Posterity often plays tricks on artists who court the eternal. Henry Moore made sculptures whose reductive force and monumental scale convinced a chorus of admirers that his art was timeless. But after he was eulogized at Westminster Abbey in 1986, Moore’s reputation slumped, and his brawny humanism began to move into history’s rear-view mirror. His work, held in quantity by the Art Gallery of Ontario, now looks very much of its period.
Francis Bacon, by contrast, spent his career chasing the evanescent, obsessively painting his friends and lovers in wildly different serial portraits. Like Moore, he had huge success during his lifetime, but his reputation has soared even higher since his death in 1992. His canvases, often made quickly with minimal brushstrokes, look astoundingly fresh. Some of his works from a half-century ago could have been made last week; one of them, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, sold in November for $142.4-million (U.S.), the highest sum ever paid at an art auction.
Moore and Bacon, as the two leading British artists of their time, were often discussed together, sometimes as “two sides of a coin,” as one critic wrote when their works were shown together in 1963. In that spirit, Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum staged a joint exhibition last fall called Bacon/Moore: Flesh and Bone, which the AGO has amplified and remixed into Francis Bacon & Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty, opening in Toronto Saturday. Incredibly, this is the first Canadian show ever to feature Bacon’s work.
The change in title tells a lot. Flesh and bone are physical things, which the Ashmolean curators assigned somewhat crudely by artist – dissolving flesh for Bacon, petrifying bone for Moore. Terror and beauty are discordant intangibles, which the AGO and curator Dan Adler use to dramatize their thesis that Moore and Bacon were artists of violence, war and nuclear terror. Their differences fade before their common expression of the zeitgeist. This is a much riskier two-sided unity than the Ashmolean’s art-historical focus on the artists’ shared gods – Rodin, Degas, Michelangelo – and their complementary presentations of the body.
I think the AGO has minted a false coin, though the contents of the show are fascinating, and the Bacon works are not to be missed.
“I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail,” Bacon said, “leaving a trail of the human presence and memory trace of past events as the snail leaves its slime.”
He fixated on the soft parts, especially faces and mouths. His indoor figures sprawl or sit, pools of flesh on bone, the dynamism of the muscles sometimes showing in conspicuous brushwork. Bacon’s subjects are always in solitary confinement, held most of all by the wispy cubes he uses as ironic indicators of the sharp-edged rational world.
He loved to paint triptychs, and the AGO show includes a version of the most famous (Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion), though none of the many triplicate mugshots he painted of people in his inner circle. The extreme differences in these linked portraits tell you how much Bacon tried to paint what he could only feel, as the “memory trace of past events.” He was after what gets hidden when you “prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet,” as T.S. Eliot wrote, and said that he captured it only as it flitted past, delivered to his eye and brush “by chance.”
Moore was a coal-miner’s son, who carved and excavated his figures in ways that seemed to aspire to the geological. His bodies are scraped, bony and faceless, like a stone’s dream of humanity.
“A sculpture jumping off its pedestal is something I greatly dislike,” he said, preferring static forms that emphasized the bulk of the hips, thighs, bosom and back. Legs, arms and extremities often withered away, like twigs and branches on an old fallen trunk. Moore drifted naturally toward large, monumental forms for the outdoors, where his monolithic figures could become part of the landscape.
Moore’s drive to reduce to the essentials opened cavities in his figures, “empty” spaces filled with an energy that, in his view, had to come from inside, not from a posed illusion of motion. It was a risky strategy: Either you feel that energy, or his distended shapes start to look like the work of “a rhetorical manufacturer,” as John Russell wrote in The New York Times during the Metropolitan Museum’s Moore retrospective in 1983.
What this show may do for Moore is to get the AGO’s public to look at him again; the gallery’s Henry Moore Sculpture Centre is often a lonely place. But the best reasons to go are the tremendous paintings by Bacon, a tortured creator to whom posterity seems to have dealt a winning hand.
Francis Bacon & Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty runs at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario until July 20 (ago.net).
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