Francis Bacon and Henry Moore: when opposites attract
The art of Francis Bacon (1909-1992) and Henry Moore (1898-1986), displayed in dialogue at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, will surely make one of the most startling exhibitions of the year. Over 60 works ranging from an early concrete carving, Mask, 1929 by Moore, to Second Version of Triptych 1944, painted in 1988 by Bacon, provide this provocative and illuminating meeting of the two colossi, the best-known British artists of the past century, who both had two retrospectives at the Tate in their lifetimes (a distinction only equalled by Richard Hamilton).
The iconoclastic, tortured, vivid and continually metamorphosing figurations of Bacon are seemingly in sharp contrast to Moore’s resolute, even sturdy sculptures. But the aspirations of Bacon and Moore, as this exhibition demonstrates, are also curiously complementary. The show’s curators, Martin Harrison, editor of the forthcoming complete catalogue of Bacon’s work, and Richard Calvocoressi, scholar of surrealism and expressionism, and currently head of the Henry Moore Foundation, sum up this connection with the subtitle “Flesh and Bone”.
Both Bacon and Moore were octogenerians when they died, but their long lives could not have been more different. Even their appearance somehow echoed their disparity: the sculptor unassuming, strong-featured, robust; Bacon’s unusual physiognomy resembling that of a squashed feline face. The heterosexual working-class Moore, the son of a miner, was embraced by the great and the good. Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery and chairman of the War Artists Advisory Committee, was a powerful patron. Moore was made a fellow of the British Academy and the memorial service after his death was held at Westminster Abbey.
By contrast, the homosexual Bacon was by birth a member of the upper classes. His father was an army captain, an unsuccessful racehorse trainer and a collateral descendant of that renaissance man, Sir Francis Bacon. Bacon was an habitué of drinking clubs and an inveterate gambler who eschewed conventional behaviour and apparently did not need to be accepted by any conventional standards. With the Sexual Offences Act only passed in 1967, it is hard to believe that Bacon’s passionate and even violent attachments escaped official attention.
The work of both artists was consciously predicated on the human figure, Bacon concentrating on flesh, so mortal, so easily corrupted, and Moore on bone, the human remnant that survives for millennia. All forms were natural to him, as he often stated, and he was concerned with the souvenirs of bodies, long weathered by sun, earth and water – although he also managed to conjure monumentality from the shape of sheep, and was fascinated by animals. Both men admired the same artists, from Dégas to Picasso (both Moore and Bacon were included in the Tate Modern’s exhibition last year of seven British artists influenced by Picasso). They held Michelangelo in high esteem, and Moore was thrilled to have a small summer house near the marble quarries at Carrara where he knew the skilled craftsmen. Moore regarded time spent in Italy as a combination of pilgrimage and homage, one that probably reinforced his sense of his own worth.
Rodin was also influential on both artists, and he and Michelangelo are included in the Ashmolean show. Coincidentally the Moore Rodinexhibition examining this relationship is on view at the Henry Moore Foundation, Perry Green, until the end of October. By suggesting, almost covertly, the sensual aspects of Moore’s preoccupations, bone thrusting against bone, this show is an oblique preparation for the Moore-Bacon alliance.
Bone, for Moore, implied fossil and flint, stone and shell, as well as the human form, flesh stripped away. The seventh of eight children, he would massage his exhausted mother’s aching back; this early tactile experience was later translated, having been informed by his admiration for pre-Colombian sculpture, into abstracted reclining figures that also recalled the undulations of Yorkshire landscape. But nothing was really accidental or perhaps even spontaneous for Moore; carving required meticulous planning and modelling took great care.
He taught for decades at the Royal College and at Chelsea, and several of his assistants have become major artists in their own right, includingPhilip King and Anthony Caro. Moore’s drawings of people sheltering in the underground during the Blitz are still symbols of enduring stoicism: several are on view in the exhibition. Millions know his work who do not know his name.
The dual purpose of The Henry Moore Foundation, initiated in his lifetime, was to advance the cause of sculpture and his own work; it was also tax efficient. He lived modestly but his enormous financial success enabled him to acquire the work of artists whom he admired intensely, Cézanne, Seurat and Rodin among them. And through his foundation he perhaps attempted to essay some posthumous control over his reputation, to make a bid for immortality, and to support sculpture.
Nothing so stable for Bacon: he was thrown out by his father at 17 and had spent time in Berlin and Paris by the time he was 18. Back in London his old nanny, Jessie Lightfoot, lived with him until her death in 1951. Alongside drink and gambling, sex was always a priority (he shared several characteristics with his close friend Lucian Freud: both obsessed with flesh and gambling). Although a severe asthmatic, he was a smoker, a risk-taker in all sorts of ways, both personally and artistic. He taught very briefly at the Royal College of Art, more by his occasional presence than anything else, and was a loner in his work. He destroyed an enormous amount. Valerie Beston, a square-shaped, back-room lady at Marlborough Fine Art, was Bacon’s minder and friend, who certainly needed her own quietly mordant sense of humour (I remember her ability to express herself with a well-timed snort), and it was she who often retrieved work destined for the scrapheap. Bacon heaped up enormous amounts of mass media ephemera, a compost heap of inspiration that included postcard reproductions of Velázquez and Van Gogh. He did not want to see the originals. Bacon refused all honours. Nor did he collect. Characteristically, he said he entered the world with nothing and that is how he would leave.
Bacon has been consistently in critical and commercial fashion over the past decades, the unease and disturbance so strikingly apparent in his imagery expressive of a mood of universal apprehension. Flesh, of course, is the eponymous Bacon, with his vividly textured colourations of distorted people engaged in sinister or sensual pursuits, at times both at once, often in agonising postures as though flesh were dissolving or at the point of liquefying, even putrefying. Pairs are engaged in seemingly impossible anatomical contortions. Figures are set in interiors that often look like cages, and almost all are indoors. There is the obsessive portraiture too – again seen through a Baconian looking glass as quietly surreal as anything found by Alice. The living being is stripped emotionally, and at times writhing in sexual abandon, in anticipation of death throes, the human being as animal.
But, as Bacon said himself, he did not see his paintings as horror but as life: “I deform and dislocate people into appearance; or hope to.” Behind every figure there is a real person, and many a person, from grandee to friend, sat for Bacon. He also shared remarkable patrons with Moore, notably Robert and Lisa Sainsbury, of whom he painted affecting portraits. He claimed accident in art, with the use of paint leading him on – but of course he planned, superimposing layer on layer. The exhibition points out his fascination with sculpture, although he never attempted it in spite of his deep interest in Rodin and his mindful flirtation with sculptural concepts. (He once even thought of asking Moore for lessons.)
Some 80 major museums worldwide possess Bacon’s paintings and five years ago he was described as the most sought-after postwar artist anywhere. For a while he held the record for the highest price paid at auction for any postwar work – the $86.3m paid in 2008 at Sotheby’s New York for the luxuriously horrifying Triptych of 1976, which includes a tableau of a bird of prey devouring a human torso. And prices have remained very high: Bacon’s total output was not huge for 40 years of work. Meanwhile, Moore’s 6ft Reclining Figure, a controversial contribution to the Festival of Britain in 1951, sold for £19.1m at Christie’s London in February last year, the most expensive British sculpture yet at auction. Prices are a crude indicator of quality, of course, but a fine indicator of buzz.
So Moore and Bacon, in different ways, are news. Both artists were surrounded in life and posthumously by the trappings of art historical and market success. Bacon and Moore also shared the backing of two of the most eminent and influential critics, writers and exhibition curators of the period, David Sylvester and John Russell. The complete catalogue of Moore’s work already exists – needless to say his records are in meticulous order, and his studios are on permanent view at the Henry Moore Foundation. Bacon’s complete catalogue is in process. His chaotic studio – 7,000 items including over 100 slashed canvases – has been painstakingly conserved and is on permanent view at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin.
Bacon and Moore together have been seen before on a small scale in shows at their shared commercial gallery, Marlborough Fine Art, and in other gallery anthologies, but never in a museum and with this level of attention. It certainly makes you look – and think: the sculpture of Moore becomes darker, even more powerfully emotive, and the fervent, savage emotion of Bacon’s paintings more formally conceived and highly wrought.
What we are asked to contemplate are two kinds of artists, visibly so different, yet linked in so many ways. Neither was religious, yet Christian imagery is quarried for their art. What they have in common is an obsession with the human condition, perhaps more individual on the part of Bacon and more generalised on the part of Moore, and extraordinary international achievement, both worldly and aesthetic.