Monday, May 26, 2008

The undeniable pleasure, and unavoidable guilt of voyeurism

Last year The Guardian ran a weekly series called Writers' Rooms. The idea behind the series was to print a single photo of the room in which a writer did their work and accompany it with a paragraph about the room written by the writer themselves. This year the series has evolved into a similar series of Artists' Studios, though I cannot see an online archive for these yet.

This strangely voyeuristic series has fascinated me. I'm really not sure why, but there is something very interesting about the rooms within which creative people work. I don't think this is a Big Brother thing, I don't have any interest in seeing pictures of any old lived-in room. Perhaps I feel some common link to the people whose homes/studios we are intruding into, as many of the rooms don't look that unlike the one I am sat in right now. Perhaps there is a dark side to me that feels pleased that Salman Rushdie leaves old coffee cups and half eaten Marmite sandwiches lying about as much as I do, or perhaps its just a sense of envy at those able to make their living in such rooms.

This interest in artist voyeurism goes back quite some way with me. I have long adored the small town of St Ives deep on the Cornish coast, managing to get down there quite often in recent years. Barbara Hepworth, the sculptress and one of my favourite artists of all time lived the last few decades of her life in St Ives, sadly perishing in a fire at her studio. Before her death Hepworth had opened the garden to her home up to visitors, as it holds a vast number of works hidden amongst the incredible range of obscure plants that she collected in her life. You can still visit the Trewyn Studio to this day, and it is possible to look in through the windows onto Hepworth's working area, half finished scupltures eerily left as they were at the time of her death.

I find the Hepworth garden an incredibly calm, relaxing place simply because of the mixture of fauna and artworks in a quiet place within one of the most beautiful parts of the UK. Knowing that the studio sits to one side however brings a further, darker energy to the place, a sense of being close to the driving force behind the work. It somehow never feels quite right to be looking through those windows on to the chair in which Hepworth died, but at the same time there is an intensity to the place that makes it the feel like the correct site to be viewing Hepworth's work. Another, similar gallery has been opened in the small house that Stanley Spencer lived in, not far from here at all. I keep meaning to get around to visiting it and I will strive to do so this summer.

So when the opportunity arose this March to go and see Francis Bacon's final studio when I went visited Dublin I went hoping to feel similar feelings to the above. As it turned out though, the experience was far from enjoyable. The studio, famous for its chaotically untidy internal appearance was situated in London, where Bacon lived most of his life, and spent his last working years. Famously, ten years ago when the local authorities in London wanted something done with the studio, and with no arts organisation in the UK coming forward the Hugh Lane gallery in Dublin, backed by an extraordinary amount of Irish Arts Council money literally relocated the studio piece by piece and reassembled it back in Ireland. The studio then now stands as the centre piece of the gallery, encased in what is effectively a large perspex box.

It took about ten minutes to fly around the rest of the Hugh Lane gallery. A very tiresome exhibition of mainly uninteresting contemporary abstraction. I could possibly have spent longer with a room full of Sean Scully's paintings, but probably not that much longer, having seen the same (all very similar) collection before back in Oxford. As my two companions (Msrs Küchen and Carlsson) were both looking severely unimpressed we moved on fast to find the Bacon exhibition. Almost forgotten about in a small room to one side of the room containing the "studio" there is a collection of five or six of Bacon's final works, some of which remain unfinished. Bacon's painting is some of the most unnerving, grotesque, and yet strangely compelling work I am familiar with. Whilst a big space was given over in the gallery to the recreation of the artist's working space, the art itself was relegated to this small overcrowded room.

The studio itself just felt completely out of place, which perhaps isn't a surprise. Whilst peeking in on artist's homes is enjoyable to me, this felt like something else, a perverse fetishisation of Bacon's studio, brought miles, piece by piece at great expense and placed on view as effectively a work of art in itself. Which it quite clearly isn't. Its a messy room covered in paint that had a historical value if left where it was, but moved here all of that is lost. What's even more galling is the fact that Bacon wasn't really even Irish. Although born in Dublin this was to English parents, and he spent the vast majority of his life in London. Scooping up the studio and planting it down again in Dublin seems a desperate attempt to reclaim Bacon as Irish. All a bit silly if you ask me. Focussing completely on the studio at the expense of the paintings themselves then seems even more perverse.

We didn't stay long looking at the studio. All the trip really made me want to do was go and find the building it all came from to see whatever became of it. I also felt the need to go and find a decent collection of Bacon's paintings. Thinking back now I just wonder how many current artist and musician's grants may have been turned down so that funding could be given to this whole ridiculous enterprise... Well at least its better than using the money to build an Olympics stadium I suppose.

11 comments:

kostis kilymis said...

great post Richard. First time I've heard about Hepworth's garden/studio & sounds like it's worth a visit. Bacon's room on the other hand sounds like pure necrophilia.

An interesting contrast to all these within the art world must be some of Dieter Roth's later work where he routinely accumulated everyday objects & ephemera [along with working material like paint, glue, plaster and such] from within his working space into large dynamic constructions. These works were exhibited, if I'm not mistaken, in the same space where they were created.

In a few other instances he collected all his everyday junk -and i mean all of it, every bit of paper, gumwrap etc.- and catalogued it in room-sized filing systems.

Alastair said...

The Artist's Studios was only ever an occasional break from the Writer's Rooms series, as it happens. In this week's new, revamped, Guardian Review section, the writer's room is Roald Dahl's, with a commentary by Quentin Blake. Don't know if this dead writer's rooms is the way forward or whether it'll revert to the living next week.

I found most of the artist's studios pretty boring compared to the writer's rooms but then that probably reflects my interests. And that the ones they picked were rather tedious in general.

Richard Pinnell said...

Ah OK, thats good news. I think I preferred the writer's rooms too. The Guardian page I linked to is obviously being kept up to date as well because Roald Dahl's room is up there now.

Simon said...

The writers' rooms are fascinating, agreed - a wonderful peek into some surprisingly mundane places. On a similar note, you'll hopefully enjoy these: the living rooms of various German DJs (and part 2). Obviously some are making a better living than others.

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困っています。 said...

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