Self-knowledge has been a theme in at least one conversation lately. One finding well attested in my own domain is that I can’t be trusted to catch a specific train, leading to the appeal of flexible tickets. Various aspects of the long-term economic plan mean that flexible tickets are unpleasantly aligned price-band wise. Hence, to meet my desire to see some of the visual arts-related events in the Manchester International Festival, I had planned a bracingly early train this morning back to my home town. After various recent contrariwise success, I reverted to my own mean and missed the intended train. Rather, I set out from my flat knowing I would miss it, refreshing Citymapper to see by how many minutes I would miss it, all the while nearing Euston slightly. It’s so tragic to arrive at Euston and see your train disappear from the departure board before you’ve even negotiated the pitiful interface of the ticket collection machines. Alighting at Stratford, I crossed over the platforms to go back whence I’d come, all the while wondering how I could rescue a Saturday that looked to be manifesting itself in all the wrong ways.
One expedition I had been planning was to Norwich, for the Francis Bacon and the Masters exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts. A summary of two reviews I’d skimmed through was that the main effect is to permanently relegate Bacon to a much lower artistic tier. Nevertheless, if nothing else I wanted to see all the loans from the Hermitage that had never been here before. The intention had been to leave work early on a Friday, having started early in compensation, to travel there for the late openings. Sir Humphrey might have described such an arrangement as “brave”.
It felt like going there was the best I could do to salvage the day. Arriving at my home station, I crossed over the bridge to take the next train back West, thereby passing through Stratford for the third time in an hour. Wonder what TfL’s data brains will make of that blip in their records? A slight saving grace was that I could use my Gold Card for the trip to Norwich, with its pleasing discount, meaning I didn’t feel like quite such a chump. Hmm.
A mother and daughter were in my carriage and ended up taking the same bus as me from Norwich station. “He texted me, and I was like, I know you are forgetful, but you’ve got to keep in touch with me”, was one of the latter’s complaints to the former. Life is, indeed, very hard. Going through Diss reminded me of attending the 1996 edition of the Big Chill, when the conductor, in a fit of extemporisation that wouldn’t be countenanced today, gave his
“welcome to the hordes who have joined us at Diss. And they are hordes. But they’re just as welcome”.
The Google directions on which I was relying were a little hazy, and I lamented that the bus didn’t have the enunciations of each stop that are so handy in That London. There was also something on the SCVA site about the normal bus route not working, so I was prepared for some emergency yomping. It did drop me off on the campus, eventually, and unlike CERN there were plenty of signposts, so it was easy to find the venue.
The first room includes large photos taken of Bacon’s studio in South Ken, which makes me wonder if I used to walk near there when I worked in that area. It looked like a six-year-old child’s idea of a good painting studio, which is probably a good thing. A husband, coming down the spiral stairs into this room with his wife, having waited for people coming up to pass, informed her firmly that it’s “much easier downstairs on the outside, upstairs on the inside, because of the wider steps”. The self-portrait by Cézanne did indeed shine compared with the neighbouring Bacon.
After hearing the same thing about Modigliani, it was noteworthy that Bacon too had a very high regard for ancient Egyptian art, and I liked the examples of statues and death masks. One of the very pleasing things about the venue, which I hadn’t visited before, was that it was quite spacious, meaning that there was plenty of room to see things at your own pace without being jostled by audioguide-wearing dullards.
Michelangelo’s Crouching Boy was cited as a specific inspiration for Bacon, and was displayed on a large circular plinth, with the protective detectors around it making erratic clicks. The boy makes you crouch in order to see him and his despair properly. Trying to avoid some chatterers, I went around the corner to the Rembrandt section.
Two ladies were particularly impressed with the way brushstrokes had been used to create the impression of veins in the hands of the old man. In one of the blurbs they found the word “verisimilitude” unfamiliar and mis-pronounced it. Ever keen to be helpful, I offered both a pronunciation and a definition. They looked back from the old lady portrait to the old man, who looked “so Jewish”. Both of these were startlingly full of psychological depth, rendered in Bacon’s words by:
“Non-rational marks, a coagulation of non-representational marks”
The Bacon portraits next to them did look pretty amateurish and thin in comparison, not an observation I savour, because I’ve always liked Bacon. The two Velazquez royal portraits were nearlya s good as the Rembrandts. I came around to the Crouching Boy again
and decided that it’s actually better that you can’t easily see the face.
There was a better juxtaposition between Bacon’s portrait of Lisa Sainsbury and a Picasso portrait of a woman, in the next room. Bacon referred to a specific Van Gogh work repeatedly, but again I preferred the ‘originals’, though there was a strange landscape, Landscape near Malabata, Tangier that stood out more successfully than many of the other Bacons. The link that was claimed to Ingres seemed tenuous, at least the actual Ingres painting that was included (there was at least one book on Ingres in the display taken from the contents of Bacon’s studio). Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X was particularly favoured by Bacon. Did I imagine that I saw it in the fairly recent National Gallery show about colours? Hmm. I was pleased to have realised that one of the Greek sculptures was of Hercules before I read the caption, which must mean that my recent visit to the Greek art show at the British Museum had implanted in my mind after all. Overall, it is a very satisfying show, albeit mainly for the reference points cited for and by Bacon, rather than his own works. Who indeed would shine next to Rembrandt and Velazquez, though? It does confirm that I need to visit the Hermitage, which is an easy thing to say…
Given the travails of my travels, it made sense to explore the rest of the gallery. In the Tony Birks: A Passion for Pots, I did find the earthenware violin notable, and I liked a display of The Backs by Matisse, on loan from the Tate. Upstairs was Abstraction and the Art of John Golding, comprising a small set of abstract 20th century art then several series from Golding, another new artist to me. Hans Arp, who was referred to in the Bacon show, appeared again, as did Hepworth (whom I saw recently at Tate Britain). To me it was a very satisfying survey of abstraction, one of my favourite types of art and I really liked some of the Golding. Apparently a proper retrospective is in preparation.
Taking lunch outside, I saw some Scottish visitors, one of whom took a photo of the rest from behind a Henry Moore sculpture. “That’s very rude” was the comment. Walking back to the bus stop through the campus, the various noises from building cooling systems and plant seemed very familiar, even in their variety. Something of an academic environment universal. On the way out of the campus there was a board with flyers, one of which was for Shed Seven and Inspiral Carpets. Repetitions of what I could have seen twenty five years ago does not feel like a healthy sign.
Next to me in the carriage was a group of three train spotters, the defence of whom John Peel was always keen to make, I remember. One of them was getting married, with the “stag” organised by his step-children.
“Some people walking down the platform, I could do with a whistle, lean out of the window and blow it. Might get in trouble, though”
mused one of them, in response to a female student (with backpack) and her mother walking along. The conductor was quite cheery and savoured the pronunciation of Manningtree in his roll-call of stations. It was on this service that I went through Stratford for the fourth time. Instead of the awkward formulation of trains “terminating”, he referred to “Liverpool Street, where this train completes its journey”, which is much more soothing.
Back on the Central Line again, on which a man ostentatiously packed away his laptop when I took the neighbouring seat, then started reading his Kindle. Perhaps he was worried about the trade secrets of his consultancy business. On this journey home I passed through Stratford for the fifth time. Eheu.
To avoid making it six Stratford encounters, I went to see Amy at my local Odeon. Just as with Senna, you hope that somehow it will be alright, even as you know it won’t be, which is testament to how cleverly Kapadia draws together the archive footage with the audio interviews. Using her lyrics as the armature was an inspired move, given how directly she wrote about herself. How could anyone sustain that kind of life, especially with the nature of the circus that attached itself to her? The saddest and most apposite comment in the film came from Tony Bennett, someone she idolised, who said that
“Life teaches you how to live it, if you live long enough”.