Thursday, July 17, 2014

AGO-Terror and Beauty: Thursday, July 10 2014

Terror and Beauty is an exhibition of the works of Francis Bacon, b 1909, and Henry Moore, b 1898. They were contemporaries who came from totally different parts of English society. Both were deeply affected by the horrors of the First and Second World Wars, and their work reflects this. Once I realized that Henry Moore's sculptures were inspired by his seeing people sleeping on the platforms of the London Tube, sheltering from the Nazi bombing during the London Blitz, I could appreciate his work much more. It provoked thought: are his writhing human bodies half empty because of the stress of war, or are they struggling to recreate themselves and their society, after the war? Perhaps both?

I had heard of Francis Bacon in my youth. His name was always shrouded in scandal, and his works never appeared in any gallery I visited. He was an open homosexual, when this was considered criminal behaviour, and perhaps the suffering he endured because of this has added to his work. His vision of human life is far from pretty, but his paintings moved me deeply. He had captured for me the atmosphere I remember before and during the Second World War, and even afterwards as Britain struggled to get back on to her feet. She was bankrupt, in great debt to the Americans, which only was finally paid off in December 2006. The old world had been destroyed, and the new was being born from the efforts of the Labour Party.

Pope Innocent X, Diego Valdezques and Francis Bacon
Bacon painted a series of portraits of popes, inspired by the painting by Diego Veldazques, of Pope Innocent X, 1650. Far from pretty pictures, these remind that the history of the Church of Rome is far from idyllic. Popes are dictators of the mind, and the Holy Roman Empire was ruled by military dictators, 800-1806 CE., backed up by the Church of Rome. Do Bacon's portraits depict men, secretly terrified by their power, and perhaps the results of their pontifications? Does he want to bring to our minds the Medieval Inquisition, which led to the Spanish Inquisition? Or are the screams those of the victims of the Popes? I found these paintings brilliant. They moved me

We had left it rather late to see this exhibition, as life had been busy for us. Making a special effort, we saw it one lovely, early afternoon. Afterwards, we had lunch in the Members Lounge, as we enjoy doing. Our conversation was rather somber, as we discussed our reactions to the work we had just seen. We talked of our memories of the Second World War, and how life had been changed so much by that war. We talked of the political impact it had on the world, and the birth of the Welfare State as a reaction to the privilege, that it was seen some had abused by leading the world into war.

This is a magnificent exhibition, but not a "feel good" one. Out of the terror of the Twentieth Century, Bacon and Moore remind us that there is also great beauty in life. But as Francis Bacon said in his last interview, talking about the stresses of life, "... And after all that they want me to paint bunches of pink flowers…".

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