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article imageReview: Francis Bacon And Henry Moore Together In Terror And Beauty Special

By Cate Kustanczy     Apr 4, 2014 in Entertainment
Toronto - The work of two wildly different artists is paired for a new exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario. While it's ambitious, Francis Bacon and Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty disappoints with a false sense of connection between the artists.
“Art and life are made up of conflicts” — Moore’s insightful quote greets visitors along the hallway into the exhibition. It’s a perfect encapsulation of Terror and Beauty, though it also unwittingly underlines its problems and pitfalls. As the release for the exhibition notes, Henry Moore (1898-1986) and Francis Bacon (1909-1992) “were neither friends nor collaborators,” something worth keeping in mind as one wanders this large exhibition, on now through July 20.
Comprised of over 100 objects (including paintings, sketches, and sculptures), the works are accompanied by the photography of Bill Brandt, whose shots of a Blitz-damaged London and its weary inhabitants forms a base from which guest curator (and associate professor of art history at York University) Dan Adler's layout emerges. Moore and Bacon were previously paired at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum last fall. Indeed, Terror and Beauty has been organized by the AGO in conjunction with the Ashmolean, and includes pieces from an impressive array of international houses including the Museum of Modern Art, the Tate Britain, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.
The works are organized into tidy themes: Bodies, Crucifixions, Popes, Vulnerability and Resilience. This thematic imposition places the artists and their works — frequently abstract, definitely different — into neat, easily-digestible boxes. Layout is key, with individuals works meant to be connected with (or to) another one nearby. Quotes from each artist dot the gallery walls; Bacon’s thinking of crucifixion, for instance, as “a magnificent armature on which you can hang all types of feeling and sensation” works as an apt (if unfortunate) metaphor for the ideas and themes that have been hung onto these two artists, and as ties that supposedly bind.
Much of what is meant to bind these works together is the curator’s idea of a shared wartime England experience, and how the two exhibit some communal, creative expression related to survival and hardship. The problem with this assumption is that it is a false construct; each artist had wildly different world views shaped by personal experience and individual personality. Each had a separate set of experiences and ideas related to war. Henry Moore and Francis Bacon were different in both quantifiable and qualifiable ways, not specifically connected to the second world war. Grouping them together places their creative output within a false narrative construct which distracts from the overall greater whole. Bacon had a peripatetic childhood (and later, a highly mobile adult life), punctuated by frequently torturous personal relationships; he also had a fraught connection with his father, largely connected to Bacon’s being a very out gay man, and a series of intense love affairs. He didn’t enjoy a lot of formal instruction in painting, and was prone to destroying or painting over earlier works. Moore, on the other hand, remained based in England, enjoyed a long-term marriage, fought in the First World War (until an injury he sustained in 1917), and became a teacher who enjoyed a solid family life. He was commissioned to do large-scale public art projects later in life, including the famous “UNESCO Reclining Figure” in the late 1950s.
Henry Moore  Reclining Figure  1951. Plaster cast  L: 228.5 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario  Toronto. Cou...
Henry Moore, Reclining Figure, 1951. Plaster cast, L: 228.5 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. Courtesy Craig Boyko, AGO © The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved, DACS / SODRAC (2013)
© The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved, DACS / SODRAC (2013)
Terror and Beauty serves to underline some interesting, if entirely accidental, complementary aesthetics. Moore’s ennobled, hopeful sculptures, along with his own abstract paintings and deft sketches lend softness to the rough, occasionally acrid masculinity of Bacon’s work, and there is a similar sense of movement, proportion, even color, betrayed in certain creative choices. Bacon’s paintings possess a kind of rounded voluptuousness (Seated Figure from 1962 for instance), the sensuous and the violent living in equal measure within the twisted, pink-grey world of his imagining; Moore’s deliberately distorted features echo the surreal nature of Bacon’s work, his monumental Seated Woman, Thin Neck (1961) a strangely delicate expression of feminine grace. Such works have a conversation, however awkward it may be.
However, the “Popes” section of the exhibition brings home of the essentially different natures of each artist. Bacon’s studio was an infamously crammed, chaotic space (it’s been re-created at Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery), and his paintings, thusly presented, offer a similar sense of delicious claustrophobia. Thus the “Popes” inhabits a wonderfully intimate corner of the exhibit’s second room (located nowhere near the “Crucifixion” section, mysteriously), and features some of Bacon’s breathtaking, Velázquez-inspired portraits, including Study for Portrait VI (1953). Bacon’s furiously alive work sings here — or maybe stings is more appropriate; these are portraits shot through with menace and foreboding, done with moody black backgrounds and bullet-like color. They are entrancing, violent, and thoroughly exciting. Displaying these works in a close setting lends them an appropriate claustrophobia and secrecy, as if we’re a part of a very twisted, very nefarious papal meeting. One is thankful Bacon’s work can sing its own nasty tune without the presence of Moore’s considerably different, more humanistic energies.
Francis Bacon  Second Version of Triptych   1944 / 1988. Oil and alkyds on canvas. Each panel 198 x ...
Francis Bacon, Second Version of Triptych, 1944 / 1988. Oil and alkyds on canvas. Each panel 198 x 147.5 cm (each panel), Tate Modern, London. © Estate of Francis Bacon / SODRAC (2013)
© Estate of Francis Bacon / SODRAC (2013)
And that’s the essential problem: rather than add to our understanding or appreciation of each individual artist’s merits and output, this exhibition attempts to impose one that simply isn’t there. The art of Bacon and Moore is reduced to handy time frames and imposed themes that don’t illuminate the men or their work. For instance, Bacon’s sexuality is referenced but never explored; the traumatic passing of his lover George Dyer is mentioned only in passing; there is short shrift given to the role photography and film in his inspiration (and for the triptychs in particular). Margaret Thatcher called him "that man who paints those dreadful pictures.” It's vital viewers know and understand such details in order to get a full picture of Francis Bacon as an artist wholly within his own right, as an artist far larger than the era in which he lived, and as a man far larger than his country or citizenship. To reduce him (and Moore) to a specific time and place is to do a grievous disservice.
The exhibition’s final room reveals most clearly two artists whose works are essentially at odds. Bacon’s immense Triptych from 1987, features varying (frequently gory) motifs relating to matadors, Lorca, and wounds, stretches across one wall; nearby Moore’s Working Model for Standing Figure: Knife Edge (1961) sits, its rough edges pointing out. Even Bacon’s arrows on the left panel of his work, pointing at open wounds, isn’t as self-evident as such placement. Similarly, Bacon’s portrait of his (final) lover, John Edwards (from 1988), is a poignant, powerful work, betraying traces of a surprising degree of tenderness, though the placement of Moore’s touching Falling Warrior (1956-57) and Warrior With Shield (1953-54) offers no illumination, only frustration.
Henry Moore  Falling Warrior  1956-57. Bronze  65 x 154 x 85 cm. Tate Modern  London © The Henry Mo...
Henry Moore, Falling Warrior, 1956-57. Bronze, 65 x 154 x 85 cm. Tate Modern, London © The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved, DACS / SODRAC (2013)
© The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved, DACS / SODRAC (2013)
Perhaps a good way to take this room in, as with all the pieces in Terror and Beauty, is to look at one artist’s work first, then the other’s. If you find yourself drawing lines between works, that’s fine, but don’t be lead on by the connections laid out for you, ones frequently ephemeral and reductive. Find your own path. You may make the Holzer-esque conclusion that “contradiction equals balance,” which is, perhaps, the best thing one could take away here. There is terror, and there is beauty, and very frequently, they meet; occasionally they produce something incredible. But sometimes they are better separate, and that’s just as it should be.
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