Today I revisited the AGO show “Francis Bacon Henry Moore Terror and Beauty” (or FBHM for short) that I wrote about at the beginning of April. I’m on holiday today even if it’s a rainy spring day. I saw the show again, then sat through two short documentary films (one for each of the British artists), then walked through the massive Henry Moores at the extreme east end of the floor, overlooking McCaul. As expected you don’t see them the same way, once you’ve experienced Moore in context with Bacon (and Brandt).
The upstairs Dundas corridor and its coffee bar beckoned, an opportunity to simply let it all sink in.
As the parenthetical addition in the title makes clear, this is really a show with three artists, even if the third isn’t understood as a peer of the first two, but more like an opening act for the two big attractions.
Even so, Bill Brandt plays a huge role in this show. The chemistry between these three is one of several aspects of FBHM for which curator Dan Adler must be congratulated and thanked.
As readers of this blog know I regularly attend opera and new music concerts. As a concerned audience member, as an academic I am constantly wondering: how does one build an audience? When an interpretation is transgressive or risky, how does one prepare an audience, especially if they’re likely to be hostile? I have heard genuine anger from people concerning recent Handel productions at the Canadian Opera Company (both Hercules and Semele) that I loved without reservation. What is an artistic director to do?
And then I stumbled –again– into FBHM, as enraptured today at the end of April as I was at the beginning of the month. I wonder if we can see what Dan Adler did as a kind of prototype.
Instead of just presenting Moore & Bacon with the usual accompanying text & history, we get an additional inspired stroke. Bill Brandt’s pictures remind me of nothing so much as pop-up video, a visual gloss upon a very complex series of artworks that require not just the usual scholarly explanations, but something to prepare our eyes.
The analogy may seem unhelpful, considering that one can’t very well imagine pop-up video during an opera or concert. But then again: what if the COC or the TSO offered some kind of running textual commentary on mobile phones, so that some people could opt-in for a curated performance experience? Or perhaps some kind of powerpoint slides that would come up on our personal devices at the key moments when we might benefit from having something decoded or unpacked a bit? I know I know, those who see mobile phones as Satan’s playtoys would see me as wearing the mark of the beast. But I am just brain-storming, looking for a way to help get inside complex works. Offering the pre-show talks simply isn’t enough, especially for those of us who simply don’t have the extra time.
Some of the things Adler gives us are devastatingly simple, possibly obvious. We see Brandt’s photographs of people sleeping in the tubes during the London Blitz. He puts a few alongside studies Moore made of reclining figures, forever changing –for me at least–the way I’ll see those reclining figures. Obvious content is usually important, but sometimes is suppressed in cultural marketing because people sometimes want to appear subtle, refined, sophisticated. In fact I suspect Adler might have meant to have more such images in the last powerful room showing us images pertaining to war, except that maybe those are so well-known that he felt we didn’t need any help. All I am saying is that simple learning tools are sometimes the best ones. Bravo Dan Adler!
Let me add that on this, my second time through, I saw a few things I missed the first time.
In the room of crucifixions –an odd idea from a pair of atheist artists don’t you think?–the approach of each artist to the subject is decidedly different. Moore shows people on the way to death or dead, bodies suffering, dying, dead, turning from flesh to thing, from damaged life to dishonored object. His images, living or dead, seem impersonal and universal. Bacon has a remarkable crucifixion for an atheist, a figure that could be a painting of the energy field of a god (or dare I say it, God?). This isn‘t someone dying, it‘s someone powerful, seemingly ready to leap out of the painting. It might be the most spiritual crucifixion I’ve ever seen. How funny that i only noticed this after living through Easter.
If it were up to me I’d change something, though (a minor thing really). Last time I walked directly towards one of the popes, which drew me inexorably to the right, into the room with similar paintings. Only much later did I see the small picture of Velasquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X, an image that obsessed Bacon and is a key piece of subtext for Bacon’s Pope paintings. Today I serendipitously wandered left to avoid a bit of a crowd in front of a Pope, and so this time I saw Velasquez’s Pope first: the way Bacon experienced it. As a result it gave me a kind of preparation and framed my visual sensibility in much the same way that Brandt’s photos had framed the reclining figures I spoke of earlier. An explanation after the fact is all very well, but not as powerful as the chance to experience a gut-level emotional responses, as I had today. The way it’s laid out, the only way you’d be lucky enough to have it in the sequence I had today is if you get a bunch of people blocking your view of the famous painting: which come to think of it can happen at a show with famous paintings. Today –if I don’t’ miss my guess– Adler was actually in the gallery, taking a tour around while explaining his choices. Wonderful as most of them are, I think this one –where I believe I heard him say he wanted us to walk into the room seeing this–is a mistake. As there’s no way they would ever put a humongous reproduction (haha or the original) of the Velasquez in front of us as we enter the room, yet that’s really what we need, to experience Bacon with some insight into what Bacon himself felt. I luckily stumbled upon it by accident.
I’ve understood those Popes for years as very rich & complex paintings so I am not saying I didn’t get them before and now I understand them. Yet I saw things differently today. Yes I’ve understood these images as complex & ambiguous even as they’ve scared me and creeped me out. On the one hand we see powerful people, but at the same time they’re in a virtual prison or electric chair. On the one hand they seem to be strong, but are they perhaps trapped by their role and the world they inhabit? The chair or throne of a regal personage is a symbol of their office, and so sitting enacts ruling. In person I think these big paintings look much more vulnerable & human than what we get in reproductions. Bottom line, is that art books and posters are often a terrible substitute for the real colours of the original painting.
I enjoyed the way Adler set up the parallels between the two artists. Some were startling, such as the room of crucifixions (a subject I wouldn‘t have expected from either artist). I’d been fascinated by the obvious contrasts:
- Moore is abstract while Bacon seems very specific
- Moore is depersonalized while Bacon’s humanity is very individualized
- Moore rarely shows a male while Bacon mostly shows males
- Moore seems to come from the inside, showing us bones and morphological structure, while Bacon seems to flay off the surface skin, showing us messy and smeared views
- Moore seems to strive for symbolic & archetypal while Bacon seems to aim for instantaneous effects of heads and eyes moving, something unexpected, shocking, and dramatic
But we do get the occasional convergence. There’s the room with bodies, where Bacon’s “Two Studies from the human body” and “Untitled” (kneeling figure) are missing the usual gore, and instead are the same sort of curvaceous and impersonal shapes Moore usually makes as in his “Three quarter Figures: Lines” or “Woman”.
And one of the last parts of the show gives us something military, with several armed figures from Moore, suggesting classical warfare. I suppose the parallel between Moore’s Atom Piece and the avatar of power in Bacon’s “Untitled” (marching figures) shouldn’t surprise me. I called attention to one of the most wonderful sight-lines of the show, where you can see the clear parallel Adler is drawing with a photo i took.
Note that Bacon’s painting is a huge departure from his usual practice, because he depersonalized his warriors. The title could be “Hail Victory” or perhaps “Sieg Heil” as the tooth-shape somehow appeals to the faceless hordes loyally marching past. Notice too that there is a transparent box as in his Pope portraits. Are these soldiers marching into a symbolic trap (comparable to the prisons of his popes)?
In the documentary film about Bacon (easily missed because these two films are outside the show space…make sure you see them both!) the painter notes something that could be a kind of explanation of his work. The game of art, he says, will become more difficult, because ever more violent images will be required to return us to life. So in other words, I guess the screams and contortions can be read as his attempts to return us to life, to make his paintings live. He described an intuitive process to his painting, and said that at a certain point chance takes over: “when I don’t know what I’m doing”. Bacon said he’d studied the works of the great masters, particularly Rembrandt & Velasquez. And he pronounced his painting of the Popes –influenced by Velasquez– as a series of failures, claiming that he was “tampering”.