Monday, 23 September 2013

What are you made of?

'Flesh and Bone' Francis Bacon and Henry Moore at The Ashmolean, Oxford 
“There’s a layer of flesh around the muscle that shimmers with iridescence similar to that of mother of pearl. It’s surprisingly beautiful,” went  another normal conversation from two West Country dwellers on their way in the car to see an exhibition of Francis Bacon and Henry Moore’s work at The Ashmolean in Oxford. Ok, so I was listening to my friend’s account of having to once skin a deer (as you do) but unintentionally it couldn’t have actually been more appropriate way of setting the tone for what was going to be a very fleshy, meaty, bony, but also surprisingly beautiful sort of exhibition.  

Francis Bacon and Henry Moore at The Ashmolean, subtitled ‘Flesh and Bone’ features over sixty works from paintings, drawings and sculptures by the two artists (with the majority of work dating from the 1950’s and 60’s).

“Bacon concentrating on flesh, so mortal, so easily corrupted, and Moore on bone, the human remnant that survives for millennia.”

Until now the only known connection between the two artists was more to do with the fact that they worked during the same time, Bacon growing up within eleven years younger than Moore in the early 1900’s, surviving two world wars and both working simultaneously in London. However, the exhibition at The Ashmolean is the first exhibition to present selected Moore sculptures/drawings alongside Bacon’s paintings drawing attention to the parallels in themes, working practices and formal qualities the artists shared in their work. And let me tell you, the results are rather insightful!

This is a real curator’s type of exhibition, and by that I mean the real success and interest lies with how the show’s been put together in a way that two opposing artists have been reinterpreted as a result of being exhibited alongside each other; different, for example, from a retrospective or show whose aim is to represent a body or breadth of work. You can still expect to find several large scale Bacon paintings depicting distorted, painterly figures/bodies as well as the more solid, smooth, reclining figures of which Moore is renowned for. What is clever, is the curation of presenting the two together, it’s the kind of comparative analysis that art students are taught to put together in their visual culture essays, “what if you look at this artist, then another artist working with a different medium and then see what similarities/comparisons you can make between the two” Efforts often result in a thoughtful new insight into what otherwise has become familiar work. It opens new interpretation and thinking that can make us look at the work differently.

Moore’s Animal Head; and a detail from Bacon’s Portrait of Man with Glasses. Photographs: The Henry Moore Foundation; The Estate of Francis Bacon *

That’s what the curation of Bacon Moore does for the artists’ work at the Ashmolean. I looked for sculptural qualities in Bacon’s figures and admired the painterly quality and gesture in Moore’s drawings.  Perhaps what doesn’t translate as well or so easily for me is Moore’s actual sculptures which appear to be more dated and familiar over the years than Bacon’s paintings which still feel contemporary and stir what I can probably only describe as a more prompt, gut reaction than Moore’s sculptures which still leave me feeling a bit cold. However, Moore’s sculptures have all the more to gain from this exhibition as it’s the way I viewed his work that changed the most. I had always thought Moore’s figures as being in a state of calm, laid back (literally reclining in some cases), soft curving and undulated like the Yorkshire hills that helped inspire their form. But seeing them alongside Bacon has made them all the more sinister. What was once reclining now looks awkward, uncomfortable and even vulnerable. This reading is further developed with the addition of Moore’s shelter drawings; dark, intense images that Moore captured of people huddled, stooped and lying in shelters during World War Two. The figures in these drawings are more distorted, ghostly and malformed like that of Bacon’s figures. Making links between the formal qualities their works is now easier to see. Equally, I was surprised to see sculptural qualities in Bacon’s paintings (aside from the surfaces of his paintings which are in themselves quite sculptural) noticing how he placed his figures on ledges, edges, chairs or pedestals. Like a carcass of meat in a butcher’s window there is something chillingly voyeuristic and something of an awareness of presentation in how Bacon’s figures sit or lie within their constructed window-like frames.  Bodies in Bacon’s paintings appear moulded and shaped as though they were made of unset clay. Moore’s sculptures on the other hand become the solidified version of a Bacon painted from.

However for this joint exhibition of artists to work well, does the connection/the links that the curator is making between the work need to be believable? Or is it important for us, we the audience, to keep in mind that this is a proposed interpretation of the artists’ works and is not necessarily factual proof that the two artists influenced each other. Like the big exhibition, ‘Matisse Picasso’ at the Tate Modern from 2002, the connection is more speculative (however likely) rather than definitive. Not that any of that gets in the way of how one views the work, I don’t think, the distinctions between their work could be purely coincidental. What is clear, is that this is a rewarding exhibition to view, certainly challenging some of my preconceived thoughts of Bacon and Moore. If Picasso’s dictum, ‘Good artists copy, great artists steal.’ is to be believed then whether Bacon and Moore took inspiration or stole ideas from each other or not the fact that that it has taken us this long to notice can only be proof that as artists in their own ways they are both great.

Flesh and Bone is on at The Ashmolean, Oxford until January 19th, for more details visit:

 *Images from:

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