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We[1] went to the Bacon and Moore exhibition after brunch, making all the inevitable jokes about fancying some Moore Bacon which the title was so clearly designed to avoid.  The blurb in the first room boasted that never before had the most important British painter and sculptor of the twentieth century been showcased in a joint exhibition, and promised us both comparisons and contrasts.  The corridor before we reached this confident claim was cleverly lined with life-size pictures of both their studios.  The difference between the rag-splattered horror and the lines of smooth objects may have been more about how a medium looks whilst in progress, but it gave an opening feel of disparate personalities and approaches to art.  I commented that Moore’s studio already looked like a museum, and a friend pointed out that many of the pieces we could see on shelves and behind glass were objects and artworks he had placed there to work from, increasing the sense that his work rose from an ongoing process of organic creation which rolled through the centuries[2] and crested in him before carrying on.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of this exhibition was the way it provided a context for all those massive Moores in public places, which I had never been able to get much of a grip on.  The small sculptures and the drawings from the war years gave some sort of glimpse into the grammar of those larger pieces, framing them as developments of a personal vision of the human form, rather than as an alternative to an ornamental fountain.  What had often seemed to my ignorant eye rather trite variations on MOTHERHOOD or A CLASSICAL NUDE, BUT A BIT MODERN-LIKE will probably look different.  Certainly they’ll look like less assured and easy manifestations of a particular idea after looking at that series of heads with their faces both defined and obscured by thick dark brushstrokes.  And the mother and child motif will never look the same after his picture of three women in a bomb shelter, one with a child, grouped as three suffering Fates.

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Putting Bacon next to Moore made me a lot more aware of how much he cared about space.  Standing in front of the abject figures, with their twisted limbs and horror-movie faces, I started to notice how carefully defined the spaces around and behind them were.  That might be a function of the texture, which you don’t get in a reproduction, the physicality of the paint drawing attention to the architecture of the picture.  These slumped bodies and gaping mouths weren’t happening somewhere flat and elsewhere, but in a space which adjoined the one I stood in.  It made the paintings’ challenge stronger: who abjected these figures, the painter or the watcher?  What were we being part of by standing in the same room as whatever was going on?

The exhibition notes emphasized both artists’ obsessive focus on the body as the origin and return-point of art, suggesting that Bacon worked his way in violently, whereas Moore pushed out from the inside.  It was a helpful scheme for approaching the basic question many of the pieces posed: what has happened here?  What is this cry or this endurance uttered in the face of?  Less useful was the harping on the Second World War as the calamity which defined all this artistic activity, the unrepresentable trauma working its way out in the whole of twentieth-century art.  That seemed to risk making both men into part of the Spirit of the Age, and the exhibition was most interesting when it situated their yearning to represent basic and essential aspects of humanity in its particular historical moment.  It often felt that a great third term in this exhibition would have been Lucien Freud, whose concern with the body, expressed in a very different way and from a different generation, could have brought out what was characteristic about the two artists here.  It certainly might prompt thoughts about what sort of gaze we were being involved in as we looked at these bodies.

francis bacon


[1] Three academics, two publishers, an admissions officer and a teacher who paints.  The social worker couldn’t come and the one who works in the print room was working in the print room.  As we went into the museum there was this powerful whiff of Bourdieu, though it may have been just drains.

[2] I’m not saying it did, mind.

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