The latest major exhibition at Tate Liverpool covers the work of two significant twentieth century artists – Maria Lassnig and Francis Bacon – running until 18 September 2016. Walking through the show I was struck by the differing philosophies underpinning the work of each artist, despite a superficial similarity in the desire to portray the reality inside the individual rather than their physical presence.
Lassnig’s work consists almost entirely of self portraits, each displaying a fascination with using the depiction of the body to express something beyond simple physicality. This is especially true of the “Figurations” segment, a series of paintings called by Lassnig “Strichbilder” or line drawings. Drawn while kneeling on the canvas they are (almost) recognisably portraits but the viewer is encouraged to see the process of creation itself. Throughout however it is clear that the focus is on the act of creation. In later works Lassnig continuously confronts the viewer, looking back at us from the canvas during the moment the piece was produced. This is art where in viewing the finished piece we are not just viewing an object but are also placed into the thought process and actions of the artist themselves.
This feels similar in theory to some of the discussion in Boris Groys’ “In the Flow” on the nature of modern art. Groys describes how traditionally art was about the production of finished pieces for static viewing by others. By contrast in modern art there is instead a strong sense of performance, with the viewer a participant rather than a passive spectator. Art is something that happens in the moment. It may be recorded in some way and replayed later, but the art is in the act rather than in the product. For example in “You might come out of the water every time singing” by Kaffe Matthews where the audience sit on a vibrating platform listening to a recording of sharks swimming. The experience is immersive, and makes no sense as a ‘standard’ piece of art. Similarly in Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta the significance of the piece is built on the people who created the embroidery, in the moment of creation.
Lassnig’s work captures that moment of the performance experienced by the artist and encourages the viewer to reflect on her feelings at the moment of creation rather than necessarily enjoy the finished piece as a product in its own right.
Francis Bacon’s work feels superficially similar – it also seeks to how the subject is thinking or feeling, their psychological state, rather than a visually true representation. And the frames which Bacon puts around his subjects, and which form the focus of this exhibition, focus the viewer onto the inner world of the subject.
Bacon sees through the visible appearance to the true person below the surface, and show that to the viewer. In that sense, it has much in common with the aesthetic underpinning much traditional Byzantine Art. The objective is to show the person “as they really are” regardless of their outward physical appearance.
Many of these images are arresting and disturbing, suggestive of internal torment. But this is in fact much more traditional portraiture. The viewer is presented with an image of the subject, and this makes for a strong contrast with Lassnig’s work.
This contrast is intriguing, and the exhibition is well worth visiting, but the approach of these two artists do not perhaps sit quite as naturally together as might at first appear.