Art on Fire Again – from Francis Bacon to Embrace

Fire: its emotional intensity, potency in rebellions, and insistence on transformation, are key to my experience of Art and its opening of new possibilities.

Perhaps not surprising for a kid making his way to the fire-splashed playa from York, a Northern English town infamous for raising Guy Faulkes, whose plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament is celebrated with bonfires and fireworks.

As a teenager in the mid ‘80s, I subscribed to a highly sophisticated view that even modern paintings were a mess, made irrelevant by the possibilities of photography, whose accurate representation of reality was clear.

Francis Bacon’s 1953 painting Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X shook this old view crumbling to the floor. It is less clear to me now that the painting’s vertical lines represent fire, but in my memory of that moment, there is a caged and seated Pope, screaming, melting like Gestapo agent Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark, his faith, power, and being, transformed or perhaps destroyed, aware of his fate and impotent against its fury.

Flash forward to the playa, 2014, and it’s the Pier Group’s Embrace that again changed things. As with the screaming pope, my memory of Embrace may not entirely accord with its reality. I remember Embrace’s scale, the tenderness of its figures, the beauty of its curves. I remember climbing the spiral stairs, so tightly wound that I felt connected to each person I passed, our chests so close. I remember looking out through the eyes. I remember visiting again and again to watch its myriad shades glow in that Nevada sunlight. And I remember the early morning when we rose to watch it burn, hoping that somehow in its flames I’d process the end of a relationship that years’ on still hurt.