Francis Bacon Meets New Brutalism at Tate Britain

Zaha Hadid, Patrick Hodgkinson and others debated art and architecture.

Francis Bacon Triptych - In Memory of George Dyer
Francis Bacon Triptych - In Memory of George Dyer 1971 Fondation Beyeler, Basel © Bacon Estate
“Architecture students,” said my friend as we left this Architecture Foundation talk at Tate Britain, “are like fashion students, but with brains,” which is perhaps a bit unfair, but it certainly was a rare treat to see such a fantastically well-designed bunch of kids listening to a panel on such a fantastically abstruse subject – that is, the connection between the art of Francis Bacon and the New Brutalism of the 1960s. On stage were Zaha Hadid, Patrick Hodgkinson (designer of the Brunswick Centre), Tony Fretton (designer of the Lisson Gallery), architectural historian Joe Kerr, and cultural critic Mark Cousins, who gave a short but thought-provoking keynote.

When we see an expression of sadness on a human face, Cousins said, we imagine that somehow the sadness goes all the way down. But if that face has a wound, which reveals nothing but blood and flesh and bone underneath, then it undermines that apparent depth of representation. "Of course, we are meat," said Bacon, "we are potential carcasses", and Cousins argued that meat in Bacon’s paintings is the collapse of signification. We call it ugly as a sort of Freudian defence mechanism because we are so unnerved by that collapse, and the same is true of raw concrete in brutalist architecture. "If, like Bacon, you can propel the spectator into the midst of meat and find it essentially human," concluded Cousins, "then you can dispel some of the defences which disable public taste."

The discussion that followed was fascinating, if diffuse. Hadid, for some reason, started off by pretending she was going to be an awkward grump, but then pitched in enthusiastically, while 77-year-old Hodgkinson gave a memorable account of his development from painter to architect. Asked about the unpopularity of the original Brunswick Centre, he replied that words like ‘Brutalism’ refer only to the look of a building, which, to him, is unimportant compared to the feeling of living inside one. "Beauty and ugliness are in the eye of a beholder," he said, confirming an earlier point of Kerr’s: "That public taste is frequently wrong is an absolute axiom for architects." By the end, the five had barely touched on "Texture", the supposed theme of the talk, but it didn’t matter. I’ll be back at Tate Britain on October 22 for "Back to the City", the second panel in the series, where Nigel Coates, Joseph Rykwert, and Ken Livingstone – three pictures of whom my housemate has still refused to take down from our fridge, five months after his election defeat – will talk about Bacon as a "consummate urbanite".
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