Bacon & Moore meet where the body gets desecrated
The human body is an extraordinary miracle. We are sentient but frail, slow compared to so many other species, delicately assembled and softly fleshy which is why we have had to build technologies to make us capable of the things we imagine. This is one way to look at things. Late British painter Francis Bacon however believed us to be a composite of our drives and thought we are sensual beings that devour and conquer our way through life.
The new exhibition at the AGO, Bacon Moore: Terror and Beauty is a succinct account of how two very different artists reacted and transcended the horrors of the 20th century. All the work in the exhibition is an examination of the human body and various assaults enacted upon it by modernity, technology and self revelation.
In Yorkshire, England Moore is an icon and hero. His work is recognized as putting Britain’s 20th century self into focus. He perhaps pushed a less defiant Britain into view; a nation battered by wars, struggling with that aftermath and unsure of a future as its economy seemed to get worse even after victory.
A few years ago I went to see Moore’s drawings of people sleeping in the London underground. I am from Toronto so you get really familiar with Moore’s sculpture at a young age, as they are in a lot of important places in the city. However I was never that familiar with his Britishness, or should I say Yorkhireness until I did my residency there. The drawings were in Leeds where the Moore Institute is. I became very emotional, something that surprised me because I had always regarded Moore’s work as cold. My partner’s mother lived in an air raid shelter while she was a little girl and to this day finds the night sky unsettling, that coupled with the fact that these works present the human form in the most wonderfully delicate and fragile way brought me to tears. They are simply some of the best war imagery that has ever been made by an artist.
I had my doubts about how Moore’s work and these fragile little images would sit comfortably beside Bacon’s sexually violent carnival of imagery. Not only do they work perfectly with Bacon’s excruciating studies of the body under extremes but the works compliment each other in profound and inspiring ways. Its a rare event today that an art exhibition subtly blows your mind, most of the time you have to wade through bombast just to find meaning. This exhibition is a cautionary exploration of our frailty. Its relevance is undeniable as I thought about drones and the widening distance between technology and our fleshy selves.
Moore moved effortlessly from coal mining to drawing the air raid shelters, the world underground and its crumpled bodies. Bacon became ever more fixated with body parts that were violently tangled, teeth caught in screaming and portraits of people as chaotic masses of flesh. Both experienced the war and its ruinous impact in different ways, both transcended reactionary ideas. Together the works successfully blend a beautiful/horrible, non-verbal, anti-intellectual experience.
I have spent a lot of time in the last few years yearning for an art exhibition that moves me. I see so many exhibitions that are about thinking, about ideas, about conceptual experiences. After living in the woods for fourteen years I no longer believe in my heart that we are the best of the Earth’s species, so I am not drawn to this exuberance artists have today about our inventions. I dunno, I haven’t totally thought it all through. Seeing these men’s work in a context that holds compassion and horror as a focus struck me as revelatory. Who we are is a question for a philosopher but artists like Moore and Bacon show us what we do.
And what we do to each other is written on our bodies. It is through the violence of war, the violence of sex, the violence of working beneath the earth we find out how frail we are. Trapped by this frailty we search for power beyond our means because we are miracles that can also imagine a night sky filled with constellations not bombs, intimacy without pain and being able to stretch out our limbs and rest in peaceful eternity.