Saturday, November 14, 2009

Interior spaces: The body and the building in the works of Francis Bacon and Louise Bourgeois

In the work of two towering figures in 20th century art, Francis Bacon and Louise Bourgeois, issues of the body and manmade spaces come to the fore, but in startling different ways and with two very different results.

With Bourgeois’s work we find a metaphorical use of architecture involving the female form and allusions to the womb. In opposition to this, Bacon’s use of interior spaces tends to both provide a stage for and to add a sense of menace to the dramas unfolding on the canvas.

Bourgeois has been working with these dual themes since her earliest days as shown in her drawings of the early-1940s, titled “Femme Masions,” or literally "woman house."

From here one can see the major arc of her career as at least partially being dedicated to the exploration of how to bring the figurative and architectural together. Her large sculptures—“Cell (Eyes and Mirrors)” and “Cell (Hands and Mirror)”—of the late-1990s are the apotheosis of this, bringing a physical structure—the room or cage—together with lifelike sculptures of hands or more abstracted eyes within. While not as wholly integrated as her drawings, they none-the-less deal with the same issues of architectural space and the body. In these later works, the structure physically houses the body. The closest Bourgeois comes to the same level of integration as in her drawings is in “Spider” from 1997. While not physically a human form it is metaphorically. The artist has said that the spider is an ode to her mother. By integrating the metaphorical mother within the architectural structure Bourgeois creates a kind of supra-maternal space.

In a majority of the works of Francis Bacon, interior architectural space plays a vital role. Beginning in the mid-1940s, most notably in his “Three Studies for a Crucifixion,” from 1944, a barely delineated interior space appears, defined by a few lines slashed across a color field.

The lines are enough to bring a sense of claustrophobia to the paintings while helping draw the viewer’s eye back to the figures, reinforcing their centrality. Even in many of his paintings that are meant to convey exterior spaces, most notably 1953’s “Study of a Baboon,” includes an enclosure. In "Baboon," a fence cuts the space in half, shortening the background to the point of collapse against the picture plane and again amping up a sense of confinement.

Bacon continued to use interior spaces in this way for most of his career, sometimes altering the vertical into ring like structures, but always maintaining a sense of menace.

Within these two artists' use of space we see the extreme ends of the spectrum, with Bourgeois, a comforting womb-like space to house her interior life and memories, while Bacon pulls from the opposite direction—creating menace and ambiguity through interior and even exterior spaces.