8 October 2013

Bacon and Moore at the Ashmolean

Francis Bacon Henry Moore: Flesh and Bone currently at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is probably the most ambitious show there since the completion in 2009 of major redevelopment. It is also the first major exhibition bringing together works by Moore (1898-1986) and Bacon (1909-1992) since the artists’ deaths. In retrospect it is becoming more apparent that the art of both men in part embodies their responses to the horrors of the first half of the last century, - two World Wars, the Spanish civil war, the Holocaust, the atomic bombings of Japan, the start of the Cold War and the prospect of nuclear annihilation.

The exhibition offers a sequence of skilful juxtapositions (eg below) which bring out the sculptural quality of Bacon’s figures. The catalogue quotes Myfanwy Piper’s reaction to a Moore/Bacon exhibition in 1963:
… Moore ‘never forgets the solidity of flesh upon the bone, the strength of the bone beneath the flesh’ while Bacon ‘never forgets that flesh is meat’. (page 18)

What opinions the two men had of each other’s work is not something the exhibition sets out to address, but Richard Calvocoressi (Director of The Henry Moore Foundation) in his catalogue essay relates the following intriguing incident:
The two artists were not close, had little in common in their personal lives, and took a very different view of honours, awards and official appointments. Moore, the articulate and persuasive spokesman for sculpture as a public art, believed the artist had a responsibility to society; Bacon did not. Bacon was never very complimentary about Moore's work, dismissing his shelter drawings and making other pointed remarks in private. In spite of this gulf between them, Maurice Ash, a friend of Moore's, recounted to the artist's biographer an incident in the 1950s when dinner at the Moores in Hertfordshire was delayed by over an hour while Moore spoke in private to 'a very agitated Bacon' who had turned up unexpectedly.' Francis Warner, who knew both artists, recalls Bacon asking him in the early 1970s if he could take sculpture lessons from Moore. Assuming it was serious - and this was certainly a time when Bacon was thinking deeply about making sculpture - nothing came of the proposal. (page 16)
There are 20 paintings by Bacon (some from rarely seen private collections) alongside 20 sculptures and 20 drawings by Moore. My preference is to see Moore’s larger works out-of-doors, (eg at Dartington), but it is not unusual to encounter them in galleries, for example at Tate Britain in 2010 and at the Gagosian Gallery in 2012. Three Upright Motives in close proximity rather than in the open (No2, left at Kew in 2009) may seem slightly intimidating to some visitors. However, in a few months, and not far away, Moore Rodin will be opening at Compton Verney partly in the grounds. In the meantime, anyone with an interest in either artist should visit the Ashmolean before 19 January 2014. The exhibition will appear in modified form at the Art Gallery of Ontario, an institution to which Moore made a sizable donation of his work.

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