Monday, 18 October 2021

Shock and awe at unlikely meeting of two art Titans

The latest art exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum is attracting critical acclaim from critics all over the country. LESLEY POTTER

The latest art exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum is attracting critical acclaim from critics all over the country. LESLEY POTTER went to view some of the most famous works of painter Francis Bacon and sculptor Henry Moore.

TWO giant photographs in the form of murals adorn the entrance to this new exhibition at the Ashmolean, Francis Bacon, Henry Moore: Flesh And Bone. One is Henry Moore’s studio in Bourne, the other is Francis Bacon’s studio in Reece Mews, London.

What they share in common is that ethereal atmosphere that all artists’ studios have — the sense that here is a workplace like no other. Each is filled with the tools and paraphernalia of creativity, but each also breathes with the strange other-wordliness of a space dedicated to freedom of thought and expression.

But that is where the similarity between these two studios end.

While Moore’s workspace is filled with little maquettes and resembles the collecting room of a Victorian gentleman with shelves, drawers and cupboards housing row upon row of miniature sculptures, Bacon’s studio is a riot. There are shelves and tables, but these are cluttered pell-mell with piles of books, papers, photos, newspaper cuttings and jam jars crammed with dirty brushes. The floor is covered in what looks like rubbish so that it’s impossible to see how the artist or any of his muses could pick their way through the detritus. The walls are daubed in giant splashes of paint in a variety of colours. In the middle of all the chaos is an empty cardboard crate of VAT 69.

Placing these murals at the entrance to the exhibition is a master-stroke of genius because they illustrate in one simple flash the differences between these two Titans of 20th century art. Moore is the cool master craftsman whose work is a studied, thoughtful homage to antiquity and to the beauty of his medium, while Bacon’s work is the disturbing mess that results when an artist allows himself to truly break loose of all boundaries and think the unthinkable.

This is not the first time works from the two artists have been exhibited together. Although their work is vastly different, they each present fresh and unforgettable images of the human figure. Both were fascinated by sculpture, particularly that of Michelangelo, and both had been touched by world wars. The aim of this exhibition is to shine a light on these influences.

There are 20 paintings by Bacon, as well as 20 sculptures and 20 drawings by Moore spread across three rooms, but there are some other little gems on show, too, such as drawings by Michelangelo and two beautiful bronzes by Rodin, including The Thinker.

The large-scale Moore sculptures do not really offer any surprises. King And Queen are terribly regal, and Three Upright Motives loom three metres overhead like monoliths from the Easter Islands. His smaller works, such as Helmet Head And Shoulders, offer a more haunting insight into his thinking about the dehumanising effects of war, as do his line drawings of people sheltering from the Blitz in the London Underground which he drew as an official war artist.

Other drawings are quite simply exquisite, not only in their execution but in their unusual subject matter. Sheets Of Heads Showing Sections is a three-tiered cabinet displaying 18 different human heads in miniature, each with a different section of skull missing, leaving hollows where there should be brains. They are obviously studies for the unusual depictions of the human head in Moore’s sculptures, but the way they are organised in this drawing is unnerving. The fact they are stacked neatly one above the other evokes a kind of inhuman obsession one would normally associate with the Nazis.

Moore’s work on display here is devoid of faces — even the face of Christ in his crucifixion drawings is vague and shadowy. Instead, human emotions are evoked through the starkness of faceless figures, and the beauty of the sculptures passes the acid test of all brilliant stonework in that your overwhelming desire upon looking at them is to stroke them.

Bacon’s work is similarly faceless, and his models nearly always nameless. His figures are squat, full-bodied and naked set against a stark background. The effect is startling. Very often you imagine the characters in his pictures to be silently screaming.

Francis Bacon’s reputation is that of a shock-merchant. His work is in-your-face and disturbing to the point of being uncomfortable to look at. He said himself, after the death of his lover Peter Lacy in 1962, that his work was “ugly” and that he yearned to make something beautiful.

Yet there is a strange beauty to some of his canvases. He is the master of line, with the most simple of bold brushstrokes evoking the curve of a calf or a thigh in a way that is honest and true. His Portrait Of Henrietta Moraes, where a woman with a distorted face sprawls over a huge white bed, is simple and haunting but also incredibly beautiful with its limited palette of reds, whites and greys. There are examples of Bacon’s work that point to the influence of the Surrealists, such as Painting, 1950, in which a naked man, his body depicted in anatomical detail like a Michelangelo drawing, walks along while his shadow lurches forward, as if his soul is stepping away from his flesh.

This is one of the best exhibitions to hit our local area in years and it is a rare treat that such mammoth artists from the 20th century feature in an exhibition in the shires. In particular, it’s a rare chance to see such famous works as Bacon’s horrifying Second Version Of Triptych 1944 and Moore’s elegant King And Queen at close hand, and without the London crowds.

* Continues to January 19, 2014. Visit for details.

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