Nice to meet you

Czech Position

New Prague exhibition introduces Czech author Bohumil Hrabal and Irish artist Francis Bacon

“Modern proze cannot be written without a certain degree of erudition, without knowledge of what is going on in the other arts, especially fine art. Fine art and literature are indelibly linked.” – The Homework by Bohumil Hrabal, 1970.

Presenting side-by-side the work of two creative types who never met, lived in different countries and expressed themselves through different mediums sounds like the act of a desperate curator. But Two Geniuses now showing at the Gate Gallery cleverly demonstrates the shared world view of Irish artist Francis Bacon and Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal.

“I started to talk about it with Serena (exhibition curator Serena Baccaglini) and others about three years ago, but from talking to doing is a long time,” Monika Burian Jourdan, director of Vernon Gallery who organized the exhibition, told Czech Position.

Burian Jourdan and Baccaglini have cooperated on two other big Prague art shows in recent years – Amedeo Modigliani in 2010 and this year’s Tauromaquia: Face to Face with the Bull. Baccaglini has studied the phenomenon of Francis Bacon’s Italian drawings, which are what is on display here. The pieces are from the collection of Bacon’s Italian companion during his final years, Cristiano Lovatelli Ravarino to whom the artist bequeathed his drawings. How Hrabalcame to be involved is another story.

A different kind of dialogue

“Our specialty (Burian Jourdan and Baccaglini) is to create provocations, present foreign artists in conjunction with Czech ones to show the similarities and differences,” said Burian Jourdan. “Before I could even think of a Czech artist, Maria Gloria started to write an imaginary dialogue between Bacon and Hrabal.”

Italian poet and writer Maria Gloria Grifoni translated Hrabal’s book Bambino di Praga into Italian, and in the process noticed the similarities between the two figures. The dialogue Grifoni created, which brings the two creatives “together” for the first time, will be performed June 20 and 21. The play deals with Bacon and Hrabal’s fates and a dialogue between the painter and poet which explores the features they have in common.

Burian Jourdan says the specific text from Hrabal that was the inspiration to bring the two together is: “Weakness is my strength, defeat is my victory, timidity is my competence, solitude is my crowd, cravenness is my mettle, lewdness is my purity, artifice is my portrait.”

“The two artists were very much alike, even the fact that they both experienced difficult moments at the end of their lives,” she added. Hrabal committed suicide by jumping from the window of the clinic where he was receiving treatment. Bacon died alone in a small clinic in Spain. But their lives had other parallels as well.

“Both seemed to be living in a cage; Hrabal’s was the communist system suppressing him, he was escaping into writing and creativity,” Burian Jourdan said. “Bacon was in a cage of sexual orientation, homosexuality was illegal in Britain at that time and he was very lonely and looking for friendship and affection. With creativity, painting, drawing, he found his way out.”

The Italian works

The drawings on display belong to the last decade of Bacon’s artistic activity and the subjects are those that Bacon became associated with in the 1950s — the Popes after painter Diego Velasquez and portraits of businessmen and friends and images of the crucifixion. Done between 1977 and Bacon’s death in 1992, the artist was spending the majority of his free time in Italy and Spain.

The trips allowed him to escape the pressure that was put on him by his gallery in England, and return to the joy of creating art. Bacon’s interest in Velasquez’s popes almost boarded on obsession, as can be seen by the many sketches and other works at Gate. While the sketches are a bit spooky, the colors in the oils are vibrant and fairly pop off the paper. The portrait at the top of the stairs is Burian Jourdan’s favorite.

“It has a very special expression in the eyes, and the color composition,” she said. “Bacon is brilliant with how he handles colors, but a tradition of our exhibitions is to feature drawings because in the drawing you can recognize the master’s hand.”

Bacon began to gain fame after World War II with a style called new figuration which emphasized new expressive devices calling attention to contours of human figures and emotions. While he was inspired by old masters like Picasso and Velazquez; photos, x-rays and films were also a source of ideas. It’s interesting to consider his work in the context of current art; the tension and disruption are apparent and relevant when you consider today’s contemporary art of video and mixed media.

This is the first time an exhibition devoted to Francis Bacon has been shown in the Czech Republic. The fact the Gate Gallery is next door to favorite Hrabal haunt U Zlatého tygra is probably a coincidence, but an appropriate one at that. Burian Jourdan says the links between the two geniuses go on and on.

“And here lies another parallel: both artists were esteemed in their lifetime, but suffered from extreme solitude. Their professional success never translated into personal happiness.”