Critics’ Picks

Barbara Hepworth, Maquette for a Winged Figure, 1957, brass, 23 x 8”.

Barbara Hepworth, Maquette for a Winged Figure, 1957, brass, 23 x 8”.

London

“I shake you by the hand, comrade Bacon: British Art Abroad”

Whitechapel Gallery
77 - 82 Whitechapel High Street
December 19, 2009–March 14, 2010

Taking its title from a visitor’s register at Francis Bacon’s landmark 1988 exhibition in Moscow (at the height of Glasnost), this small exhibition examines the rapports between British modernism and UK identity abroad. Through the poignant prism of a handful of case studies, the show explores the efforts of the British Council, over the past seventy-five years, to export the country’s culture––not always to entirely triumphant, or even measurable, ends. As the sun finally began to set on the seemingly eternal British Empire, artworks served, in some instances, as a new form of diplomacy, with strikingly varied results.

Barbara Hepworth’s Maquette for a Winged Figure, 1957, was exhibited in Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2004. The proposed exhibition of David Hockney’s prints illustrating Constantin Cavafy’s notably homoerotic poetry not only stirred up anxiety on behalf of Mexican officials in 1968 but also led the British Council to reconsider its own plans. The cultural attaché wrote back to London, remarking that the works’ exhibition in the Mexican provinces might draw “queens and beatniks” and was thus perhaps best aborted. Francis Bacon’s exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow seemed to confirm various perceptions of Western art, whether of dissolution or of emancipation. An adjoining room contains relevant archival documents, including the translated book of Russian visitors to Bacon’s show––which constitutes in its own right a compendium of cultural consciousness and culture shock. “Our civilization is a rotting corpse,” wrote one twenty-one-year-old student somewhat elusively, perhaps finding in Bacon’s images a reflection of Soviet decline, or else testament to a general decadence. A sixteen-year-old saw things differently: “[This] is not art. The only feeling is one of bewilderment.”