Making Art

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Art gallery descriptions – best ignored.

I went to see an exhibition the other day. It was one of those blockbuster exhibitions you have to pay $20 to get into. Francis Bacon. Now I am not a mega fan of  F. Bacon, but there is a few bits of his work I really like. Over the years I guess I have read quite a few articles about him, but I don’t know lots about him. One of the things I do know, is that he didn’t say much about his own work and was often rather dismissive of the deep and meaningful within them. But then he didn’t really hide what his work was about either. His work gives a lot. It is full of intriguing imagery. And like most people when they see art, I like to think about what it’s all about, why he did what he did. Why has he done it like that? And sometimes I don’t think any of those things, I just enjoy the art on a more unconscious level. Some images get really stuck in your head, and you keep having to look at them over and over. I enjoy this. Like having a good song stuck in your head. [ On Sponge Bob they call this an ear worm: maybe we should start using the term eye worm for when you can’t stop picturing an image]. They come to mean something to you, or you find meaning in them.


Above: ‘Untitled [figure]’ by Francis Bacon, 1950-51. This work is so interesting to see up close. It has a lovely transparent ghostly quality and you can see different things revealed in the paint.  Weirdly in all the reproductions I can see a gorilla face that I certainly couldn’t see in the original.


Above: ‘Untitled [dog]’, by Francis Bacon, c.1967. This work hasn’t reproduced well. In real life the colours are much stronger. It reminded me of my own little dog when he runs along in a super rabbity mood. I admit I always love a dog  painting.

If you have read a few of my posts you may have gathered that I have a bit of a problem with  curators and art historians telling us what an artists work is about. Especially when they imply it’s the ‘truth’. From my point of view art is about what ever it means to the individual viewer, and we all view artworks from our own perspective. Coloured by our political, personal and religious views. Anyway at this particular exhibition, the text descriptions on the side were full of the biggest shit I have heard in a while. One of them made me so irate I had to erase it from my memory, because it really gave me the shits. But now I wish I had written it down so I could tell you my problem with it. I kept trying not to read the blurbs, but my eye was drawn into them like a black hole. I couldn’t turn away.  For me they practically spoilt the show.

I am one of those people who think we should just have a card saying the title, medium, where and when it was made. But I know a lot of people want more info than this. But it means they don’t get to explore what the piece could mean to them before their heads are filled with the curator’s ego-engorging crap. The blurbs are sometimes about as accurate as an article in a tabloid magazine. In the Bacon show the text repeatedly refered to crucifixion, even though Bacon denied that as an interpretation for most of his pieces.  I don’t have a problem with the curator seeing crucifixion in other people’s work , if that is what he sees, but that is saying more about the curator than Bacon. And they also couldn’t seem to get past the fact that Bacon was gay. Yes we know he was gay. But its far from the only thing having an input into his work. He was also a man, who lived in london, and a million other things about him. Maybe he loved kittens? Too much obsessing over the saucy details of the artist’s life and not enough letting his work speak for itself, which it does amply.



Above: top ‘Screaming Pope’, by Francis Bacon,1953, Bacon’s version of the work ‘Portrait of Innocent X’, by the Spanish artist Diego Velázquez, 1650 shown below it. 

Bacon painted quite few versions of the screaming popes and when asked about it simply said it was “an excuse to use these colours” [from Michael Peppiatt’s book, ‘Francis Bacon Anatomy of an Enigma.’] Now I think we can all see there’s more to it than merely an excuse to use certain colours, but what I object to is curators laying their version of the meaning onto the work as ‘the truth’. We can read works of art from so many different perspectives… a feminist perspective, a western educated, or uneducated perspective,  the perspective of someone from a country colonized by the Spanish; the possibilities for interpretation are endless.

Now maybe you think I am going in a bit hard on this, but I have worked in galleries and done a grad dip in museum studies and this is one of the things you learn how to do. It’s a surprisingly difficult task. But one of the key points is that you are leaving yourself out of it, it’s not about you. The other thing is that the texts are supposed to be a stand alone piece of information that helps you to place the work in context. Most of the students couldn’t write a blurb that you didn’t need either a dictionary for, or that didn’t require you to go off and look up several other movements/historical moments to understand.

The other thing is that art is visual and physical: it is not words. If what the artist wanted to do was best said with words then he or she would be a writer, no?  So why describe with words a piece of art that’s right in front of your nose? You’ve got eyeballs, and a brain and ideas and feelings. Use them and trust yourself to get something from the art.

My bestie went to the show and she said the thing that bugs her most about art gallery blurbs, is that if you were a  young artist reading them you would think,’ Crikey, I will never be able to make art that means all that.’ You don’t have to. You make work that means something to you, whether that’s simple or complex, intellectual, or frivolous. The end result may add up to something quite different or it may reflect your intentions quite well. Other people will see what they see.

My advice is to ignore the blurbs or at very least enjoy the art on its own merits before you read them. And if you are an artist, make what speaks to you, what draws you in: but rest assured that if you are ever successful enough to have a curated show someone will make up a pile of fascinating shit about your work too.

One comment on “Art gallery descriptions – best ignored.

  1. Jo Teague
    February 28, 2013

    Well said! I often think descriptions of art (and especially architecture) is a load of wank, I’m glad I’m not alone. Keep blogging

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This entry was posted on February 27, 2013 by in Art, Inspiration and tagged , , .
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