REVIEW | Francis Bacon - Invisible Rooms, Tate Liverpool

Jo Milligan steps into the cage of the charismatic 20th century artist and suggests you do the same

Written by  Jo Milligan | Follow @ | Thursday, 2 June 2016 13:28

YOU don’t look to Francis Bacon for wall art, unless, that is, you’re a gallery. With its claustrophobic dystopic figures which teeter between discomfort and howling searing anguish, Bacon’s work is not something you’d hang above your bed and hope for a good night’s sleep. 

However, the pictures in the Invisible Rooms exhibition certainly make an impact and there are many lurid full-size canvases on display including well-known works. Big name shows like this often have an instant appeal which fades on realisation that the exhibition contains only a couple of pictures but umpteen preparatory sketches. This is different. This is the largest exhibition of Francis Bacon’s work ever staged in the north and, as such, it’s unmissable for anyone with even a passing interest in figurative art.

Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms explores the artist’s use of a ghost-like framing device around his subjects, charting indications of room-like spaces in early works to barely visible chambers which heighten subjects’ isolation and moving on to almost-theatrical arenas with their nightmarish, circus-of-horrors quality.

Three Studies For Figures At The Base Of A Crucifixion (main image) demands attention as soon as you enter the gallery with its vivid tomato-orange background. The greyish figures are a disconcerting juxtaposition of ears, flesh, ribs, mouths, never seeming to add together to make a whole. 

Reminiscent of knitting ladies by the guillotine, it is never quite clear if the screams and grimaces are of disgust or approval. The faint lines of perspective which hint at an internal setting and the plinths for each figure add a macabre staginess to the triptych. The unsettling picture seemed an odd choice on t-shirts and coffee cups in the gift shop afterwards.

The exhibition is loosely grouped into different sections and it is the Cage part which seems to sum up the notion of invisible rooms with the pale, sketchy framework entrapping the figures within.

Study For A PortraitStudy For A Portrait

With glasses slightly askew and the scream which brings to mind Bacon’s famous Screaming Popes, Study For A Portrait is a very human portrait which captures an almost animal fear. The normality of the ruched curtains in the background offers a stark contrast to the separation imposed by the confines of the cage framework. It’s a haunting piece of work, also available as a fridge magnet which lessens the impact somewhat.

The bright, childish colours of Woman Emptying A Bowl Of Water/Paralytic Child Walking On All Fours, the arena-like space and the tension of the trapeze-style structure – will they fall? – bring to mind a circus. The skin seems to have been pulled back to reveal the muscles and sinews underneath. Messy, almost grotesque but also gloriously alive, the water suggesting everything has been stilled for just an instant.

Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms – uncomfortable, provoking, best not reduced to gift shop tat. But reader, I bought a fridge magnet.

*Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms is at Tate Liverpool until Sunday 18 September. Tickets cost £12 and £9.50 for concessions. The ticket price includes entry to the Maria Lassnig exhibition.

Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho