’s artistic attitudes and solutions from a comparative perspective. The fact that this works in this case is primarily a tribute to the collector who sadly died prematurely (and whose family wishes to remain anonymous), a cosmopolitan and distinguished art-lover with an eye and a sense not only for artistic quality but also for the compatibility of the work of Picasso and Bacon. Characteristically, the collection concentrates on the period after 1960, the beginning of Picasso’s so-called late work, and includes hardly any noteworthy positions apart from works by these two 20th century greats.

The artists’ common interests lie (as Berggruen explained in the mentioned catalogue of the Bacon show in Vienna and Riehen, though the exhibition itself unfortunately did not exemplify it) in their effect-oriented strategy, and their thematic focus on the act of painting. A viewer is almost always implied in both Picasso’s and Bacon’s paintings, repoussoir figures stand in for him, like the portrait of the artist in Picasso’s works on the theme of ‘Painter and Model’ or the likeness of Degas, omnipresent in the etchings of the brothel scenes from Maison Tellier. Bacon, on the other hand, involves the viewer through the spatial arrangements of his scenes. He puts his model on display, sometimes in a cage-like structure, as though in a pillory. The gesture of this art might almost be called violent, in one respect in the directly physical sense, whether it be Bacon erasing already painted areas of his canvases or covering them with an over-painted veil, or Picasso attacking his copper-plates again and again with his tool and acids. Violent also in the extended sense, particularly towards the models, who are dismembered and reassembled on the canvas, stripped bare to be made available as objects of desire, or exposed to their worst nightmares. The relationship between painter and model develops into a universal theme, the battle of the sexes or, in more general terms, a conflict between two poles. Force, power, sexuality, ritual, exhaustion, destruction and death are both the weapons and the prize.

The biographies of Bacon and Picasso provide a nutritious breeding-ground for psychological interpretations. That’s not the issue here. The relational character of their work suggests that we should inquire not into whence but whither. The complex web of relationships within each individual work does not, for example, connect it only with selected models by revered masters of art history, hence with the past and tradition, but explicitly and, as suggested above, also with a potential viewer, and consequently with the future. To this extent, what the works have to tell us today and the way in which they do it is at the centre of our interest, and if Picasso’s paintings reveal previously unseen aspects of themselves in the light of Bacon’s (or vice versa), all the better.

This would certainly not occur against the will of the artists, who were themselves practised in retrospectively influencing art history – what would Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe be without Picasso’s paraphrases, or Velázquez’s Pope Innocent X without Bacon’s ‘reconcentrations’, as the artist himself liked to call his reinventions. Vis-à-vis. Bacon & Picasso is one of the high points of Museum of Art Lucerne’s exhibition programme. It may not count these two artists among its ‘regulars’, but there are still points of contact with the history of the Museum and the history of Lucerne. Through the wonderful exhibition here at the Mu


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