The Francis Bacon exhibition at Tate Britain (opening 11th September) is stunning. It includes many remarkable paintings hung in a way that lets you get close enough to see the paintwork which is so easily lost in reproduction - Bacon liked the fact that the glass reflects the viewer's image, but I still find that a bit irritating..en masse the painted gold frames add an air of theatricality. The 60 paintings on show constitute about 10 percent of his known surviving output but most of the selection are from the top ten percent in quality and several are iconic. Enough to achieve Bacon's stated aim:
"To unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently"
The curators have wisely kept the two versions of Three Figures from the Base of the Crucifixion apart as the 1944 version (the first) is by far the more powerful and raw. There is a room of cuttings from magazines, photo-booth shots, and John Deakin's wonderful Soho portraits (this one of Francis Bacon included) commissioned by Bacon - all the better for being crumpled up, distressed, and spattered with paint. But if you want to understand the relation between sources and paintings, Martin Harrison's In Camera: Francis Bacon provides a superb and sensitive analysis that offers genuine insight to many of Bacon's paintings. His Icunabula: Francis Bacon, written with Rebecca Danielswas published yesterday and presumably carries on where In Camera left off.
For the next six days you can listen to Tuesday's BBC Radio 4's Front Row interview with Maggi Hambling about the Bacon exhibition here it runs from 8mins 45 seconds in to the streamed repeat. As you might expect, she emphasizes Bacon's painterly qualities.
I'll be talking at the Tate Modern Rothko Symposium
on the influence of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard on Mark Rothko (he read both philosophers
avidly) and how understanding this influence can give a way of viewing
the paintings. This coincides with the Rothko exhibition...
The theme of this week's session of Appearances was Ethics: specifically some of the ethical issues that arise when taking photographs of people in the street. Ethics is largely a matter of how we treat other people (and, to a certain extent, the kind of person that each of us chooses to become). The point of this session was to raise questions rather than to give a definitive answer to those questions.
Ethical issues arise in the act of taking a photograph of someone who doesn't want to be photographed. Although in many parts of the world it is legal to photograph someone in these circumstances, it clearly causes some people distress. In extreme cases, it can be tantamount to stalking someone (the paparazzi syndrome). A photographer might argue that no one is seriously harmed in the process and that if people are in a public place they are fair game (and even that there is tacit consent to be photographed by entering the public space of the street). In Street and Studio in Tate Modern the sequence of images in Room 2, taken on the street in Hong Kong by Ed van der Elsken seems to border on harassment if we are to believe the caption saying that the photographer just followed a 'babe' around for a bit photographing her even though she didn't want him to.
The subsequent use of an image is also important. If I walk down Oxford Street and someone tracks my progress on a surveillance camera, that is very different from a photographer takes my photograph (perhaps in an unflattering way) and puts my image in an exhibition or prints it in a magazine or newspaper. In Tate Modern, the Philip-Lorca diCorcia images from the 'Heads' (review) series taken using a telephoto lens in Times Square from 1999 - 2001 are of people who did not know what was happening. They had no idea that they had been photographed. Their images have then appeared in public places (including a book and now Tate Modern) and at least one of the subjects has tried (and failed) to mount a legal case about this use on grounds of privacy. diCorcia's defence was based on the First Amendment right to free expression (the case was dismissed on the grounds that there was too long a gap between the act of taking the photograph and the complaint : read a New York Times article about the case and another in the American Journalism Review).
In these two examples above, a Kantian approach to ethics might suggest that the photographer's actions were immoral. For Immanuel Kant, the Categorical Imperative, the basic rule of ethics is that you should treat people as ends in themselves, respect their autonomy, rather than treat them as means to an end. Ed van der Elsken treated the woman as a simple means to get a photograph rather than acknowledged her as someone with her own desires and wishes; diCorcia seems not to be unduly concerned with the individuals' feelings about how their images are to be used - for him his right to free expression as an artist/photographer is the issue.
A consequentialist might point out that any harm done in these cases is minimal (though in the Van E case, they experience of being pursued could be psychologically traumatic) and the benefit in terms of producing interesting street photographs, large. So cost/benefit analysis would suggest that the photographer was justified in his approach in each case.
Less straightforward is the example of Boris Mikhailov.[read an interesting piece from the Guardian about him, and also an interview with him] His photographs of people on the margins of Ukrainian society are disturbing documentary images. In some cases he has observed and photographed, and his actions are justified by the way in which he makes visible something that many people would rather not see. In this respect he is completely within the mainstream tradition of photojournalism. But at the point where he pays subjects to expose themselves for his camera he enters another domain. Here he is deliberately challenging our views about morality. These people are so destitute that very little sense of dignity is left to them, and Mikhailov demonstrates this by showing how readily they will further humiliate themselves for money. At first glance this appears a highly immoral act of exploitation of the vulnerable for the sake of a shocking image. A response to this view, though, is that there is a kind of 'tu quoque' move going on here, because in his commercial interaction and humiliation of his subjects he is simply mirroring economic relations that all of us are implicated in. He is perhaps saying 'You are no better than me'. Yet, even on this interpretation, it could be argued that as he has genuinely and knowingly further humiliated the downtrodden, he has done something seriously immoral to make a moral point, and that is not acceptable.
The neutral presentation of his highly challenging style of documentary photography in Tate Modern is unfortunate: most viewers need some background information about the circumstances in which these images were made to get a grip of what the moral issues might be here, and why they are actually an aspect of his approach to photography.
If you are interested in getting an overview of three distinct approaches to ethics, listen to these podcasts:
• To explore a range of philosophical ideas about the self and photography • To think about and discuss these ideas in relation to photographs in the Street and Studio exhibition • To gain new insights into particular photographs in this exhibition
No prior knowledge of philosophy or the history of photography assumed.
The main themes of the course are:
Appearance and Reality The Self Photography’s relation to reality, truth and the imagination The Ethics of Photographing People The Power of Photographic Portraiture
Notes, ideas for further reading etc. I will provide a brief summary with links and ideas for reading after each session and will post it on this weblog.
Led by Nigel Warburton, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, The Open University 2nd, 9th, 16th, 23rd June 2008 6.45 p.m. - 8.15 p.m. followed by drinks.
What is the self? Is this something that photographs can reveal? Or is photographic portraiture merely an art of appearances? To what extent does the alleged documentary nature of photography affect our understanding of what we see?
In this 4-session course, led by philosopher and writer Nigel Warburton, participants will explore philosophical ideas about photography and the self. Sessions will include discussion of thinkers as diverse as Jean-Paul Sartre, Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag, Erving Goffman, Roger Scruton and Kendall Walton. There will be opportunities for critical engagement with specific works as well as discussion of more general theoretical approaches.
Booking from early May on the Tate Modern website. These courses are usually oversubscribed, so book early if you want to come. The course will coincide with the Street and Studio exhibition.
Notes on the final session of Transformations, Tate Modern, 10th Dec. 2007. On Sex and the Body
Many of Louise Bourgeois' sculptures allude to body parts, specifically to penises and to clitorises, and breasts - allude rather than represent in any direct way: Bourgeois transforms body parts into forms which are familiar yet strange. The strangeness is amplified by the ambiguity between male and female. Even something as apparently legible as 'Fillette', turns out on closer inspection to be ensheathed, and not so unambiguously and exclusively male.
In his book Sexual Desire, the philosopher Roger Scruton suggested that the sexual organs can act as a symbol of the body's eventual triumph over the will. This is because, unlike, say our hands, they frequently defy the will. We are to some extent passive in relation to them. They defy our rational control.
Bourgeois on a number of occasions has declared herself an existentialist (and had certainly read Sartre's Existentialism and Humanism - listen to my inadequately recorded podcast on this book here and an interview with Mary Warnock about existentialism here). In contrast to the existentialists' claim that we choose ourselves, decide on our emotions, and on how we feel about the past and the other elements of our facticity, even to the point of turning our own lives into universalizable exemplars of how people should live in our epoch, the body as described by Scruton reminds us, through our sexual organs, that much of how we are in the world is outside our conscious control. For Scruton, the sexual organs are also a reminder of our own death, the final loss of bodily control. (In passing, we note that, where Sartre had us turning each of our lives into works of art through the choices we make for ourselves; Bourgeois through her art transforms the particularities of her own memories into symbols which resonate universally despite their specificity).
It is interesting in the light of this to think about Bourgeois' memory from her art student days of a male nude model looking at a female student and getting an erection and her reaction which was one of seeing his vulnerability: 'We are all vulnerable in some way, and we are all male-female'.
The reference to universal bisexuality could have originated with Freud's view that developmentally we are all bisexual. It may, though, have an earlier source in Plato's Symposium and the myth that Aristophanes tells of the stage when human beings had four arms and four legs, and were simultaneously of both sexes before being cut in two by Hephaestus and doomed to yearn for their (literal) other halves.
As well as the presence of sexual body parts, there is a notable absence of heads. (a castration fantasy?) And where the heads are present, as in the uncanny tapestry and fabric heads in the penultimate room of the exhibition, the features are relatively indistinct. Where there is no head, we are sometimes observers of a scene, in some cases a primal scene. Where, as in 'Rejection', the head is present and is expressive, this is a clear invitation to adopt the stance of the one represented, rather than that of a viewer of what is represented.
The body in sexual interaction, then, or the headless part-body seem to be objects of observation rather than of identification for Bourgeois. Much of her art can be viewed as a struggle to control through art and through revisited memories those elements of her past and of other people's bodies that were initially outside her control. In that sense she is an existentialist.
Overall the aim of this course has been to see Bourgeois' work through the lens of key philosophical ideas, to provide another aspect under which it could be understood and so stimulate and open up new ways of seeing the art.
TRANSFORMATIONS - Louise Bourgeois' Art about Life notes from 3rd Dec. 2007
Memory and the Self
Memory is at the core of who we are. When we lose large amounts of our memory, we lose parts of our self. Without memory all we have is bodily continuity, and that is not what make us an integrated and evolving person. The film-maker Luis Bunuel put this poignantly near the beginning of his autobiography:
'You have to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realise that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is not life at all...Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it we are nothing...' Luis Bunuel
In philosophy the Seventeenth Century thinker John Locke's notion of the continuing identity of a person over time turned completely on continuity of memory rather than on bodily continuity. He came up with a famous thought experiment of the Prince and the Pauper. Imagine a pauper waking one morning with all the memories of a prince; and, likewise, in his palace, the prince waking up with all the memories of the pauper. In such a situation, Locke believes, we would say that the pauper-bodied man is really the prince and the prince-bodied person the pauper. Although in life memories and bodily continuity go together, it is the pattern of overlapping memories that make us who we are far more than the contingencies of our ever-changing bodies as we age. For Locke the notion of a person was a 'forensic' term, concerned with who was morally responsible for which action.
For Louise Bourgeois memory plays a dual role.
First, and most literally, her work is obviously driven by memories. The inciting incident of Sadie's affair with her father fuels almost everything that she has done since. Her distant past childhood is alive for her in her work, and her links to this preserve her sense of personhood. She still is the person who was rejected. These memories drive her art and are transformed in it.
But, perhaps more interestingly, her later work in a metaphorical sense 'remembers' her earlier work. There are allusions, formal and thematic to earlier pieces, old subjects are re-visited and re-modelled. This is most apparent in the final room of the current exhibition where small pieces from different periods of her life are juxtaposed - there are remarkable continuities and subtle variations on what she had previously done. The femme maison, for example, recurrs as drawing, small sculpture, the spider as motif keeps coming back, as does the spiral. Like real memories, the echo of the earlier work makes us re-evaluate what has gone before. It also ties her apparently diverse work together and integrates it, so that it can be seen as all part of her artistic self. And, like real memories too, the symbolic representations of past events, and past interpretations of events, involve transformations, transformations that take her work beyond therapy or outsider art.