Skip to Content

Art Gallery of Ontario

Keyword Site Search

The Art

Exhibition dates

April 5 – July 20, 2014

Tickets

“My painting is not violent; its life itself that is violent.”
Francis Bacon
“...Everything in the world of form is understood through our own bodies.”
Henry Moore

Francis Bacon and Henry Moore lived in Britain at a time of intense political and social turmoil that included two world wars. The artists – regarded as two of the greatest artists of the 20th century – had very different personalities and approaches to making art, yet both expressed their experiences of conflict and trauma through lifelong explorations of the human figure. While Bacon’s images tend towards the more autobiographical and Moore’s works consistently embrace universal themes, there are some striking similarities in their work. Both distort, contort, tear apart and reassemble the body to capture the disturbing realities of 20th-century existence. In Francis Bacon and Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty, the artists’ works are paired to create a dialogue showing their shared awareness of human suffering and mortality that is also a testament to human strength and resilience.

The exhibition explores the following themes:

Blitz: The Time and the Place

The German Blitz on England from September 1940 to May 1941 killed thousands of civilians and demolished much of the city of London, where Francis Bacon and Henry Moore lived. Approximately 100,000 people fled to the Underground stations for refuge from nightly air raids. Moore’s studio was bombed, and for a while the portable art form of drawing became his primary medium. As an official war artist, he drew Londoners huddled together in the stations deep underground, referring to them as “hundreds of Henry Moore reclining figures stretched along the platform.” The photographer Bill Brandt also lived in London at that time. Specializing in night scenes, he took evocative moonlit photographs of London in eerie darkness during the blackouts, showing buildings in ruin and people crowding into improvised shelters.

Bodies: The Distorted and the Disturbed
Bacon and Moore distorted the human form to express the violent realities and anxieties of the 20th century. The trauma of war, a new interest in psychoanalysis and shifts in religious and philosophical beliefs shaped the environment in which they lived and created the backdrop for their art. Their subjects – sometimes mythical, often monstrous – are contorted, weathered, battered or suffering. Bacon wanted to provoke viewers by attacking their nervous system, stirring up emotions and forcing them to confront reality. The voids, scars, sockets and gouges in Moore’s dismembered bodies seem to allude to enduring hardships and suffering.

Crucifixions
Although Bacon and Moore were not religious, they both used Christian themes in their art. Living in an increasingly secular, horror-and-violence-conscious age, Bacon described himself as a militant atheist and nihilist who saw little purpose in existence. Moore was a humanist who valued human dignity and felt that people could lead meaningful and ethical lives without a belief in the supernatural. Both artists, however, made images of the Crucifixion as a universal symbol of suffering and evidence of people’s capacity to inflict harm on others. Bacon referred to the Crucifixion as “a magnificent armature on which you can hang all types of feeling and sensation.”

Popes
Bacon became obsessed with a portrait of Pope Innocent X made by Spanish painter Diego Velázquez in the 1600s, although he never saw the painting in person. Instead Bacon worked on a long series of pope paintings over 14 years, referencing his large collection of reproductions of the Velázquez painting in books, catalogues and postcards. Themes of screaming and confinement run through Bacon’s series. His popes are haunted, trapped and angry and have little connection to religion other than to possibly subvert the power of the church. As Bacon once said: “It comes from an obsession with the photograph that I know of Velázquez’s Pope Innocent X…because I think it is one of the greatest portraits that has ever been made… I buy book after book with this illustration in it of the Velázquez Pope because it just haunts me, and it opens up all sorts of feelings and…imagination.”

Hybrids
Bacon and Moore created animal-human hybrids that were influenced by Surrealism, a 20th-century movement in art and literature that drew on the creative potential of the unconscious mind. The tiny head of the child in Moore’s Maquette for Mother and Child, for example, appears to be ferociously attacking its mother’s breast like a bird of prey. Moore has said that most of his mother and child sculptures have had the larger form in a protective relationship with the smaller form, but “it isn’t always so with very young children or animals… I wanted this to seem as though the child was trying to devour its parent – as though the mother had to hold the child at arm’s length.” In Bacon’s paintings, such as Man Kneeling in Grass, humans often display the urges and assume the appearance of animals.

Vulnerability and Resilience
The sense of elation that followed the end of the Second World War soon gave way to angst after revelations of the full horror of the Holocaust and the new threat of the atomic bomb. Although Bacon’s paintings offer a more private and personal view of reality, his defenceless and exposed human figures still reflect the traumas of the time. During the post-war period, Moore created numerous warrior figures, infusing their forms with undertones of anxiety and vulnerability as well as aggression. Moore’s warriors are anti-heroes, heroes that strive and fail, yet he gives them dignity through their monumental size and stature. 

Share and Enjoy: