This week our Literature class took another excursion to the Art Gallery of NSW to view various 20th Century British and European art that share links with our readings in Literature. We also spent some time in the new video installation, Manifesto by German artist Julian Rosefeldt. Having enjoyed our previous visit, I was very much looking forward to sharing thoughts and ideas with Michael our lecturer and fellow Lit students.
Amongst the works of Francis Bacon, Picasso (who I admire greatly even though I don’t understand most of his work. At least I have a reaction to his pieces which is the main thing!) I was very surprised to see that the Art Gallery had a painting by Lucien Freud called `And the bridegroom’ (1993). This imposing work measures 240cm x 195cm and the subject has a personality just as big. The subject is Australian performance artist Leigh Bowery and also features his collaborator, seamstress and later wife, Nicola Bateman.
I have been a big fan of Bowery for many years and I was not aware the gallery had one of Freud’s work in their collection.
Born in the western Melbourne suburb of Sunshine in 1961, Bowery felt alienated in his surroundings and moved to London in 1980, where he worked at a Burger King. In London, he immersed himself in the club scene and would draw attention to himself due to his homemade outlandish outfits. He became a club promoter which led to creating his own club called `Taboo’. It soon became the place to be.
It was during the reign of Taboo that Bowery started experimenting in performance art. In one signature performance, he would appear at the club in drag or another costume, looking huge and would dance about. Then suddenly, much to the crowd’s surprise, he would drop onto his back and simulate giving birth to Nicola Bateman.She had been hidden for the first part of the performance by being strapped to Leigh’s belly. When the performance would begin she would slip out of her harness, and appear to pop out of Bowery’s belly along with a lot of stage blood and links of sausages, while Bowery wailed. Bowery would then bite off the umbilical cord and the two would take a bow and walk out.
In 1990, Bowery met Lucian Freud and over the next four years he would become the subject of a series of paintings. They fascinated each other. Freud liked hearing Bowery’s stories of London club life, while Bowery compared sitting for Freud to a university education. The series would relaunch Freud’s career.
`And the bridegroom’ shows Bowery taking over the bed with Bateman curled up on her side. The viewer gets the feeling that if Bowery should roll over, Bateman could almost fall out of the painting onto the floor. The level of intimacy shown between the two is very delicate with limited touches of affection. Adding additional poignancy to this piece is neither Freud or Bateman knew that at the time of the sitting, Bowery had developed AIDS, a disease that would end his life in a little more than two years later.
Bowery, who liked to be looked at, now hangs in Art Galleries around the world and has become the focal point of many of Freud’s exhibitions. Bowery, an artist, is the art.