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An Edwardian landowner’s son, regularly horsewhipped and never loved, grows up to feel most at home in the metropolitan homosexual underworld. A Victorian miner’s child, cosseted by and cosseting his mother – he would rub her rheumatic back with oil every day on his return from school – becomes a loving husband and father, securely at home in his country estate. Well, of course these twin giants of postwar British art would produce staggeringly different work.

But did they? The Ashmolean Museum’s new exhibition Bacon/Moore: Flesh and Bone is a brilliant pairing (obvious now, yet never before attempted by a museum) that overwhelms the familiar psychological reading with something larger: the impact of the cultural moment on individual genius. It invites us to see both artists as the culmination of the Renaissance tradition as they responded to 20th-century terror. The violent, fluid Bacon and the stable, reassuring Moore represent mirror images of the same concerns: the reinvention of the human form following atrocity and Holocaust, and attempts to employ Christian iconography in a secular age. There are also, formally, efforts to escape Picasso’s influence, while renewing art’s figurative impulse in an era dominated by abstraction.

These are big themes for a big show – the first to make serious use of the Ashmolean’s dramatic, double-height exhibition spaces inaugurated in 2009. Here Moore’s magisterial “King and Queen” (1952-53) – remote, inscrutable authority figures inspired by a hieratic Egyptian sculpture of seated court officials but made vulnerable by their stricken, squashed heads – resonates with the paradox of Bacon’s sumptuously splendid, infantilised, caged pontiff in “Study from Portrait of Pope Innocent X” (1965). This shriek in silk and velvet was Bacon’s own assault on authority while paying homage to Velázquez.

In the same gallery soars Moore’s 11ft-high “Three Upright Motives”. These totem pole-like structures are built up from a series of near-toppling hard/soft forms, the central one suggesting a worn-down body and a cross merged together, and the trio assuming the aspect of a crucifixion scene. Bacon responds with the blood-red, enormous second version of “Triptych 1944” – the mutilated, darting, semi-human fragments that are “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion”.

Henry Moore’s ‘Three Upright Motives’ (1955-56)

Bacon worked from the outside in. He disintegrated form and fixed physical appearance at the moment of dissolution – death shadowing life as in the great “Two Figures in a Room” (1959). Here, the spiralling deformation of a fleshy crouching nude and its green silhouette are derived from a fusion of a figure in Matisse’s “Bather with a Turtle” and a photograph of a cameraman mauled by a lion in Africa. Moore, by contrast, worked from the inside out. He pushed anatomical structure to the surface – from the bonelike shapes on a table-top in “Composition” (1934) to the streamlined, naturalistic “Three Standing Figures” (1945) to the sinuous, simplified plaster “Three Quarter Figure: Lines” (1980).

If these juxtapositions declare the difference between a sculptor whose abstracted forms suggest strength, endurance and solidity, and a painter whose subject was flux and chance, a common language also becomes clear: human figures isolated in the environment, monumental but vulnerable, evolving in both artists’ oeuvre over half a century towards an increasing simplicity yet grandeur of form.

Bacon’s ‘Lying Figure in a Mirror’ (1971)

A particularly arresting mise-en-scène has Moore’s skeletal, almost transparent “Reclining Figure, Festival”, tense and wary, laid out beneath Bacon’s sparse yet alert “Lying Figure in a Mirror”, whose smeared, glissando yellow surface echoes the sculpture’s smooth bronze. In another, one of Moore’s most poignant, vividly textured sculptures, “Falling Warrior”, demonstrating his new concern with movement in the late 1950s, lies alongside Bacon’s unflinching “Portrait of Henrietta Moraes”, the half-reclining, half-falling body outlined in intense blood red in shocking counterpoint to the off-white bed sheets.

Affinities are drawn out here that repeatedly surprise and enlighten. Take Moore’s aggressive, angular cast-iron “Three Points”. It evokes not only the open jaws of the frightened horse and weeping mother in Picasso’s “Guernica” but also Bacon’s recurring motif of the open mouth and menacing tongue – as in the “Innocent X” series and the howling animal-like “Head II”, whose dense, leathery, impasto brushwork manifests Bacon’s desire “to paint like Velázquez but with the texture of a hippopotamus skin”.

Moore’s ‘Reclining Figure: Festival’ (1951)

We see, too, how both artists achieve expressiveness through broken, truncated forms. Moore’s limbless “Woman”, with a massive body emphasised by a small head, looks back to prehistoric fertility statues such as the Venus of Willendorf, while Bacon’s sculptural torso evokes an unfinished monument on a plinth, in “Untitled (Kneeling Figure)”.

Moore appears in this selection more interestingly anguished than we might expect. His “Animal Head” resembles a skull; in “Maquette for Mother and Child” the maternal figure fights to stop the child attacking and devouring her breast as if it were a bird of prey; and there is a subdued violence to his scratched “Openwork Head No 2”, inspired by a Benin bronze of a tiger attacking a man.

With Bacon, the revelation is the sculptural impetus of his compositions. We are accustomed to considering his painting in conversation with photography and the moving image; here, the context illuminates an engagement with sculpture – “Studio Interior”, a rare, privately owned 1936 pastel (Bacon destroyed almost all his pre-1944 work) depicts two sculptural forms competing with a blank canvas.

Bacon’s dialogue with sculpture continues in the plasticity of his figures; their monumental presentation on pedestals (the hunched simian creature in “Two Studies from the Human Body”) or in vitrines (“Two Figures”, a copulating pair with one leg breaking through the glass); and the way they dominate space.

Moore’s ‘Animal Head’ (1951)

A display from the Ashmolean’s collection of Michelangelo and Rodin drawings underlines the importance of both masters as life-long sources for the 20th-century artists. “Falling Warrior” transposes Christ’s legs in Michelangelo’s “Rondanini Pietà”; Bacon’s “Seated Figure” imitates the unstable pose of the Medici Chapel’s “Evening”, with the outstretched leg an adaptation of a dynamic Rodin pose. The cropped sculptural figure moving sidewards in “Painting” owes its heroic dimensions and voluptuous gesture to Michelangelo.

“Sculpture is the best comment a painter can make on his paintings,” Picasso said; he often turned to sculpture when he reached an impasse in painting. Bacon, too, sought sculptural solutions to painterly problems but did not need to make three-dimensional works because “through thinking of [images] as sculptures it suddenly came to me how I could make them in paint, and do them much better in paint”. No show has demonstrated that process more lucidly – or dramatised so compellingly stories of influence, Zeitgeist and the ever-evolving relationship between art’s two most ancient, enduring media.

‘Bacon/Moore: Flesh and Bone’, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, until January 5, www.ashmolean.org

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