Provocative Pairings: The Shared Obsessions of Francis Bacon and Henry Moore

By Becky Rynor on April 17, 2014

Henry Moore, Group of Shelterers during an Air Raid (1941), mixed media on wove paper, 38.3 x 55.5 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. © The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved, DACS / SODRAC (2013)

Mary Moore has been looking at her father’s iconic sculptures all her life. But an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario pairing Henry Moore with the works of painter Francis Bacon has her seeing “the plasters” anew.  

“My gut reaction is that you are seeing two great artists’ vocabularies contrasted,” she recently told NGC Magazine. Moore, 68, was in Toronto for the April 5 opening of Francis Bacon and Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty at the Art Gallery of Ontario. “I’m seeing new things that I hadn’t thought were obvious that both artists share, which is their absorption of previous cultures, of previous artists.”

On the surface, the two British artists are an unlikely pairing. Yet they pull similarities from one another’s work, drawing upon a shared horror of war, a fascination with the human form, and a profound admiration for the depth of human resilience.

The National Gallery of Canada has 54 works by Henry Moore in its permanent collection, including the sculpture, Reclining Woman (1930), and numerous watercolours, drawings and prints.  

“My father was in the First World War when he was 19,” Moore says. “He was in the trenches; he was a Lewis gunner; he fought at the Battle of Boulogne where 500 went in and 42 came out. He saw things that he didn’t discuss. People of that generation didn’t say, ‘Oh that was very traumatic.' They just got on with it.”

When the Second World War broke out, Moore was too old to enlist, but he documented it by going into the Underground, and the unofficial shelters where many Londoners holed up during the Blitz.

“I think my father was horrified by their vulnerability,” Moore says. “He wanted to portray not that they were stoic; he wanted to show that they were physically protected because they were way below the ground. But there was a fear in them. There was a kind of horror of humanity being crushed together like that so defencelessly.”

Francis Bacon, Untitled ( Kneeling Figure),1982, oil on canvas, 212 x 161 cm. Estate of Francis Bacon / SODRAC (2013)

Terror and Beauty is the first Canadian exhibition of Francis Bacon’s work. The National Gallery owns one oil painting by Francis Bacon which is featured in the exhibition, Study for portrait No.1 (1956), as well as a collection of related documents acquired from Bacon’s studio following his death in 1992. These papers include a heavily worked-over image of The Portrait of Innocent X (1650) by Diego Velasquez, which inspired Bacon's famous series of papal portraits. 

Guest curator Dan Adler says Bacon was also profoundly affected by his war experiences, resulting in an unintentional, yet clear “dialogue” between the two artists.

“I think that there are a number of emotional states that play off one another and amplify when they are paired,” Adler says. “One of those states is vulnerability: that feeling of being alone, of being vulnerable, of being fragile. Many of the works in this show feature an isolated figure—someone who is trapped, sometimes fragmented. There is the sense that these figures are damaged: they are not whole, yet they are struggling to survive, struggling to persist in the wake of suffering, of trauma.”

Adler says he was drawn to this project because of the curatorial challenge.

“They are two vastly different personalities, with different lifestyles and different approaches to art-making,” he says. “However, the show really makes the case that they had a shared obsession with the human figure. So it was a great experience for me to come up with provocative pairings of works in terms of subject matter that they shared. For example: the reclining nude; the way they both do violence to the human figure; whether they are working in plaster, paint, stone or bronze; as well as the distortions and contortions of the human body. In working on this project, I really discovered things that they shared, which I hope will be a revelation for people attending this show.”

Mary Moore agrees that the two artists share common ground.

“You can stand in front of two juxtapositions and continuously discover new elements—both suggest a narrative like terror and vulnerability and anxiety and fear and all those other things. But you can also see form references, and it’s the form references that actually give you the clues to those verbal narratives.”

The exhibition was organized by the AGO in association with England’s Ashmolean Museum. It features over 60 works by the two artists, as well as photographs and archival material dating from the Second World War.

Francis Bacon and Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty is on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto until July 20, 2014.

By Becky Rynor| April 17, 2014
Categories:  Correspondents

About the Author

Becky Rynor

Becky Rynor

Becky Rynor is a journalist and editor based in Ottawa.

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