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23 February 2022

In front of a Francis Bacon painting, a strange nausea sets in

Sometimes I feel strong enough to be unsettled by art, but not today.

By Tracey Thorn

Can an art exhibition make you sick? I’m wondering this as I walk around the Royal Academy feeling nauseous, though I’m unsure whether the cause is the Francis Bacon show, “Man and Beast”, or whether it’s the new medication I’m on, which lists nausea among the possible side effects. I’m hyper-aware of my body since I started taking the tablets, and it is perhaps not the ideal state in which to view this particular exhibition.

Michael Prodger wrote in the New Statesman a couple of weeks ago that it is “a visceral if bleak and disturbing show”, and he describes the mood as “compelling and terrifying”, the walls of the gallery covered with “blind, howling forms… screams and mangled bodies… strange, snarling, menacing, biomorphic organisms”.

I have to sit down for a moment on one of the benches. I take a few deep breaths and have the thought that I am in the wrong place at the wrong time. My own body seems to be turning against me and, fearful of causing a sensation by vomiting in front of a work of art, I decide to head for the outside and the fresh air.

It’s 5.30pm and the light is fading on London’s Piccadilly. I gulp down the lovely exhaust fumes, and look at the sky, which is doing interesting things with pinks and purples, and I start to feel a little better. I’m due to be meeting a friend for the evening, but I’m now way too early, so I decide to buy a book from Waterstones across the road. Ten minutes of happy browsing is rudely interrupted by the fire alarm, and as we are herded down the emergency stairs, I smell something like burning rubber, and again start to feel queasy.

[see also: Francis Bacon at the Royal Academy: visceral visions of man and beast]

Back out on the street I make the strange decision to kill some time by heading for a high fashion emporium, the kind of place I normally avoid. I am clearly not thinking straight. The shop is starkly white and dazzlingly lit, the clothes are all stiff and lurid and there seems to be only one of each item of clothing, in the tiniest size imaginable. None of this is improving my sense of physical unease.

Once more I return to the pavement. It’s dark now and yet I still have an hour to go. There is only one thing for it: I will have to arrive early, but I will need to have a book with me. So it’s into Foyles where I narrow down the choice to a book small enough to fit into the bag I am carrying. Annie Ernaux’s Exteriors will do it, being only 74 pages long and one of those beautiful, minimalist Fitzcarraldo Editions. I pay, and slip it into my bag, and I am triumphant. To the bar!

Settled inside, in a comfy armchair, I take a sip of my martini and feel restored for the first time all afternoon. The nausea is gone, the slight discomfort has vanished, and I feel at ease in my body. I think what I experienced earlier was pure, visceral anxiety, exacerbated by disturbing paintings of physical suffering that made me think dark thoughts. As, indeed, they should. I’m no enemy of difficult art, but there are times when we are strong enough to be profoundly unsettled, and other times when we need soothing, and there is no shame in that.

I take out the Annie Ernaux book, which is a collection of journal entries describing fleeting encounters on the streets of a small town just outside Paris. Opening it at random, I read her description of a man in a Metro corridor leaning against the wall: “His fly was open, revealing his balls. An unbearable sight – a shattering form of dignity… The women walking by avert their eyes.” She goes on to ask herself why she has chosen to describe this scene. “What is it I am desperately seeking in reality? Is it meaning?”

She comes to the conclusion that it is more that she is trying to learn something about herself, and says that “sitting opposite someone in the Metro, I often ask myself, ‘Why am I not that woman?’”

All this sends me down a rabbit hole of thinking about how we appear from the outside; how unknowable and mysterious people are; how hard it is to understand even ourselves, let alone others. Another sip of martini. I’m happy now.

[see also: One of my old cassettes takes me back to when I was the moody girl on guitar]

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This article appears in the 23 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Darkness Falls