Sarah Willcocks

The Hayward Gallery reunites old friends, the photographer and artist Henri Cartier-Bresson and Francis Bacon, proclaimed as possibly the greatest British painter of our century. The exhibition, opening this week, celebrates the friends and fellow artists’ contributions to studies of human life with coinciding exhibitions of their awe-inspiring work.

Europeans’ demonstrates the outstanding French photographer Cartier-Bresson’s skill at capturing a moment in history or a way of life in a single image. His photographs, which span a continent geographically and ontologically, are stunning for the reportage and emotion caught by the camera. Travelling extensively throughout his life, this exhibition focuses on his observations around Europe, and although his artistic intention was to capture the decisive moment on film his images existing as individual entities, to see them as a selective series is testimony to Cartier-Bresson’s adept ability to portray the varied lives and customs of Europe’s peoples. The photographs in the exhibition extend from images of Spanish fiestas to German deportation camps, framing local and personal moments, as well as a nation’s pivotal figures and occasions. The effect of this exhibition is a panoramic view of European histories, private and public, prior to, during, and post-second world war.

The exhibition of Francis Bacon’s oeuvre also reveals a fascination with people, the focus of this display being on the human body. Unlike Cartier-Bresson’s concern to capture spontaneous scenes from real life, Bacon’s pictures tend to be imaginative reproductions painted from existing photographs or portraits. The exhibition includes both single canvases and Bacon’s experimentation with triptych, and records his development from the brashly coloured biomorphic figures of the 1940’s to the more abstract self-portraits of the 1980’s. His figures are often curiously distorted, their expressions recurrently depicting torture or inspiration such as his classic portrayals of wide-mouthed despair. Emotionally charged, (one of the few similarities with Cartier-Bresson’s work), it is Bacon’s bold use of paint, colours and smearing effects that fleshes out his figures, infusing them with intensity. One particularly striking painting from his more colouristic, forceful period in the 60’s depicts a figure lying inert with a hypodermic syringe. Another memorable masterpiece catharticly depicts the rather unsavoury death of his close friend, George Dyer, who passed away on the lav from a fatal overdose of alcohol and drugs. The paint palate is Bacon’s vocabulary and under his hands it is used to create vivid and charged narratives of the human form in its most vulnerable states...

If that’s your thing, then head over to the South Bank. The exhibitions run in unison to 5 th April. Concession tickets cost just £3.50


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