Against the trend

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Fashion in any field is a peculiar thing because to really be at the forefront of it you almost have to be the one who’s totally ignoring it. Such is the enduring case of two of the most influential artists of the last century, Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) and Francis Bacon (1909-1992).

Both unapologetically dedicated to their own vision and craft, their works remained individual “without taking fashions or art conventions into account,” according to the QUEST 21 gallery in Belgium and thus depicted as they showcase lithographs and prints that bring the two pivotal artists together.

Focusing on printmaking, the exhibition draws parallels between Bourgeois and Bacon because of their presentation of the human condition “and the exploration of the relations between emotion, body, and psychology”.

Both artists are known for expressing deep personal trauma through their work; in her later career Bourgeois made a leitmotif of referring to her father’s adulterous nature. Meanwhile Bacon, who suffered a tyrannical father and was evicted from his home because of his increasingly apparent homosexuality in 1926, was famously self-critical, destroying canvases as he worked and producing finished pieces that expressed a tangible sense of unsettling entrapment and discomfort, all the while changing the face of contemporary portrait painting as he went, as is shown in the lithographs at QUEST 21.

An admirer of Bacon’s work (as so many were given his critical role on the London art scene alongside the likes of Lucian Freud and photographer, John Deakin), Bourgeois, whose sense of personal expression really came into its own in later life – perhaps giving an indicator of the level to which she was influenced by him, said, “I like Francis Bacon … because [he] has terrific problems and he knows that he is not going to solve them, but he knows also that he can escape from day to day and stay alive, and he does that because his work gives him a kick.”

It is this inspiration that seems to bind the works of Bourgeois and Bacon, and draw parallels between them. As a result, Bourgeois’ Autobiographical Series, a number of small etchings from 1994, are central to the exhibition at QUEST 21. Here she refers to her personal life with images such as the textile shop of her parents, the relationship between men and women, and the human body. Alongside Bacon’s lithographs, they make for an interesting study in the presentation of both personal struggles and the wider human condition in the diverse parameters of 20th century art.

That said, for both artists there is a timelessness to their work; where other emotive artists can appear dated once their heyday has passed, Bacon and Bourgeois are as relevant today as they were 50 years ago, thanks to their dedication to their own message rather than that of anyone else. The result is that here are two artists who, by remaining preoccupied with their own ideas, tapped into the wider representation of something that we are all constantly battling to comprehend – the human condition, and that is something that never goes out of fashion.

by Bonnie Friend

Louise Bourgeois and Francis Bacon: Prints are on display at QUEST 21, 1000 Brussels, Belgium, until Sunday 27 April 2014