Innocence and Experience. Tate Liverpool. Curated by Marianne Faithfull.

Marianne Faithfull has curated a small two room exhibition at Tate Liverpool, Innocence and Experience, and it is an absolute delight. It is full of things which are both interesting or beautiful in their own right and which also shed light on her life and times, in particular the 1960’s when she was right at the heart of the celebrity and music culture of the time, young, free and beautiful. Her own personality becomes clear by stealth as you walk around what she has chosen and find works which are often unsettling and thoughtful as well as lovely to look at. She is there in the exhibition herself, via the famous 1976 portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe, but there is no sense of an over inflated ego here, the choices have been far too honestly and precisely made.

I have picked out a few of the pieces which moved and interested me most. Please click on the link in each title if you would like to see the image from the Tate collection.

Greer and Robert on the bed. Nan Goldin. 1982.

Nan Goldin is a wonderful photographer with a compassionate and truthful eye. This is a very painterly image which has an unearthly almost pre-raphaelite beauty while remaining gritty and rooted in urban New York. The light is soft and forgiving and the composition very telling of the relationship which is being recorded.

 Francis Bacon. Study for Portrait II (after the life mask of William Blake). 1955.

This is the first Francis Bacon that I have seen that I think I might actually be able to live with. It has a resigned, restful quality with the eyes closed and downcast. You watch and wait for them to open and they never will. It is a study in stasis, calm and emotionless, just a few pale colours on a black background. When people talk about resting in peace this is what they mean.

William Blake. Pity. C1795.

A beautiful nightmarish image of a rider and two ghostly horses moving forward at speed, charged with energy. A tiny figure, perhaps a child whose mother is the dead body lying at the bottom of the painting, pleading for them to stop and pay attention to the tragedy. The rider’s face looks down without emotion, seeing without feeling. It is not clear whether the child is being caught up in the arms of the rider and rescued or begging for help in vain. The breakneck speed of the horses makes me fear the worst. There is a wonderful contrast between the movement and energy of the horses and the still centre of the image where pity is being shown. It captures the fleeting, chance nature of pity. We pity those who we do not know well, those whose plight comes to our attention by chance, not those we know well and are in a position to help. Then pity becomes compassion, a more stable and sustaining emotion.

Richard Dadd. The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke. 1855-1864.

A small, obsessively worked and intricate image. The master stroke referred to in the title is the creation of Queen Mabs chariot by the chopping in two of a chestnut shell. We are shown the instant in which this happens in front of an audience of fairy folk. It is a fine piece of storytelling which you need to really get up close to before you see the unsettling beauty of it. Dadd was a troubled man who probably suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and spent many years in Bethlem hospital where he was allowed to paint. You can feel the tension of a disturbed mind in this highly charged image but also enjoy the beauty which he was still able to create.

Pietro Manzoni. Artist’s Breath. 1960.

When I blow up a balloon, I am breathing my soul into an object which becomes eternal.”

Manzoni was one of the pioneers of conceptual art. The withered scrap of perished red balloon which still remains stuck to the plinth was once new and full of his breath. That scrap of rubber is a poignant reminder of mortality, especially as he died at the early age of 30 three years after making it. He and his breath are now gone, yet in a way he is still there in what is left of his gesture as the work has been transformed into something new by time. He is still able to make us think and wonder.

Two Plants. Lucian Freud. 1977-1980.

This is a large virtuoso piece of painting making two plants which are nothing special, in fact they are very ordinary, into something to marvel at by recording their subtle shades of green, depth and texture to perfection. It is about seeing beauty in the ordinary everyday life around us, noticing the small things and celebrating them.

Richard Long. England 1968.

A simple cross in a grassy field full of daisies has been made by Long himself, walking backwards and forwards over the grass, and then photographed. It is a wonderful image of fragility and impermanence. Nothing is for ever. The world is vulnerable and we should tread lightly on it, remembering to be humble as vulnerable beings ourselves. A principle of hippy culture which needs to be remembered more than ever today.

The works chosen by Marianne Faithfull explore ideas of unsettling beauty, fragility and impermanence, and they are given a soundtrack by David Tremlett’s The Spring Recordings from 1972, long lost birdsong and memories of a spring which was taped back then and now exists only as a poignant memory. It is an exhibition about living on the edge and in the moment, realising that everything in life is just for now, and questioning what you see around you. I loved it very much.


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