RA Magazine Autumn 2013
Issue Number: 120
Henry Moore and Francis Bacon at the Ashmolean Museum
Brothers under the skin
Simon Wilson is fascinated by an unlikely pairing of the two greatest British artists of the 20th century that reveals them as surprisingly apt bedfellows, if not one flesh
Henry Moore: dour, taciturn, down-to-earth, sober Yorkshireman and countryman, emphatically heterosexual, notably uxorious, draughtsman of genius, sculptor to his fingertips. His friend the poet Stephen Spender once noted how ‘normal as a man’ Moore was. Francis Bacon: garrulous, wasp-witted, champagne swilling metropolitan dandy, promiscuous masochistic homosexual with a taste for rough trade, painter of genius who claimed never to make drawings. Moore, sculptor of massively calm monuments of the earth mother in repose; Bacon, painter of grotesquely twisted humanity, writhing agonising in the void.
On the face of it they could not be more different, yet the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is bringing them together in an extraordinary exhibition that combines a selection of work by two great artists with an intellectual argument, which enables us to see them as a complementary duo that dominated the art of their time.
Henry Moore, 'Reclining Figure: Festival', 1951. © The Henry Moore Foundation/Lent by Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.
‘Francis Bacon/Henry Moore: Flesh and Bone’ is the brainchild of two curators profoundly knowledgeable in their respective fields, Martin Harrison, author of one of the most illuminating of all studies of Bacon’s art, In Camera: Francis Bacon (2005), and Richard Calvocoressi, Director of the Henry Moore Foundation. What they reveal is eye-opening.
Harrison suggests that Bacon’s art is fundamentally sculptural in the way in which, uniquely among major modern painters, he evokes three-dimensional figures in space. He charts Bacon’s fascination with the sculpture of Michelangelo – arguably as great a painter as sculptor – as well as with Rodin, of great importance to Moore too, who owned a cast of Rodin’s iconic Walking Man (1907).
Calvocoressi reminds us that Bacon is on record as planning to make sculpture at one point in his career. This has always been known, but a riveting revelation is that Bacon actually asked Moore if he would give him lessons. Apparently the response was ‘non-committal’, Calvocoressi explains in his catalogue essay. In the end Bacon dropped the idea.
Francis Bacon, 'Lying Figure in a Mirror', 1971. © Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao. Calvocoressi’s main thrust is to discuss the affinities between the two artists. So what are these? The first and most obvious is that both vividly reflect the political anxieties and tensions of their time, as well as much more personal pain and existential angst. In both, pain, fear, suffering, alienation and anguish are continually and strongly expressed. In both there are disguised sexual forces surging through the work. In both, and perhaps surprisingly, the figure is often ambiguous in its gendering. The critic David Sylvester pointed out in his catalogue of the 1968 Tate retrospective of Moore that his reclining women are ‘more male than female’ and there too he noted the sculptor’s ‘underlying sexual imagery’. In exposing such elements in Moore and the correspondences between Moore and Bacon, the Ashmolean exhibition is particularly valuable, since Moore’s huge success as a public, and indeed corporate, sculptor has significantly blurred our perception of the fundamentally disturbed nature of his vision.
Both artists are notable creators of biomorphic form – that is form which, while highly abstract, neverthelesss evokes and refers to the forms of the human body and is expressive of the fundamentals of life such as procreation, suffering and death. Biomorphism is one of the most fruitful inventions of modern art. Both artists picked up on and built on Picasso’s biomorphic figures of the early 1930s inspired by his lover Marie-Thérèse Walter. The results are exemplified in Bacon by the bulbous humanoids in his famous triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) and in the Ashmolean show they are crucially compared with the equally powerful biomorphs of Moore’s Three Upright Motives of 1955-56. Here, as in the Bacon, the bulbous forms, although more abstract, evoke the human body and flesh. The central figure, Moore admitted, ‘took on the shape of a crucifix – a kind of worn-down body and a cross merged into one’. It is hugely important for our understanding of him that for Moore, as for Bacon, the Crucifixion, that central image of man’s inhumanity to man, was an essential reference point in the articulation of a vision of suffering humanity in the postwar era.
Other striking comparisons are between heads by both artists and between their recumbent figures. One of Bacon’s most savage but also most beautiful early paintings, Head II (1949), can be compared with Moore’s Helmet of 1939-40. Both might be read as images of faces looking to the sky and screaming with horror as bombs fall, but both also embody a more universal sense of the anguish of being human.
But it is the recumbent figure that is central to Moore’s art and it is a major motif for Bacon too. A truly telling comparison is that of Bacon’s 1971 Lying Figure in a Mirror, a painting as emotionally disturbing as it is visually ravishing, and Moore’s famous Reclining Figure created for the Festival of Britain in 1951. I have always thought this frightening skeletal object was an odd choice for the supposedly upbeat festival, and Calvocoressi confirms that it is ‘hardly a comforting maternal sight… the figure is tense, unrelaxed, wary’, and notes how alien is its head.
Art lovers may feel that they have nothing much to learn about either Bacon or Moore, so familiar have they become. This exhibition reminds us that with artists such as these, and curators of insight, there is always scope for new discoveries and fascinating revelations.
© RA Magazine
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