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The Brutality of Fact

Tom Clucas

Ashmolean Museum
Francis Bacon Henry Moore: Flesh and Bone
12 September 2013 to 19th January 2014

Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure (1951) next to Francis Bacon’s Lying Figure (1971): in short, this works. If anything, the comparison is too convincing. The mirror around the figure in Bacon’s painting seeks to replicate the three-dimensional spaces in Moore’s sculpture. His painting longs to become sculpture, except, of course, in Bacon’s version the figure seems to have melted. Pleasingly, the curators of this exhibition have not opted for the most tempting comparisons, like the one made on its website. Instead, Moore’s figure reclines in the main, high-ceilinged room under Bacon’s paintings of the Furies (Second Version of Triptych, 1988). Bacon’s Lying Figure is present, but it hangs on the wall to the right, making a triangle of mirrors. The effect is profound: it feels like looking up at an actual crucifixion, with an odd sense that Moore’s bronze-work has been deposed from one of the crosses.

This exhibition cleverly avoids portraying Bacon as a two-dimensional disciple of the sculptor whom he famously approached for lessons. His presence in the first room feels a little tentative, though the juxtaposition of Portrait of Henrietta Moraes (1963) with Moore’s Falling Warrior (1956-7) hints at what is to come. The second room is unanswerably powerful. In her Annual Lecture for the Poetry Society (to be published in the next edition of Poetry Review), Anne Carson claimed of Francis Bacon that ‘the genius answer to cliché is catastrophe’. The catastrophic figures in this room—both Bacon’s and Moore’s—feel like unflinching attempts to banish every cliché from depictions of the human form. The tension between them is hugely productive. In his famous interviews with David Sylvester, Bacon claimed that he wanted to ‘make us see something we don’t yet have eyes for’. Standing between Moore’s Three Upright Motives (1955-6) and Bacon’s Two Figures in a Room (1959), you can appreciate this. It feels like looking into the future: Moore’s sculptures exude an almost transhumanist confidence, while Bacon’s paintings provide the humanist critique—the flesh to Moore’s stone. How much suffering, they seem to ask between them, should we tolerate in the name of progress?

However you read them, there is no doubt that the pieces in this exhibition speak to each other. Bacon’s fondness for putting his paintings behind glass has been put to great effect throughout. In the third room, you stand looking at Man Kneeling in Grass (1952) and see not only your own face reflected in his fragility, but the glass cases around Moore’s smaller works looming behind you. The curators have an uncanny habit of placing the viewer in the same multiple frames that Bacon sketched around his Popes. The viewer has the constant sense of wanting to burst out of some kind of restraint. Perhaps the only works that feel a little out of place are Moore’s wartime drawings in the first room. Four Studies of Miners at the Coalface (1942) pulls more strongly towards Graham Sutherland than Francis Bacon. The crucifixion drawings, however, make perfect sense, and echo one of the strongest motifs in the exhibition. Its cumulative effect is to give us eyes for these beautiful but sometimes brutal works, to break down our resistance to what Bacon called ‘the brutality of fact’. The curators should be congratulated on offering a good level of exposition and an experience which is pretty close to being perfect.

Tom Clucas is reading for a DPhil in English at Christ Church, Oxford.