Bacon and Moore are displayed side by side for the first time at the Ashmolean

Francis Bacon and Henry Moore are hefty subjects for an exhibition. Both giants of modern Art in their own right, the combination was a promising one. But other than a shared era, could any more but tentatives links be drawn between the two? Such were my feelings on walking through the balcony corridor to the exhibition. The introductory posters did little to dispel these fears, highlighting Bacon’s lack of training in comparison to Moore’s academic credentials.

The first point of comparison given was the shared influence of Michelangelo. But what they drew from the Renaissance master is clearly very different. For Bacon, it was in the beauty of the male form, ever edged with the thrill of homoeroticism. For Moore however, it was in the treatment of material. In an interview with David Sylvester (the exhibition has a board of every newspaper clipping or article in which a comparison between the titular artists is made) he is quoted as saying “[Michelangelo] used a contrast between a highly finished part and a part that is not so finished, and this is something one likes”. Whilst not a particularly insightful comment onto Michelangelo’s work, is it nonetheless useful for establishing the key areas that Moore drew from.

What I had never personally noticed before the exhibition, or certainly not in such an extremity, was the grotesqueness present in so much of Moore’s work. Clearly, Bacon’s work is saturated with the grotesque. His figures are stripped of their form to become pure dripping matter. The only thing that saves them from total dissolution is the structure of the “room space“, to borrow a phrase from TJ Clarke. But Moore – he had always been the lover of smooth, curvilinear forms to me. Faced with ‘Woman‘ (1957 – 88) the polite classicism vanishes. Flesh bulges, almost to the point of oozing, but there is a horrible stillness in her mutilation – with no arms and legs she is totally trapped. The body has become master of the mind, and there is a kind of visceral elasticity to her body.

Moore's image of fertility

Brutality is, therefore, a common theme. A brief socio-historical context offers an easy answer to this – the presence of the Second World War at formative times for both of the artists. Some drawings by Moore during the air raids of the Blitz are even included. Yet there is an inescapable feeling that it cannot be so simply explained. In the shelter drawings, for example, there is an eternal quality to the figures. It is not three women huddled together, but the three fates. They almost all shrouded, personifications of some everlasting doom. Bacon’s work perhaps feels more contemporary, if only for the unremitting boldness of his colour.

Bacon's 'Portrait of Henrietta Moraes' - almost abrasive in tone

How much the exhibition worked as a comparative exercise, I am not sure. Certainly, there are links to be made between the two, most evidently in their influences. The real strength of the exhibition however is the quality of works that have been chosen, particularly for Moore. The middle room, in particular, is a staggering testament to the virtuosity of the pair. It is, for me at least, British Art at its absolute best.


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