Creative Sensemaker: What to read, watch and listen to this weekend

Someone stood in an art gallery looking at three huge paintings by Francis Bacon

A rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency

Friday 28 January 2022    By Matt d’Ancona

Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media.

In the latter half of the 20th century, Francis Bacon was often hailed as the only figurative artist who, in his unflinching images of suffering, barbarism and human grotesquerie, had truly absorbed the horrific lessons of the Holocaust and Hiroshima.
Now, as the world reels from a pandemic caused by zoonotic transmission – that is, the spread of a pathogen from animals to people – and wrestles with the devastating impact of anthropogenic climate change upon nature, the painter’s achievement has been reframed in a stunning new exhibition, Francis Bacon: Man And Beast at the Royal Academy of Arts (29 January to 17 April).
As Michael Peppiatt, one of its curators (as well as a close friend of the artist), writes in the exhibition catalogue, the relationship between man and animals was ‘the anvil on which he forged his deeply divided, tumultuous imagery as savagely and accurately as he could… This was the real issue of his art: the animality of man and the repercussions it had on life.’
As an organising principle, this is a truly revealing and original basis upon which to look afresh at Bacon’s achievement. The ‘Second Version Of Triptych’ (1944), a breakthrough work, draws its power from an oscillation between disfigured humanity and animal ferocity. His numerous paintings of chimpanzees express the same captivity – and the animal scream – that is such a feature of his legendary reinterpretations of the portrait of Innocent X by Velázquez. Images such as ‘Head I’ (1948), often misunderstood as surrealist, are better seen as reflections upon the porous border between man and other species – and the hybrid possibilities when the two merge.
What drew Bacon to lift the veil so insistently and reveal the beast within? According to one of his lovers, the poet Thomas Blackburn, he was compelled to capture what lay beneath the veneer of civilisation, ‘the sudden moment of truth when the mask disintegrates and the raw animal appears’. 
In this sense, the core artistic mission was, as the painter himself put it, to ‘trap realism’ and confront the ‘brutality of fact’ (as he believed Picasso had done). There was, Bacon believed, a fundamental difference between mere ‘illustration’ and art that depicted the ‘intensity’ of reality. This compelled him to ‘wash the realism back on to the nervous system by his invention’. 
Such an undertaking, as the RA exhibition shows to remarkable effect, involved a fearless confrontation with the animal nature of humanity, the transience of flesh, and the continuum that links all species. He wanted, he said, ‘to paint like Velázquez, but with the texture of a hippopotamus skin’.

In this bloodless age of NFT art, of trigger warnings and of pearl-clutching squeamishness, we need such fearlessness more than ever. Do not miss this show.
Here are this week’s recommendations:

Movie poster for Parallel Mothers featuring Penelope Cruz as Janis hugging Milena Smit as Ana. Their faces are normal but their bodies have been artistically replaced with black and white stripes. Everything is on a bright red background and there is black italic text at the top that reads 'Parallel Mothers, a film by Almodovar' plus lots more cast and crew names



Parallel Mothers (general release, 28 January)
Pedro Almodóvar’s eighth collaboration with Penélope Cruz is also one of the best movies of his four decades in film. Cruz plays Janis, a highly regarded photographer, who gives birth on the same day as her hospital roommate, 17-year-old Ana (the brilliant Milena Smit), who, it emerges, is a rape survivor. The two women’s lives become quickly and sometimes painfully entangled, in ways that make the movie a deeply moving reflection upon motherhood, generation gaps, and the burden of the past.

Book cover for Otherlands: A World In The Making by Thomas Halliday. The cover is on a distressed black background and features an illustration of an uprooted fern plant with two butterflies flying near it. At the top reads 'Otherlands' in a big bold cream font, the bottom left reads 'A World in the Making' in the same font and colour as the title, and the bottom right reads 'Thomas Halliday' in the same font and colour as the title
Album cover artwork for The Overload by Yard Act which is a white graphic design of a circle with the bands title incorporated into it on a dark grey background


Otherlands: A World In The Making by Thomas Halliday 
‘It is by looking at the past that palaeontologists, ecologists and climate scientists can address the uncertainty about the near- and long-term future of our planet, casting backwards to predict possible futures.’ So writes the palaeobiologist Thomas Halliday in this riveting exploration of the last 500 million years; which is, more specifically, an intense and imaginative reading of fossils as runes that tell us about our own times, and possible future. 

For all its scholarship, this is a very readable book, and serves as a wise manual for adaptive change rather than a prophecy of inevitable doom. We are, writes Halliday, ‘ecosystem engineers’. It is for us to decide whether or not we make use of this talent – and whether we understand that the pandemic has been but a drill for much greater challenges ahead. (Full disclosure: the author’s sister, Ellen Halliday, is a reporter at Tortoise.)



The Overload by Yard Act
‘Knobheads Morris dancing to Sham 69’: has there been a better satirical image capturing the grim realities of right-wing Brexit Britain than this line from Yard Act’s ‘Dead Horse’? The band’s debut album – already storming the charts – draws on a different sort of Britishness: the spoken sarcasm of the Streets, the infectious bop of early Blur, and a dash of the late Mark E. Smith’s anger to add spice to the mix. Clocking in at 37 minutes, The Overload is a disciplined and extremely entertaining LP, and makes no attempt to disguise their ambition – or their cocky certainty that it will be realised. But the hype is matched by wit, brio, and irony. I have a hunch that this lot will be around for a while.

That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes,

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
Tortoise Media

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