It is the third of ‘Three studies at the base of a Crucifixion’ (1944) that haunts my imagination every time I hear the word ‘painting’. It may be the animalistic scream echoing from the mouth of the spliced subject or perhaps it is that this painting seems to carry the brightest orange of them all, and with it the most excruciating pain. Either way, memory does not do justice to the reality of standing before this triptych that is so vibrantly dark, it steals the natural light that flows through Tate Britain’s glorious architecture.
If you are able to drag yourself away from this introduction to the galleries, it is possible to take yourself on a tour of some of Francis Bacon’s most famous works within the BP walk through British Art display. Moving into the gallery exhibiting works from the 1970-80’s, one will find another dramatic expression by Bacon, ‘Triptych’ (1972). Here we can see the development of both Bacon’s painting style and subject, but when looking around the rest of the room we can also see the development of the art world as a whole. From Antony Gormley’s bread ‘Bed’ (1980-1) to Eddie Chambers’ ‘Destruction of the national front’ (1979-80), signs of post modernism are everywhere. At both sides of the rooms entrance sit two quadrilateral monochromatic pieces; to the right, Stephen Partridge’s ‘Monitor’ (1975) and to the left, John Hilliard’s ‘Camera Recording its own Condition’ (1971). Both of these pieces seem so far removed from the emotion and exploitation of Bacon’s ‘Triptych’ that it seems strange they can even be displayed in the same room.
It was the performativity and playfulness of Partridge’s ‘Monitor’, a video displayed on the screen that is the subject of the video itself, which initially led me toward it. Displayed at eye level, the screen rotates and twists, hypnotizing the viewer with its slow, rhythmic beat, making it difficult to distinguish from the physicality of the real monitor and the representation of itself within the film it shows. It was this use of entrapment and reflection within a single medium that also drew me towards Hilliard’s ‘Camera Recording it’s own condition’. Just as repetitive as ‘Monitor’, but on a much larger scale, this piece both critiques the analogue photography process whilst also showcasing its possible perfection. Hilliard is most famous for his photography work that exposes the faults and subjectivity of the medium. I was aware whilst at Tate Britain that his piece ‘Cause of Death’ (1974) was being displayed down the road at the Hayward Gallery’s exhibition ‘History is now’, demonstrating the relevance of Hilliard’s technological exposures 40 years on.
Both of these pieces by Hilliard and Partridge were born out of the rise in technology and although they are created from documentation, they subvert the limitations of the mediums used, marking the birth of photography and video as an art form. Meanwhile the use of these accessible tools, materials and simplistic processes also diminish the social boundaries of high and low art. In comparison to Bacon’s paintings these pieces are devoid of emotion and cultural history, but because of this they become limitless. They swap emotion for playfulness and cultural history for technological boundaries, finding the foundations and limitations of these new mediums before they can be developed into artistic expressions. Although I will always find the paradox of an art display funded by BP hard to swallow, this longstanding display at Tate Britain is always giving. There is always something to be learnt in the static interior of these gallery spaces whilst the world outside its walls continues to shift and change, just as the worth and relevance of the work it holds.