All the shadows of the last century trawl across the face of this exhibit. Francis Bacon and Henry Moore, ingeniously conjoined in the Ashmolean Museum’s aptly titled exhibition “Flesh and Bone” are transposed into “Terror and Beauty” by Dan Adler.

The central thesis is that war experiences defined their art, causing them to express suffering and victory through the body, yet this fails to plumb the full complexity of either era or their work. Bill Brandt’s photographs of the bombed city add authenticity to the theory, centered on the London Blitz when Moore made drawings of the people sleeping in the underground as part of the War Artists Advisory Committee’s program. Later, Brandt and Moore went down a coalmine to document the miners at work. Moore was already conceiving his reclining figure sculptures in these underground studies.

Ironically, Moore was a coal miner’s son while Bacon came from landed gentry and factory owners. Bacon volunteered for Air Raid Precautions, rescuing people from burning houses until his asthmatic condition forced his resignation.

Both artists achieved an unparalleled level of fame and exposure during the Cold War era. Just as the CIA promoted Abstract Expressionism, so the British Council encouraged the dissemination and reputation of their work. Moore’s universal themes like motherhood were deemed apolitical avant-garde figurative abstraction.

In Britain, two critics dominated the discourse about art. David Sylvester championed the existentialism manifested in Bacon, Moore, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, while John Berger spoke for the social realism that rather lamely materialized in the work of Pop artists like Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi. British artists, in contrast to European artists like Renato Guttuso and Fernand Leger, never really embraced the social realist discourse and were mainly enamored with American mass culture.

The key to understanding Bacon and Moore is existentialism. They inhabit their life and materials, allowing these to coalesce. This exhibition revives Moore’s strength as a sculptor of works relating to the human condition. Both artists cite Picasso’s brief flirtation with biomorphic structures as influential. The delicate balance between figurative and abstraction renders the terms meaningless. When Bacon makes a passing swoop with paint, he is imbuing the paint with life. For Moore, as he creates his forms, the lumps and holes contain ‘memories’ of bygone forms in a way that makes the sculpture pulsate with life.

The painted or sculpted figure is a stand-in for personal emotion, a form that becomes expressive of a deeper essence. For Bacon the accidental mark is a way of accessing unconscious meaning however his strokes are very deliberate. Framing devices to concentrate attention on the central, contorted proposition. Ominous shadows are given menace, inhabiting material form. Aerosol spray adds the lightest of touches, adding to the sense of wounds bleeding. The viewer derives a heightened sense of the visceral experience.

Thematically, Bacon is painting his life and by his own quoted words, denies reacting to war experiences, “I’m not upset by the fact that people do suffer, because I think the suffering of people and the differences between people are what have made great art, and not egalitarianism.” He sees beauty in dead bodies and immortalizes personal tragedies like lovers committing suicide, dispassionately. He is absolutely honest and obsessive, painting Velasquez’ Pope Innocent X over and over again with the screaming mouth motif, yet is never satisfied.

Moore finds universal symbols within the natural forms he uses. An inveterate collector of bones and pebbles, he meditates on these and feels his way to the finished sculptures intuitively through smaller maquettes. He finds Jungian archetypes in early Mayan sculpture and is concerned with the power of sculpture to dominate landscape or architecture. Yet there is also a subversive side to Moore, as one feels an Oedipal complex in these ‘humanist’ works. The Vorticist, Wyndham Lewis spoke of the lobster’s shell as protection and partially inspired his Helmet Heads, imbued with ‘hidden’ meaning. Moore was also active in the anti-nuclear effort, generating the more literal, Falling Warrior.

On view are a large selection of crucifixions, portraits, hybrid animal/human works like Moore’s Mother and Child, and Bacon’s Three Furies in Second Version of Triptych. Bacon and Moore are fascinating artists and despite reservations, this exhibition succeeds in bringing their magnificent contribution back to mind.

AGO, Toronto
April 5 – July 20, 2014