The Art Gallery of Ontario, AGO, is a must-see whenever I visit Toronto. Not only because I’m a Frank Gehry fan who never gets tired of looking at the centre spiral staircase in there, but the exhibits are always intriguing and thought-provoking. Spent a few days in Toronto last week and this time, I was much gratified to view the current show at AGO: “Francis Bacon, Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty”.
Terror and Beauty, the motif resonates with the idea of Wabi-sabi. I’ve explored visually the notion of Wabi-sabi before. Two seemingly incompatible states juxtaposed against each other, beauty and sadness.
“You can’t be more horrific than life itself” says a quote from Francis Bacon on the AGO’s Artist page. The exhibits speak to that by extracting from the horrors of WWII and other forms of human sufferings and struggles depicted in the works of these two 20th century Irish/English artists who were contemporaries of each other.
The exhibit is a wealth of surrealist works from Bacon, and sculptures and drawings from Moore. But I was particularly captivated by the WWII items. While Moore is well-known for his abstract sculptures of the human body in larger than life poses, here’s a rare chance to see his more personal, wartime drawings.
Going home one evening in 1940, as he entered a London subway station, Moore discovered crowds of people sleeping on the platform to take shelter from an impending German air strike, the Blitz. He was taken aback by what he saw and his later drawing was a ghastly interpretation:
Photo Source: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/moore-tube-shelter-perspective-n05709
That’s Moore’s view of the underground subway station used as impromptu bomb shelter. But what was it really like in those tube stations? That’s when I was totally captivated by the photos of the renowned photojournalist Bill Brandt displayed alongside Moore’s shelter drawings.
Rather than horrific depictions, I was utterly surprised by the actual photographs by Brandt, who acted as official war photographer. His noir and darkened perspective is haunting and yet, full of mystique and beauty.
What I saw was an opposite interpretation of the subway scene: rather than terror, I saw resilience. Indeed, the London populace came out in droves to seek shelter in the subway, a much safer haven than their own homes. What I saw in many of Brandt’s photographs was the strong sense of ‘life goes on’.
Two photographs in the exhibition will forever remain in my mind.
First is the Liverpool Street Underground Station Shelter during an air raid in November, 1940. The photograph shows a family sleeping soundly, bedding against the grooves in between the steel structures of the tunnel. But look more carefully, there’s even a bunk and blanket for a doll beside the child. They all look peaceful and calm.
For the archive in my mind, let me call this photo: “The Doll in the Subway”
© IWM Non-Commercial License http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205194652?cat=photographs
The second picture by Brandt is in the Elephant and Castle London Underground Station Shelter. Here, people sleeping on the crowded platform while taking shelter from German air raids during the Blitz.
But look how they were dressed in. The mid-heel pump the woman in the foreground was wearing caught my attention. Looks like she was dressed for work. Blitz or no Blitz, after she woke in the morning, she had to go to work. Life as usual.
In my mental archive, this photo will now be entitled “The Mid-heel Pump”.
© IWM Non-Commercial License http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205194638
What more, after civilians had crowded into the subway stations against government’s advice, the officials had to respond with helpful measures by installing chemical toilets, first aid facilities, and providing drinks, while the people created their own entertainment. With all due respect to the victims of the Blitz, the resilience and adaptability of the Londoners are most inspiring.
After I stepped out of AGO, I wanted to go back in to take a more careful look at the exhibits again. But that was not feasible so I had to write this post from memory (no photos of the exhibits were allowed) and from some online digging. Glad to have found these two memorable images from the Imperial War Museum website. Thanks to AGO, these two historic photos will remain in my mental archive for a long, long time.
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