I SAW the National Theatre's astounding Edward II and
the Ashmolean Museum's Bacon/Moore exhibition on the same day.
Towards the end of a visceral production (Joe Hill-Gibbins),
Marlowe's humiliated king was thrown to the ground. Roughly shaved
and half-naked, he lay face down, deluged with water and soaked to
the skin, surrounded by his tormentors; the actor who had played
his cast-off lover Gaveston here returned as his sadistic
John Heffernan's performance had been rheumy-eyed and almost
spectral, as if the cloth of gold of his coronation mantle in which
he had folded himself and his boyfriend was the only protection
between him and the world.
Scribbling notes in 1940 across A sheet of studies for
sculpture, Henry Moore observed: "the human body is what we
know most about, because its [sic] ourselves & so it
moves us most strongly." Hill-Gibbins and Heffernan have taken this
to heart, as Marlowe's tragic animal seems to reel "from the
boniness of Moore's sculpture . . . to the bonelessness of Bacon's
figures" in one evening's pained trajectory.
The critic who wrote that in a review in The Times of a
joint Moore/Bacon show at the Marlborough New London Gallery in
June 1963 concluded that "these convulsive deformations may still
at times seem horrifying." Horrifying, certainly, but is their art
On a busy Saturday, the Ashmolean was a haven of peace. By
rights, this exhibition should have had people queuing out into St
Giles for tickets. Fewer than three dozen were in the gallery.
The first encounter from works of both artists selected by
Martin Harrison and Richard Calvocoressi is overwhelmingly tense.
In the first of several clever coups de théâtre, the
in-house designer has Moore's 1956/7 Falling Warrior
confront the 1963 Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, one of
some ten that Bacon painted from photographs taken by his friend
To say that both are reclining softens the gracelessness of
their poses. The juxtaposition of the figures, both of a similar
scale, is violent and tense. Both angry figures, trapped and
vulnerable, set up a discourse amply explored in this rich and
adventurous exhibition. Much like Heffernan in his sodden boxer
shorts, these figures are uncomfortable in their own skin.
Maybe it never has been easy to be clad in flesh. The overriding
purpose of the incarnation, as George Herbert explores - close to a
heresy, but let us not split hairs - in his 1633 poem "The Bag", is
that it was not easy for God, either.
He did descend, undressing all the
way. . .
And when they ask'd, what he would wear;
He smil'd and said as he did go,
He had new clothes a making here below.
Stripped of all vesture, Moore's ancient soldier and Soho's
fallen woman, much like Edward II's crumpled and ruined torso, is
only so much awkwardness and real pain. If any of them could speak,
the wasted sense of Psalm 6 comes to mind.
The Ashmolean exhibition, which will be seen later in Toronto,
however, offers another explanation by way of reference to several
drawings by Michelangelo that were presented to the museum in
The recumbent male figure, the tortured back of a male nude,
and, more expressly, the awkwardness of the lumbering figure trying
to rise from the ground (all Ashmolean, 1846.55, 1846.42, and
1846.76), offer poses that are almost impossible to sustain. I
wanted to leap on to the stage at the Olivier to ask Heffernan how
on earth he maintained his broken form, since even Michelangelo's
model must have been in great pain.
Both Bacon and Moore took Michelangelo as their master. As if to
emphasise this, the Ashmolean includes Rodin's 1863 famed bust
The Man with the Broken Nose. The Florentine master looks
a real bruiser, and both Bacon and Moore salute him as such.
The sudden comfort of a livid mauve wall and a hint of turquoise
on her mattress offer a little repose to Moraes, but her violently
contrived (and arresting) posture at once makes clear what true
repose means: it is the sleep of the dead or of those about to
In the Garden of Gethsemane,the closest disciples of the Christ
fall asleep. Vainly they try to shield themselves from the storm
that is about to break over them, col-lapsing into the arms of
Sleep, the daily reminder of our certain mortality.
Moore's long sequence (1940/1) of the Shelter Sleepers,
forms huddled or seated half-dead in the tunnels of the London
Underground during the Blitz, owes much to Mantegna and Bellini.
They are sleepers who may or may not awake to a new dawn: the
victims at Charing Cross and Trafalgar Square in October 1940, and
those killed in the direct hits on Bank and Green Park stations (11
January 1941), are hereby commemorated in Moore's sketchbooks.
The central gallery delivers the most powerful coup with nine
large canvases by Bacon and six monumental sculptures. The hall is
dominated by the great Crucifixion triptych of 1988, in
which the 78-year-old Bacon reworked the earlier (and smaller)
composition of 1944. Blood is rarely as dense as the background of
these scrupulously attended paintings. The forms and the
composition would shock any congregation, and for Bacon recall
adolescent visits to the abattoir, and later trips to the meat
racks of Soho.
The terrifying figures of the avenging fates, the Eumenides, are
a far cry from the 1945 maquette for Moore's demure Three
Standing Figures, which is now in Battersea Park. Like the
three Maries at the foot of the Cross, these draped women look
upwards, hopeful and silent, and yet anxious, as if another air
raid is about to come.
His King and Queen (1951) derives from Egyptian
hieratic figures often as shrine guardians and recall the Moai on
Easter Island. Here, in Bacon's last intended painting of Pope
Innocent X (1965), the imperious figure sits back at a greater
distance, half withdrawn from the regal sculptures placed in front
of him. Bacon surprisingly had never seen the original of the
Velázquez portrait in Rome, but in this final study he has
travelled a long way even from a monochrome photograph.
Neither Moore nor Bacon, who first showed together in a wartime
exhibition and then shared a billing at several London exhibitions
in 1963, 1965, and the early 1970s, professed a formal faith, but
their repeated use of Christian themes goes beyond a common
In the last room, opposite a wall of six head studies by both
artists, are the three great drawings of the Crucified which Moore
produced at the end of his life in 1982. Their overt debt is to
Michelangelo, of course; and so the exhibition comes neatly full
circle. Moore had long been fascinated by the mystery at Calvary,
and in 1954 had apparently planned a sculpture based on a wooden
crucifix from Styria, which is now in Ljubljana.
Seeing all three next to each other for the first time, I was
left to reflect that the drawings are perhaps among the finest
works of Christian art in the last century, a testimony in
"Francis Bacon, Henry Moore: Flesh and Bone" is at the
Ashmolean Museum, Beaumont Street, Oxford, until 19 January. Phone
01865 278002. www.ashmolean.org