OXFORD, England (Reuters) - Britain’s oldest museum is taking a daring step into the last century if not the current one with an exhibition that links the late British sculptor Henry Moore’s flowing forms with the late Irish-born painter Francis Bacon’s melting bodies.
“Francis Bacon Henry Moore: Flesh and Bone” opens to the public on Thursday and runs into January.
The show is a departure for the Oxford institution, best known for the Saxon-era Alfred Jewel of enamel and quartz encased in gold, and the iron lantern that Guy Fawkes is said to have used as he planted a bomb in the basement of the Houses of Parliament in 1605.
The curators were struck by the echoes between Moore’s rounded, reimagined yet still recognisably human forms and Bacon’s distorted, dismembered, fleshy figures, equally imposing in their physicality.
Richard Calvocoressi, co-curator and director of the Henry Moore Foundation at his former estate in Hertfordshire, said Moore and Bacon had both continued to depict the human body at a time when the trend in art was towards greater levels of abstraction.
“These are two great figurative artists at a time when non-figurative art, abstraction, the other things that happened in the ‘50s, were very much the fashion. Sticking to treating the human body, reinventing the human body,” Calvocoressi said.
The exhibition includes 20 paintings by Bacon and 20 sculptures and 20 drawings by Moore.
The museum said both artists had, in different ways, been touched by the conflicts of the early part of the century.
“Moore and Bacon were both born before the First World War, in which Moore was just old enough to serve in the trenches - an experience that had a profound, if delayed, effect on his work,” the Ashmolean wrote in its press release.
“Similarly, Bacon’s consciousness of civil unrest in Ireland, where he spent part of his childhood and youth, introduced him to the presence of violence at an early age.”
The exhibition features a study for one of Bacon’s most famous images, the screaming head of a pope said to have been inspired by the Spanish painter Velázquez’s “Portrait of Pope Innocent X”, which he painted in multiple versions.
Mary Moore, the sculptor’s only child, said her father had exactly the opposite reaction in the trenches to the adage that there are “no atheists in foxholes”.
She said that in one of his letters, auctioned off some years ago, Moore wrote words to the effect that “this experience has made me cease to believe in God”.
The exhibition runs at the Ashmolean until January 19, after which it will move to Toronto.
Editing by Kevin Liffey