Francis Bacon Henry Moore Terror and Beauty at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
HENRY MOORE (1898-1986) AND FRANCIS BACON (1909-1992) are in dialogue in the exhibition Francis Bacon, Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty, at the Art Gallery of Ontario from April 5 to July 20. Although co-organized with the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the Toronto showing, with well over 100 works, has a different emphasis. At Oxford, curators Richard Calvocoressi and Martin Harrison emphasized Moore's and Bacon's art-historical sources. At the AGO, curator Dan Adler, Associate Professor of Art History at York University, focuses on the human figure and historical traumas. "The artists' works are paired to create a dialogue showing their shared awareness of human suffering and mortality that is also a testament to human strength and resilience."
In their origins and personalities, the two artists were almost polar opposites. Henry Moore was the son of a Yorkshire coal miner; after serving in the First World War, he studied at the Leeds School of Art and the Royal College of Art. Moore was a husband and father, a leading citizen serving on boards and committees. Francis Bacon, born in Dublin of English parents, had an upper-middle-class upbringing; he claimed to have no formal art training. He was openly gay, and his friends and lovers included criminals as well as well-known artists and writers.
World War II sets the scene for the opening of the exhibition. While the war was important for both artists, this room mainly focuses on Moore's drawings and sculptures, accompanied by the documentary photographs of Bill Brandt. The Blitz killed thousands and demolished much of London. Many Londoners fled to the Underground stations to escape nightly raids. Moore's Shelter Drawings responded to these conditions. Moore recalled that he sought refuge in 1940 in one such shelter. "I saw hundreds of Henry Moore Reclining Figures stretched along the platforms. I was fascinated, visually. I went back again and again." As an official war artist, he produced Shelter Drawings whose monumentality contrasts with Brandt's flashbulb-lit images. Moore's Sleeping Positions (1940-41) represents a variety of restless sleepers. Each is given her own space rather than being packed closely together as in the actual shelters.
Moore's Shelter Drawings were influenced by his pre-war sculptures of reclining figures, and these drawings in turn affected his later sculptures. The exhibition juxtaposes a postwar Moore Reclining Figure (1951) with the Shelter Drawings. The tense, active pose of the sculpted figure closely resembles the woman at the lower left of Sleeping Positions. However, the sculpture is more unnerving, with the figure's truncated legs and birdlike head. Moore wrote in 1957, "There is one quality I find in all the artists I admire most-men like Masaccio, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Cezanne. I mean a disturbing element, a distortion ..."
THE SECOND ROOM examines distortions and crucifixions in the work of both Moore and Bacon. The key work is Bacon's Second Version of Triptych 1944 (1988), in which he recreates and enlarges his own painting of 1944. Significantly, the first version, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (c. 1944), was painted during the final, intense phase of the war and had established Bacon's reputation. In this complex work, Bacon creates strange, humanoid figures whom he identifies in two ways: as the Furies--the Greek Goddesses of vengeance--and also as the mourners at the base of a crucifixion (exhibition wall panel). The visceral effect of the figures is overwhelming: they are truncated, eyeless, their necks unnaturally long, their mouths screaming or grimacing. Bacon's obsession with the image of a screaming mouth came partly from viewing stills of Sergei Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin. His wartime volunteer work with the Air Raid Precautions, during which he was required to pull the injured and the dead from bombed houses, affected him deeply. Psychiatrist Allan Peterkin observes that often no words exist for the modern and postmodern experience of trauma: Bacon's triptych is like a wordless scream (exhibition audio guide).
Moore's wartime drawing Three Fates (1941) shows his contrasting approach to war. The Three Fates, as described by Plato, are female deities who spin, measure, and finally cut the thread of each person's life. Moore provides not a literal representation of the Fates but rather an almost mundane image of three women in a shelter, one holding a baby, one knitting, and one sitting quietly. Scholar Francis Warner finds Moore's choice of subject suitable: "Every one of us knew that, with each present raid, the length of our lives was being measured, and no one could know whose thread of life Atropos would have severed by morning."
Portraits--but of an unconventional style--are a feature of the third room. Bacon was haunted by the 1650 portrait of Pope Innocent X by Velazquez, which he knew only from reproductions. He often returned to the theme; one example is Study for Portrait VI (1953). Bacon has enclosed the pope with gold lines; he looks caged, suspicious, on trial. While the pope's garments have a gorgeous sheen, his face, with its open mouth, is slightly blurred--speaking or screaming?
Unlike Bacon, Moore was not a portraitist, but he created a series of helmet heads that, according to the AGO, "suggest ideas about threat, apprehension, vulnerability and protection," as in Helmet Head and Shoulders (1952). Moore explored the idea of an outer protection to an inner form. Given that a helmet is meant to protect from harm, Moore's World War I service, where he was gassed, probably made this subject compelling for him.
VULNERABILITY AND RESILIENCE make up the theme of the final room. With his Falling Warrior (1956-57), Moore creates a figure who is horizontal but not yet vanquished. Moore explained, "I wanted a figure that was still alive ... that act of falling and the shield became a support for the warrior emphasizing the dramatic moment that precedes death." The context for this figure was the postwar nuclear threat; Moore would become a founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in 1958. The figure's vulnerability, looking towards the sky, suggests that human strength is no match for modern war technology. As Mark Kingwell points out, "everything that is strong in the human body is also weak."
Bacon's Study for Portrait on Folding Bed (1963) also suggests the vulnerability of flesh, but here vulnerability is coupled with resistance. A man sits facing us confrontationally. An explosion of black tar-like paint covers his lower torso, while black paint also drips down the canvas below, suggesting bodily fluids. We sense that something violent or catastrophic has happened. With the Moore Falling Warrior one can infer a sequence of events, but Bacon's paint defaces legibility. At this point Bacon and Moore seem furthest removed from one another in their responses to violence and bodily breakdown.
During my childhood, I lived through the revolutionary Irish movement, Sinn Fein and the wars, Hiroshima, Hitler and the death camps and daily violence that I've experienced all my life. And after all that they want me to paint bunches of pink flowers ... FRANCIS BACON Everything in the world of form is understood through our own bodies. HENRY MOORE
Francis Bacon, Henry Moore: Terror andBeauty conveys a strong curatorial vision. Visual evidence and statements byboth artists support the thesis that Moore and Bacon were profoundlyaffected by living through the traumatic events of their times,especially the two world wars. Dan Adler's unconventional pairingof paintings with sculptures is effective. The wall labels areinformative, and the audio guide provides a rich variety of thoughtfulobservations, from the vantage points of art history, social history,philosophy, and psychology.
THIS IS THE FIRST--long overdue--exhibition of Bacon's work inCanada. And, although Torontonians may assume that they already know"their" Henry Moore, thanks to the permanent presence ofthe Henry Moore Sculpture Centre at the AGO, this show will dislodgepreconceptions. Francis Bacon, Henry Moore: Terror andBeauty re-enlivens the Moore collection, bringing a new sense of context tohis work.
ALLISON MACDUFFEE is an art historian and freelance writer who lives in Toronto. She hastaught art history at queen's university and the university ofToronto, among other institutions. her specialty is nineteenth-centuryFrench art.
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|Date:||Jun 22, 2014|
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