‘Flesh and Bone’ is a thought-provoking exhibition that challenges our preconceptions about two modern masters of the 20th century. The exhibition is the product of two curators: Martin Harrison, author of ‘In Camera: Francis Bacon’ (2005), and Richard Calvocoressi, director of the Henry Moore Foundation.
Initially, I thought that the artists seemed an odd pairing: Henry Moore, the Yorkshire family man renowned for his sculpted smooth lines and abstract, serene forms; and Francis Bacon, the risqué outsider who created troubling, visceral paintings, latent with violence. However, the curators present a strong argument for numerous affinities shared by the two artists. In fact, this is not such a new suggestion: the artists were exhibited together in 1963 by the Marlborough Gallery and the artists’ similarities were widely recognised.
The Ashmolean’s exhibition makes these shared influences forcefully apparent. The exhibition is arranged thematically, grouping Bacon and Moore’s work by inspiration or shared motif. They both were influenced strongly by classical art, and in particular the work of Michelangelo and Rodin, by Picasso and the 20th century movement of biomorphism and by classical depictions of the crucifixion of Jesus, which became a powerful motif used repeatedly by both artists. They also both returned repeatedly to explore the reclining human form, figures of despair, figures of authority and the human head.
The exhibition presents Moore as a draughtsman as well as a sculptor, revealing Moore’s talent in his less widely seen drawings of people sheltering in the London Underground during the Blitz in World War Two, and later drawings such as ‘Four Figures in a Setting’. Bacon is noted to have had an interest in sculpture – the curators draw our attention to the ‘three-dimensional’, ‘sculpted quality’ of his painted figures. Bacon apparently actually asked Moore for lessons (although Moore’s response was non-committal!).
The juxtaposition of the artists is not only fascinating from an academic level, but visually it makes for a stunning exhibition. Bacon’s striking crimson ‘Second Version of Triptych 1944’ (1988) with its carnivorous, semi-human, biting ‘things’ (reminding one of the frightening monstrosities in Picasso’s ‘Guernica’) contrasted with the awesome, solemnity of Moore’s ‘Three Upright Motives’, with its echoes of a crucifixion scene, is arresting viewing.
Interestingly, the exhibition draws out an underlying tension in Moore’s work, between the figurative and the abstract. This is evident in works such as ‘Reclining Figure’, which seems in sympathy with Bacon, particularly in works such as ‘Lying Figure’. Their mutual fascination for form and shape is clearly evident in the accuracy of the poses and their studies of the elongated bodies, coupled with an interest in creating a sense of absence and fragmentation.
However, is the exhibition too didactic? Has it simplified the power and meaning of the artists’ work in order to draw the parallel between them? For instance, when contrasting the shared motif of figures of authority, I couldn’t help but feel that the frightening, profanity of Bacon’s ghoulish ‘Pope’ was reduced in comparison to Moore’s beautiful and statuesque ‘King and Queen’; and in turn the former seemed a rather inappropriate point of reference for understanding Moore’s work. At times, the exhibition’s concern with finding common ground between the artists perhaps deprives them of their unique individual power.
However, overall the curators and this remarkable collection add valuable insight. The exhibition draws a fascinating and intriguing parallel between the artists and is well worth a trip to Oxford.
‘Flesh and Bone’ continues at The Ashmolean until 19 January 2014.