So we finally made it to Francis Bacon and Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty at the Art Gallery of Ontario the other day. I’m a fan of both artists and was curious to see how they would play with one another. In my mind I hadn’t really associated the two of them together and after seeing them side by side, I still don’t. It was an engaging proposition, but ultimately the ties that bind were stretched a little too thin and the two competed rather than complimented; with Bacon eclipsing his fellow Brit.
This may seem like a harsh statement, and some people reading this may totally disagree, but let me explain. Having grown up in and around Toronto my whole life, I’ve been visiting the Art Gallery of Ontario since I was a little kid. My first memory of the museum is the Henry Moore Room. I’ve looked at those sculptures for decades. My relationship with them is like many romantic relationships people experience. When I first encountered them as a child I was curious and confused by them. I was also impressed by their scale; I was literally dwarfed by their size. Then as I grew older I began to truly appreciate how remarkable they were. I began to see how Moore played with the human figure and how sculpture could become drawing. I was smitten. Then more years past, and I started to take my muse for granted. I thought I had become too familiar and had discovered all their mysteries and surprises. My trips to the Henry Moore Room became brief and sometimes infrequent. On some visits to the gallery, I would miss it all together. I had new lovers to visit in the gallery and Moore was put aside. But then more years passed, and I was drawn back to his wonderful plaster people and rediscovered him all over again and fell in love once more. The curators have had people come and play with Henry from time to time over the years including the brilliant pairings of Janet Cardiff’s Motet or Brian Jungen’s Tomorrow Repeated or the not so brilliant blind date of Julian Opie’s This is Shahnoza. Henry seems like a bit of a sounding board for other artists to bounce off of and that’s why Bacon may seem too at odds with Moore.
This exhibition was first staged at Ashmoleon Museum in Oxford England. It’s original title was Flesh and Bone. To me, this title makes so much more sense, it address the visceral element of both these artists. Many of Moore’s forms come straight from his study of bones and Bacon was obsessed with flesh in all its connotations . This ties the two together in a more naturalistic sense. I see Bacon’s work as a painter painting and Moore’s as a sculptor sculpting. They are both trying to understand the human form by taking it apart and putting it back together again. The ingredients they are using are flesh and bone. Terror and Beauty has a much more sensationalist ring to it. It draws associations that are more forced and leading. The juxtapositions between the two artists immediately fall apart when you see them through this lens. Bacon and Moore are much more than Terror and Beauty.
Having said that, there is some tremendous work in the show from both artists. I love Moore’s maquettes, drawing and textures, but Bacon stole the show. This is the first time any significant amount of his work has made it to Canada and that is where my attention was focused. I have seen many of his works live over the years in the collections of many of the major museums I have visited, but it was nice to see a good number of them all together. Like all artists there are good Bacons and bad. The majority of the work was solid, with a nice range from throughout his career. The screaming popes were represented along with a couple of triptychs, but my hands down favourite was the portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne. This demonstrates his supreme handling of paint and the closer you get to it the more compelling it becomes.
I left the exhibit satisfied and fortunate that I live in a city that stages shows like this one. Henry will always be there for us in Toronto, but Francis will be moving along on the 20th of July; so make your way to The Art Gallery of Ontario to pay your respects, just ignore all that Terror and Beauty nonsense.