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Unexpected chemistry between Moore and Bacon on show at the Ashmolean

This show compares the two artists, revealing that the painter even asked the sculptor for lessons

Oxford. Francis Bacon and Henry Moore might seem to be unlikely bedfellows: Moore, the public-spirited humanist simplifying and emboldening the human form; Bacon, the absurdist nihilist dissolving and attacking it. Yet, particularly in the period between the end of the Second World War and the 1970s, it was common for the two artists to be shown together and, “Francis Bacon Henry Moore: Flesh and Bone”, revives the comparison.

The curators, Richard Calvocoressi, the director of the Henry Moore Foundation, and Martin Harrison, the leading Bacon expert, argue that the two had more in common than is often acknowledged. “It’s looking at this period where they showed together at Marlborough [the London commercial gallery] in the 1960s,” Calvocoressi says. “It was very much seen that their work was complementary; they were both reinventing the human body for the late 20th century after the horrors of the war. [The show] is really trying to restore something that in the 1960s seemed natural and unsurprising: that their work should be shown together.”

Through 20 sculptures and 20 drawings by Moore and the same number of paintings by Bacon, the exhibition shows that their work moved closer together in the post-war period. “Moore’s work changed in the 1950s in the sense that there were alternating hard and soft passages. He moved in the direction of a painterly treatment of the figure, whereas Bacon, conversely, moved to a more anatomical, more structural treatment of the figure,” Calvocoressi says.

Bacon’s compositions, with their “space frames” and platforms, suggest “the display aesthetic of sculpture”, as the curator puts it. Bacon spoke about making work in three dimensions and expressed his admiration for Michelangelo and Rodin, “two artists whom Moore also revered”, Calvocoressi says. In the late 1960s or early 1970s, Bacon even ­contacted Moore through the Oxford don Francis Warner to ask for sculpture lessons, although nothing came of it.

The show’s catalogue draws out many associations, such as their experiences of the Blitz, in which Moore was a war artist and Bacon served in Air Raid Precautions. When Bacon showed Three Studies for Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion, 1944, at the Lefevre Gallery in 1945, Moore showed sculptures and drawings nearby, some of which also featured three figures and dealt with similar mythological themes. “We’re not saying that the one influenced the other in any way, but we are saying that there are these affinities and connections, and there’s an interesting dialogue going on there, whether consciously or not,” Calvocoressi says.

Several pairings offer ­opportunities to make comparisons: the later version of Bacon’s Three Studies made in the 1980s, for instance, is paired with Moore’s three-figure work Upright Motives, 1975-76; and Falling Warrior, 1956-57, by Moore, “a figure collapsing on the ground”, is shown with Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, 1963. “So you’ve got these contorted figures, female in Bacon’s case and male in Moore’s case, lying, not reclining—much more dynamic.”

He feels that the show will continue Moore’s rehabilitation after the recent Tate Britain and Gagosian shows, among others, have helped to end the long era in which his reputation and status “got in the way of looking at the work”. Like those exhibitions, he hopes the Ashmolean show “will persuade people to look at Moore again, in the context of Bacon, and find something new”.

• Francis Bacon Henry Moore: Flesh and Bone, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 12 September-19 January 2014

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Moore made Bacon sizzle'