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Opposites attract

For the first time ever, Toronto audiences can marvel at the works of British artist Francis Bacon. The recently opened exhibition, Francis Bacon and Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty at the Art Gallery of Ontario pairs major Bacon paintings with sculptures and drawings by fellow Brit Henry Moore.

And if it seems like a pairing of opposites in medium, style and temperament—the gay, tortured bohemian versus the straight, establishment artist—the exhibition will surprise and reveal their shared influences and experiences: both artists wrestled with human form and the human condition.

A conversation with the AGO’s Interpretive Planner Gillian McIntyre helps put their similarities in the proper context.

Because we have the opportunity to always see lots of Henry Moore in Toronto, I’m going to focus on Bacon, if that’s okay with you.
Yes, though viewers will find that Moore is quite surprising in this show.  
Terror and Beauty is the title of the exhibition. In a previous pairing, the exhibition was titled Flesh and Bone, drawing the viewer close to both artists’ preoccupation with the body. Does shifting the title to

Terror and Beauty broaden the focus on the human psyche? Can we talk about concepts of terror and beauty as they manifest in Bacon’s work?
First of all, it’s a different exhibition than the earlier one with different pieces and a different focus. But these questions aren’t easy: what I realize when talking about Bacon’s work is that he didn’t want people to look at it and create an easy narrative. You have to let his work in viscerally. Reproductions absolutely don’t do justice to the paintings; describing the paintings doesn’t do them justice. As for the [words] terror and beauty, the 20th century was interesting. While every century has violence, every century has war, WWII brought war to the streets, to the doorsteps of the people. All through Bacon’s life there was violence. Beginning in his childhood there was personal violence; he had a very difficult relationship with his father who had his stable hands beat Francis so that he wouldn’t be so effeminate. He develops a sado-masochistic streak: he needed the terror, he needed the pain. He refers to violence a lot… he needed it to feel something. These paintings come from intense emotions and trauma. One of the quotes I put on the wall from Bacon references all of the things he lived through: two world wars, Sinn Fein, Hiroshima, Hitler and, “After all that they want me to paint bunches of pink flowers… that’s not my thing.” There is beauty in his painting, despite the fact that he was a nihilist and thought that there was no point in human existence and that the only thing to do was to enjoy oneself as much as possible. He is constantly savouring life, squeezing the max out of life.

Bacon wasn’t religious. He admired the Velazquez version of Pope Innocent X, but it couldn’t have been as simple as an homage to Velazquez’ facility with paint. There was something about the figure of the Pope that he kept coming back to.
He had various obsessions that he came back to over and over like his obsessive portraits of the Pope. A lot of scholarship circles around this. Of course Pope, in Italian, is Il Papa, so some feel that an element in the paintings refers to the fraught relationship with his father. Others highlight the fact that he was Protestant, born in Ireland, so pulling the rug from underneath the Catholic Church wouldn’t have been a bad thing. But there are many influences in his Pope paintings such as the screaming nanny from Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin. Bacon was obsessed by the mouth and teeth and said he wanted to paint mouths as beautifully as Monet painted sunsets. Anyway, he used the Pope image to convey a lot of strong emotions. It’s a mixture of things coming out of his subconscious.

I wanted to talk about the influence of the photographs of Muybridge.  It leads to an interesting discussion of photography as it relates to Bacon’s work.
Bacon had lots of photographs in his studio, including the commissioned photographs from John Deakin. Bacon rarely painted from live sitters, but instead from photographs of his friends and lovers. Yes, he was fascinated with the way animals moved. He liked Muybridge’s photographs of the bodies, the wrestlers, their homo-erotic element. He used the wrestlers as the basis of the coupled figures, like Two Figures in a Room. Though, as David Sylvester notes, the photographs of the wrestlers looked more pornographic than Bacon’s coupled men. In the exhibition audio guide Mark Kingwell talks about the philosophy of the time and references the Two Figures work from 1967, in context of England’s Sex Offenses Act of that same year, which was the first time consenting males could legally have sex. Actually Bacon didn’t necessarily rejoice in that landmark decision as he enjoyed transgressing.

Did he paint his lovers differently than he painted his other sitters?
When you first walk into the exhibition there is a painting of long-time lover George Dyer titled Three Figures and a Portrait. George’s personality is there and the impression that he was falling apart, which he was. There’s no tenderness but very strong feeling. There is some benevolence when he paints John Edwards, who was a friend at the end of Bacon’s life, but they had more of a father-son relationship.

Is it true that Francis Bacon turned up drunk at Henry Moore’s door to ask for lessons in how to make sculpture?
Yes, it’s true. Henry was having a dinner party and it had to be delayed while he spoke to Bacon. But the lessons never came to pass. Bacon was a painter.


Francis Bacon and Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty. To July 20. AGO. 317 Dundas St. W. ago.net.

PAMELA meredith is TD Bank Group’s senior curator.