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“Inspiring, fearsome, transcendent”: Visitors respond to Francis Bacon and Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty

May 12th, 2014

By Gillian McIntyre, Interpretive Planner, AGO

“If I go to the National Gallery and I look at one of the great paintings that excite me there, it’s not so much the painting that excites me as that the painting unlocks all kinds of valves of sensation in me which return me to life more violently”
—Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon and Henry Moore both used the human form to express violence and trauma in their art as well as the resilience of the human spirit. When we were planning Francis Bacon and Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty we knew visitors would probably have a strong reaction to the work, one way or another, and we wanted to gather and share these responses. Bacon particularly wanted people to feel something when they saw his art.

In the last room of the exhibition we set up iPads with digital pens and invited people to express their thoughts by drawing and writing, the results of which we are projecting on the wall of the room. The questions were intentionally quite general: “What is your response?” and “What role do the arts play in your life?”

The results have been staggering. So far we have received more than 3,500 responses, many of them, as predicted, very strong (see a selection below). It is obvious from them that people have understood what is hard to put into words. Quoting Bacon again: “If you can say it, why paint it?” Writing about art — essentially a visual communication — can be reductive, so it is interesting to see that visitors are able to read the art so well. One of the surprises is how closely people have looked at the Bacon paintings — his compositional space construct appears often in their drawings.

A fair number give emotional responses: “Inspiring, fearsome, transcendent” or “Interesting and disturbing but worthwhile” or “We laughed, we cried, but mostly we cried.”

Many of the responses show that those who know Moore’s work are afforded a fresh view when seeing it paired with the Bacons: “I shall never look at Henry Moore’s sculptures the same again,” wrote one visitor. Some also realized for the first time that there is an erotic edge to much of Moore’s art — not how they usually think of it.

For others the exhibition triggered memories of stories their parents had told them about the Blitz in London during the Second World War. I think the exhibition is also making people realize where creativity can come from and the value of art as a way of processing trauma.

It was a pleasure to see, too, that the AGO-produced audio guide obviously added meaning for people, as visitors either stated that directly or quoted from it.

I look forward to what else we will learn between now and July 20, and I hope you’ll join us to share your thoughts, too.


Tickets to Francis Bacon and Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty are available on site and from ago.net.

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