Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Francis Bacon: a Retrospective

Philomena Hanna, Olivier Messiaen and Francis Bacon had one thing in common: they died on the same day - Tuesday, April 28, 1992.

A painter, a composer and a Roman Catholic mother of two.

Bacon and Messiaen died of natural causes in their eighties; but Mrs Hanna was shot dead in her prime as she was serving behind the counter of a chemist's shop in Belfast's Falls Road. A man walked in and fired five bullets into her. She was the 48th fatality from sectarian violence in Belfast that year.

Philomena Hanna's murder - commited by the Ulster Freedom Fighters, if the name makes a difference - made my heart sink a little more heavily at the time. I thought that anyone partial to philosophising about the horror of contemporary life should paint a simple picture of this woman's body, her blood spreading over the floor of the pharmacy where she had dispensed not only medicines but kindness to Catholic and Protestant alike.

Such a painting, a mixture of banality and pathos, would say more to me than any of Francis Bacon's screaming popes or his menagerie of Henry-Moore-type contortions with teeth.

Bacon's death at the age of 82, unlike Philomena Hanna's at the age of 26, was not a tragedy; simply the end of a process. I could not join in the acclamation for his work which, according to Lord Gowrie, former arts minister and chairman of Southeby's, made Bacon "The greatest British painter since Turner."

He may well have been "an extraordinary and unique personality and a very kind friend". But whereas I cannot say anything about his worth as a friend, I must say something about Lord Gowrie's estimation of Bacon's reputation as a painter and as an extraordinary personality.

Bacon's gallery of monstrosities, we are told in so many words, is a bleak but brutally candid vision of the horror and existential isolation of modern man. The artist, I read somewhere, was moved to paint his pictures of tortured meat by photographs and newsreels of Nazi concentration camps.

It took me some time to see that basically Bacon was old hat. Technically he was less accomplished than Salvador Dali, who was also preoccupied with disfigured human forms. His famous Screaming Pope, a skilfully blurred caricature of a painting by Valesquez, which must have delighted the more iconoclastic of his Soho drinking buddies, is not as original as Bacon's hagiographers would have us believe. Remember Edvard Munch's The Scream, and before that the human condition as imagined by Goya in later life?

I don't think Bacon had a unique vision or any vision at all. "I've no story to tell," he apparently told those hoping to hear the master explain his revelation. "We live, we die and that's it, don't you think?" he said at the turn of his eightieth birthday.

No I don't. And no art that I most admire persuades me to believe that either. Even at its darkest, the painting of Van Gogh is redemptive, and the Dutchman's life was far harder and much shorter than Bacon's.

Irrespective of Oscar Wilde's dubious assertion in the preface to The Portrait of Dorian Gray that art has no ethical sympathy, Bacon's work is ethically vacant and artistically shallow - profoundly superficial. I do not believe he exhibited greater talent than either Graham Sutherland (1903-1980) or Paul Nash (1889-1946), let alone Lucien Freud, Stanley Spencer and sometimes David Hockney. Artistically, there is more accomplishment in a Walt Disney Tom and Jerry cartoon than in Bacon's second-hand contortions.

The French composer Olivier Messiaen had more reason than Francis Bacon to feel bleak about the human condition. For two years he was an involuntary guest of the Nazis in a concentration camp - an experience said to have inspired his 1941 composition Quartet For the End of Time. Eight years later he produced the sprawling, wondrous Turangalia Symphony, with its massive brassy fanfares, tapped woodblocks and what sounds like singing saws.

Messiaen may or may not have been "the greatest musician of his generation", as Pierre Boulez said. I just find it striking that a man who had first-hand knowledge of some of the worst horrors of the Twentieth century wrote music that was bright and affirmative whereas Bacon, whose knowledge of those horrors was second or third hand, had nothing at all to affirm other than a variation of W B Yeats' foul rag and boneshop of the heart. In this respect Bacon's vision has more in keeping with Galton and Simpson's Steptoe and Son.

I do not contest the fact that Bacon had great skill in the way he arranged his painted shapes on canvas. He knew how to make a visually arresting impact. It's just that I prefer Messiaen whose Catholic faith, according to Boulez, was a "very important contribution to the strong personality of his music". By the way, I am not a Roman Catholic.

Bacon or Messiaen? For me the composer's work - the little that I know - is eminently more appealing and, I think, will endure long after the fads and fashions of the international art market have altered once again.

Blaise Pascal described the darkess of night as "those terrifying spaces". Bacon's painting merely confirms that thought; but Messiaen fills those spaces with wondrous sounds. No individual act of terror by a gunman, no systematic act of murder, has yet persuaded me to look upon those dark spaces with anything other than wonder and, sometimes, awe. The dark places inside my head fill me with far more apprehension.

Music humbles and magnifies simultaneously more instantaneously than any other art form. It destroys fear, gives us courage and restores our willingness to hope for something better as we travel through the valley of shadow, with its fear and murder.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

When Will There be Polar Bears in Great Yarmouth?

Those scientific people who scoff at the idea of a god while simulatenously predicting the end of the world are enjoying themselves enormously at the moment.

Some of them are messing about in boats up in the Arctic, directing BBC cameras at chunks of drifting ice and declaring that this is hard evidence of ecological Armageddon, global warming - unless, of course, we change our wicked ways.

The self-righteous evangelical zeal with which they issue their Jeremiads is easy enough to understand: we all like to be right and sound important in public.

However, I would be grateful if they could answer one little question: Why hasn't Great Yarmouth got Polar bears swimming down its High Street on their way to Iceland (the supermarket)?

If, as they suggest, the ice cap at the North Pole is dissolving faster than jelly in a bonfire, where has all the water gone, where is it going?

For years eco-warriors have been prophesying that if the ice melted the seas would rise by a couple of feet at least and the East Coast of England, and much of London, would be covered with water.

Well chaps, the only type of H2O covering the fair isle of Ralph Vaughn Williams is rainwater, not salty seawater. So put away the old boy's First Symphony. Ice, being less dense a mass than water, floats. When it melts it does not, I am assured by one who knows, displace much seawater at all.

That's why all the PB's, the Polar bears, are happily sloshing their way about up near Iceland (the country) and beyond. So it doesn't look as though they will be visiting East Anglia yet awhile.

On the subject of Polar bears, someone has suggested on record that these glacier mint beasts are dying out. Upon inquiry I was told that, on the contrary, they are multiplying.

Or perhaps I was confusing Polar bears with black bears. There was a claim made in Bradford's Telegraph & Argus newspaper on August 28, that half a million black bears are slaughtered annually (including cubs) to supply the Coldstream, Welsh and other British Guards units with black bearskin hats.

Half a million? There can't be that many bears in the world, and the entire British Army totals less than half that. However, unlike Oscar Wilde, I have only my ignorance to declare. If too many black bears are being turned into soliders hats, I have a solution: why not cull a few Polar bears and instead of supplying the Coldstream Guards with black bearskins give them white ones.

The next time two Guards units parade through London, one could wear white bearskins, the other black. They could play chess, or chequers, marching and counter-marching along Whitehall, wherever Guardsmen are allowed to congregate these days without causing a security alert.

It would also be in keeping with the Government's policy of multi-cultural diversity, having white AND black bearskins.

But then, someone is bound to say rhetorically: "Why have soldiers at all!"