ArtSmart Roundtable: Francis Bacon & Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty at AGO, Toronto

Monday, April 14th, 2014. Filed under: Art ArtSmart Roundtable Canada Toronto

A new exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario pairs work by two giants of 20th century British art: sculptor Henry Moore and painter Francis Bacon.

Welcome to the ArtSmart Roundtable! Our theme this month is Sculpture. I’m excited to talk about British sculptor Henry Moore and the major new exhibition Francis Bacon & Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty now open at the Art Gallery of Ontario. For more on the ArtSmart Roundtable and links to my colleagues’ articles, scroll to the end of this post.

Toronto’s remarkable relationship with Henry Moore (1898-1986) began in 1958 when Finnish architect Viljo Revell won the competition to design Toronto’s City Hall. Revell recommended the city purchase one of Moore’s bronze sculptures to accent the modernist building. A controversy erupted, a mayor lost an election, and it was up to the city’s citizens to raise over $100,000 to purchase Moore’s Three Way Piece No. 2  (The Archer) (1964-65) for Civic Square.

The enthusiasm of Torontonians so impressed Moore that, in 1974, he gifted the Art Gallery of Ontario with more than 900 sculptures and works on paper. The AGO’s Henry Moore Sculpture Centre is a serene, skylit space. Usually on display are large plaster works, bronzes, works on paper and the organic objects–stones and bones–that inspired Moore. At a variety of interactive stations, visitors can listen to Moore explain why he became a sculptor, learn how bronzes are made from plaster, and watch rare archival footage of the installation of the eight-ton bronze Large Two Forms located outside at the AGO’s northeast corner.

The current AGO exhibition Francis Bacon & Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty brings together two titans of 20th-century British art, drawing especially on their experiences during World War II.  Though they were neither friends nor collaborators, and had very different personalities, sculptor Henry Moore (1898-1986) and painter Francis Bacon (1909-1992)  were contemporaries who lived through two World Wars and shared themes of suffering and survival related to the human body.

Like much of Henry Moore’s sculpture, Seated Woman Thin Neck (1961) was inspired by bones.

Speaking at a media preview held April 2, 2014, Dr. Francis Warner, Emeritus Fellow, St. Peter’s College, University of Oxford, said Moore and Bacon were ‘two sides of one coin”. Influenced by the war-scarred first half of the 20th century, they immeasurably influenced artists of the second half. Dr. Warner described Henry Moore as “lord of the archetypes”, able to see past the particular to the universal. While Francis Bacon’s art is immediate and visceral, Moore’s work expresses timeless, stoic resignation. Both artists expressed the vulnerability and anxiety of their era.

Both artists also served in wartime. Francis Bacon volunteered for London civil defense WWII, working full-time in ARP (Air Raid Precautions) amid hellish scenes of fire and wounded until sidelined by severe asthma.  A very young Henry Moore fought in WWI for two years until sent home after being gassed. During WWII, Moore was an official war artist whose experiences during the London Blitz forever informed his work. Moore’s 1940-41 drawings of shelterers in the London Underground are accompanied in the AGO exhibition by his quote: “I had never seen so many reclining figures and even the holes out of which the trains were coming seemed to me like holes in my sculpture.”

Workiing Model for UNESCO Reclining Figure (1957), plaster, by Henry Moore. Collection: AGO

According to Dr. Warner, Moore never forgot Canadian assistance to wartime Britain. It was part of the reason for his extraordinary gift to the Art Gallery of Ontario. Dr. Warner noted that theirs is the last generation to know what they endured and personally thanked Canadians for their aid and sacrifice.

Mary Moore, the artist’s daughter, was also present at the AGO preview. In a 2008 Guardian article, she explained that her father was “…born in 1898, and if you look at Victorian art, it was entirely narrative. He broke away from that. He was making sculpture and asking you to use your visual muscle to appreciate this shape without a narrative implied in it. He invented a language we now take for granted as part of our vocabulary.”

Woman (1957-58), plaster, by Henry Moore and Untitled (Kneeling Figure) (1982), oil on canvas, by Francis Bacon. The Moore sculpture emphasizes fertility, ‘like the Paleolithic Venuses’. Due to great human losses, fertility was a high priority in post-war Britain.

Are Henry Moore and Francis Bacon meaningful today? Matthew Teitelbaum, Director and CEO of the Art Gallery of Ontario, noted that the AGO exhibition is a contemporary exhibition, saying “All great art comes alive in the contemporary moment.”  According to Dr. Warner, the takeaway message is:  Trust your humanity. Trust the human spirit.

Francis Bacon & Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty  was originally curated by Richard Calvocoressi CBE, Director of the Henry Moore Foundation and Martin Harrison, editor of the catalogue raisonné on Francis Bacon. Organized by the AGO in conjunction with the Ashmolean Museum, UK, the exhibition features over 130 works by Moore and Bacon, photographs and other archival material drawn from the AGO collection and other institutions including MoMA, Tate Britain and the Museo de Belles Arte, Bilbao. Guest curator Dan Adler, Associate Professor of art history at York University, paired pieces by mood and subject matter.

Francis Bacon & Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty runs at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, until July 20, 2014.

If you’re inspired to visit Moore’s home and studio in Hertfordshire, England, or want to learn more about his life and work, see the Henry Moore Foundation.

Give us ‘Moore’:  a recent Guardian article on Moore’s legacy and influence.

The Art Gallery of Ontario has one of the best Henry Moore collections in the world. Here, Large Two Forms (1966 and 1969).

The ArtSmart Roundtable is a group of informed art and travel bloggers on a mission to help you understand the art you come across every day and around the world.  Roundtable members publish each month on a chosen topic. Catch us on Facebook and be sure to check out this month’s Sculpture posts:

Erin – The Overlooked Reliquary

Christina – Man and Myth: Statues of Abraham Lincoln

Murissa -The History & Highlights of Peggy Guggenheim’s Sculpture Garden, Venice

Alexandra – 8 exquisite sculptures at the Archaeological Museum in Florence

Pal/Lydian – Botero’s Voluminous Sculptures Around the World 

Ashley – Rodin’s Thinker

Jenna – A Sense of Place Through Sculpture

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