The Second World War Through the Art of Francis Bacon and Henry Moore
Henry Moore, "Group of Shelterers during an Air Raid 1941," Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, © The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved, DACS / SODRAC (2013) www.henry-moore.org
Weaving my way through the crowd gathered at the Art Gallery of Ontario for the unveiling of the Francis Bacon and Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty exhibition, more than one person wondered aloud how the gallery would explain the unusual pairing of two very different artists.
To paraphrase a speech by Dr. Francis Warner, Oxford Emeritus Fellow and friend of both Bacon and Moore (and who also helped launch the exhibition), the former was born into material privilege but maternal (and paternal) indifference in 1909. He went without any art education, fraternized in London’s seedier corners, and was generally a loner who “lived a homosexual urban bachelor.”
Moore, by contrast, was born 11 years earlier into a loving, working class family, enjoyed art education at multiple institutions, had a healthy disposition and marriage, and proved “conscientious and socially responsible.”
What the two have in common, Dr. Warner points out, is war.
The exhibition is divided into a number of themes, from humans to hybrids to popes and the crucifixion (intriguing, as both artists were atheists). Works by Bacon and Moore are often paired and contrasted throughout, with the paintings and sculptures punctuated by the black and white photography of Bill Brandt, whose brilliantly haunting photos of London during the blitzes deserve an exhibition all their own.
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Upon entering you’ll encounter Moore’s sketches of Londoners huddled and sleeping in the city’s famed tube during the bombings, where the artist also took refuge (a Nazi bomb flattened his studio). The sketches seemingly come to life when you turn the corner and find Moore’s large “Reclining Figure” plaster cast, “who rises up as if bracing herself against the aerial assault above.”
The rest of the exhibition includes both artists’ takes on the crucifixion, which Bacon called “a magnificent armature on which you can hang all types of feeling and sensation,” as well as Moore’s “Mother and Child,” “Warrior and Shield,” and various other sculptures and sketches. Meanwhile, Bacon’s eerie papal portraits and distorted triptychs, and sly “Lying Figure in Mirror,” reflect the artist’s belief that, “…..the greatest art always returns you to the vulnerability of the human situation.”
The title of the exhibition, Terror and Beauty, pretty much sums up what you’re getting here. On one hand, it’s difficult to place yourself in the realm of such fear, evil, and suffering that inspired much of these works. On the other, as Bacon noted, it’s not his art, but life itself, that is violent. From that perspective it’s remarkable how these two artists distill those experiences into such multi-layered, provocative pieces.