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Francis Bacon and Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty at the Art Gallery of Ontario

Francis Bacon and Henry Moore are known for producing curvilinear compositions and contorted human forms that often double back upon and swoop around themselves. In contrast, the Art Gallery of Ontario’s dual retrospective of the artists, titled Terror and Beauty, takes a distinctly linear approach. Passing over divergent biographical information about the artists (such as that Henry Moore was the son of a coal miner from northern England, while Francis Bacon was born to prosperous English parents living in Ireland), the exhibition aims above all to illuminate how a shared historical and cultural context, which included the World Wars and the milieu of economic austerity that followed, proved formative to the development of the artists’ signature styles. In doing so, the show highlights similarities in Moore’s and Bacon’s works that are often overlooked by accounts that dwell on the fact that Moore worked in sculpture and Bacon in painting.

Francis Bacon. Lying Figure in a Mirror, 1971; 
oil on canvas; 
198.5 x 147.5 cm
. Museo de Bellas Artes Bilbao 
© Estate of Francis Bacon / SODRAC (2013)

Francis Bacon. Lying Figure in a Mirror, 1971; 
oil on canvas; 
198.5 x 147.5 cm
. Museo de Bellas Artes Bilbao 
© Estate of Francis Bacon / SODRAC (2013).

Many of the works in Terror and Beauty were on view earlier this year at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford as part of an exhibition titled Francis Bacon/Henry Moore: Flesh and Bone. While the collaboration between the British institution and the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) indicates a shared interest in underscoring the links between these two artists, the two museums seem to project slightly different narratives. Whereas the Ashmolean exhibition begins with the characterization “…these two great figurative artists whose careers have rarely been linked until now,” positioning the exhibition as a novel curatorial statement, the AGO forthrightly undercuts such an assertion with a large-scale timeline on the wall of the first gallery that maps when and where the artists were born, trained, exhibited, and died. At a glance, this timeline may seem to chart more divergence than overlap between the artists. Yet, as a viewer wades through the copious information on display, points of convergence and interlock emerge—some in the form of major global events like the Blitz in London, which both artists endured, and others more intimate, like group exhibitions that happened to include works by both artists. Indeed, the number of times that Bacon’s and Moore’s works have been exhibited together reinforces the notion that the two were in fact involved in a longstanding artistic conversation, of which this exhibition is only the latest and most explicit chapter.

From there, the AGO divides the work on display among four large rooms, each of which corresponds to one of four headings: Bodies, Blitz, Vulnerability, and Resilience. These terms effectively function as signposts declaring the curators’ vision of how these two artists might be seen as engaging in conversation—or at least how the seemingly parallel lines of their respective practices in fact bend toward certain areas of intersection. For example, the “Bodies” room sets up a particularly powerful juxtaposition of Bacon’s 1971 Lying Figure in Mirror and Moore’s 1956–7 Falling Warrior. The two figures, both of which possess pronounced knees and elbows, writhe in compositional dialogue, despite one being in paint and the other in bronze.

Henry Moore. Falling Warrior, 1956-57; 
bronze; 
65 x 154 x 85 cm. 
Tate Modern, London
 © The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved, DACS / SODRAC (2013)

Henry Moore. Falling Warrior, 1956-57; 
bronze; 
65 x 154 x 85 cm. 
Tate Modern, London
 © The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved, DACS / SODRAC (2013).

The show is thick with such works that call out to and echo each other. All around, a viewer encounters voids bounded by the crooks of elbows, mouths agape in sleep or screams, bone structures that modulate and form outer skins, whether molded in bronze or paint. One of the more unexpectedly complementary pairings to emerge is Moore’s Helmut Head and Shoulders and Bacon’s Study for Portrait VI. In each, the artist bilaterally splits the face and leaves a void where one would expect a mouth, resulting in a highly unnerving and disconcerting figure. While the subjects are dissimilar—one depicts a warrior, the other a pope—the horror of the World Wars is plainly reflected in both.

Home to the Henry Moore Sculpture Centre, the AGO holds over 900 works by the artist (and is also flanked on its northeast corner by Moore’s outdoor public sculpture, Two Large Forms). After viewing Terror and Beauty, the nearby Sculpture Centre suddenly seems comparably dormant, lacking the buzz and excitement created by the pairing with Bacon—testimony to the success of Terror and Beauty’s curatorial project.

Francis Bacon and Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty runs through July 20 at the Art Gallery of Ontario 

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