Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Travel Journal: Dublin, III

We had bought tickets ahead for the Abbey Theatre (the National Theatre of Ireland) and Sam Shepard's play, Ages of the Moon, written expressly for the Abbey and two of Ireland's greatest actors, Stephen Rea and Sean McGinley. This was a wise decision, and was a fitting bookend to an eventful day. We met Mr Shepard in the lobby prior to the play, and connected about Virginia (he lived in Scottsville for a while, it turned out). Both of the actors are better known in the US for their film roles, especially Mr Rea (who first appeared on my cultural radar with his outstanding turn in "The Crying Game." He has been a regular in Neill Jordan's films since then).

The play, set on the porch of a sparse cabin presumably in the woods in an unidentified corner of the US concerns two old friends reunited after many years when one of them reaches out for help. The 90' one-act is a touching, witty, story-telling dialogue that endears both men to the audience, despite & because of their flaws & foibles. McGinley was a sympathetic foil to Rea's mercurial and manic character, Ames. It was a pleasure to be seated in the second row to witness the banter, the jockeying, the conflict-turned-violent, and ultimately, the humble resolution. I was reminded of O'Neill's "Moon for the Misbegotten" and the great playwrights' gift for not merely expressing but enacting the complex bittersweet quality of human (adult, that is) existence.

Working backwards, our pre-theatre dinner was at another foodie joint, 101 Talbot. The pre-fixe special included wine and dessert, and was dee-lish and cheap. I had a chili-pepper hummus and Amy a duck liver salad, followed by an olive-tomatoe-feta pasta for me and a pork pot roast for her which we traded around half-way through. Both the tiramisu and the chocolate fudge brownie were delightful, as was the atmosphere and service.

We spent the bulk of the afternoon at another gem of a small museum, the Dublin City Gallery Hugh Lane. This museum was near the top of the list for its recreation of Francis Bacon's studio. I had no idea how impressive their centennial retrospective, "Francis Bacon: A Terrible Beauty" would be. In the middle of my last set of travel essays (June) I wrote about my visit to the Metropolitan Museum's comprehensive centennial of Bacon. Check it out if you want to learn more about this engaging, ungainly, controversial artist.

Bacon began to paint on the "wrong" un-primed side of the canvas when he was destitute in Monte Carlo and couldn't afford to buy more canvases. The grainy, textured appearance of his paintings is enhanced by the fact he often mixed the paint with sand and other materials to give it texture. That textured appearance, though, is mitigated by the garishly bright colors--orange and purple--he favored. His work is as fascinating as his life, and it is difficult to separate the two when dealing with Bacon.

His studio was one hot crowded mess. After his death in 1992, over 7,000 items were recovered from it. Over 500 books, 1,500 photos, 100 slashed canvases (he destroyed or at least mutilated work on which he got "stuck"), 1,300 torn pages, and some 2,000 artists materials, among others.

"Chaos breeds images" he famously quipped. This interview with the artist in his disaster-area-of-a-studio is shown in a short but fascinating film (that continuously loops) at the front of the exhibition.

"The mess around here is rather like my mind; it may be a good image of what goes on inside me. That's what its like, my life is like that."

In another statement, he qualified just how unruly the image-breeding mess could be:

"I believe in deeply-ordered chaos..."

And just as that may sound like a contradiction, his claims to be self-taught ("Thank God I didn't go to art school") are more ingenuous than his statements about not relying on form or technique. Craft is everywhere apparent in his paintings. He claimed not to do much drawing and sketching (and the drawings that DO remain could so attest) but rather worked out his ideas on the canvas itself. Hence the number of slashed and damaged canvases, several of which were on display. Fascinating to see a gaping hole in the middle of an abstract portrait and imagine what it was, and what it might have been...

He sought to create "not an illustration of reality but to create an image which is a reflection of reality."

I've never heard or read of Bacon referred to as a post-impressionist, but statements like that remind me of Debussy and his writings about his methods. They share a number of things in common, besides messy personal lives, and a dismissive attitude towards formal training (which is nothing original among artists of every age). The desire to create images rather than illustrations inform both the intent and content of the work of both artists, however different and incomparable their work may be.

Bacon was one of the great realizers of the male nude, and he acknowledged his debt to artists as disparate as Michelangelo and the photographer Edward Muybridge.

"Michelangelo and Muybridge are mixed up in my mind together, and so I perhaps could learn about positions from Muybridge and learn about ampleness, the grandeur of form from Michelangelo."

He also learned a thing or two from Picasso--line & color, among others--and all of the above are refracted through his highly individual and expressive imagination.

A number of representative canvases are on display, which was one of the pleasant surprises in store, as I was expecting an exhibit centered solely on the studio. I was taken with a paneled canvas that made me think of Bacon trumping Rothko, as it was layered in three distinct horizontal sections, not unlike the latter's abstract-expressionist-minimalist panels.

"Untitled (Sea)" from 1954 features abstract waves of blue, white & grey with lavendar shades on top of a black abyss of a sea at the center. Dull mustard sand is paneled below, and deep blue sky panels the top third of the strangely beautiful canvas.

Later in his life he befriended the wildlife photographer, Peter Beard, whose pictures of elephants Bacon found particularly engaging.

"Photos of elephants are naturally suggestive--what I a trigger--a release action--it releases one's sensibility & one's psyche, and all kinds of images crowd into you from seeing this particular image."

What a great description--in the "thinking out loud" form and the illuminating content--of how one artist literally finds the images that spark his work.

Many of the found items from the studio--photos, magazines, books, torn pages, and intriguing scraps of paper on which he scribbled notes--were also on display. One such scrap had the following two mottos atop one another:

"Highly controlled chaos

The brutality of fact"

Those two bon mots say as much as any critic could.

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