By PAUL GESSELL
A provocative quotation greets visitors to the exhibition Francis Bacon and Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty at the AGO in Toronto. The words are from Bacon: “If you can talk about it, why paint it?”
That sentiment helps explain the work of Bacon, the British painter who became one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. Bacon had no interest in pure representation of a person. He wanted to create images of people that captured the psyche of that person and the sometimes inexplicable, often violent, forces that shape personalities. These were forces best painted and not discussed.
The exhibition at the AGO is the first major show of Bacon’s work in Canada, although the National Gallery of Canada staged a mini-Bacon teaser in 2004. Diana Nemiroff, curator of modern art at the time, had plans then for a much bigger show. Alas, she left that job to become director of the Carleton University Art Gallery before the Bacon extravaganza could be organized. Lovers of Bacon — and Moore — will have to satisfy themselves with the Toronto show.
And it is a satisfying show of 130 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and photographs. The exhibition was curated for the AGO by Dan Adler, associate professor of art history at York University.
The pairing of sculptor Moore and painter Bacon was brilliant. The two artists were contemporaries working in London. The brutality of the Second World War helped shape them both. Indeed, many of Moore’s sculptures are like 3-D versions of Bacon paintings, although horror is much more present in the work of Bacon.
The AGO has a huge collection of Moore sculptors on permanent display. That is not the case with Bacon; many of his paintings have not been shown before in Toronto or anywhere in Canada.
Both artists spent much of their careers showing how terror and horror affect people. In Moore’s case, that resulted in Picasso-esque sculptures of distorted bodies. Bacon’s work depicts bodies melting before your eyes. You can almost hear screams coming from the works of both Bacon and Moore.
“The scream,” Bacon once said, “is the most direct symbol of the human condition.”
Among the Bacon paintings in the show is Triptych from 1987. This threesome presents the sorrows and horrors of mankind as witnessed in the bullring. The image on the far right depicts a bull, with horns dripping blood from some matador. The paintings in the centre and the left show human mutilated body parts.
The show also includes some of Bacon’s famous screaming pope series and a few tamer paintings, such as Seated Figure, 1962, showing his lover Peter Lacy. Lacy’s body appears to be tormented, yet his face looks serene. For the masochistic Bacon, love and violence were compatible and very much part of every day life.
“My painting is not violent, it’s life itself that is violent” he once proclaimed.
Francis Bacon and Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty continues at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto until July 20. For info: www.ago.net.