AGO Exhibition: Terror And Beauty

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:

Tube Shelter Perspective 1941 by Henry Moore OM, CH 1898-1986

Photo Source:

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”

Sleeping in the subway bunk-child & doll

© IWM Non-Commercial License

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”.


The mid-heel pump

© IWM Non-Commercial License

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.

CLICK HERE to see 9 Incredible photos of the London Underground as Bomb Shelter.


Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

The Frank Gehry designed Art Gallery of Ontario

Sketches of Frank Gehry (2005)

Art Gallery of Alberta




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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

18 thoughts on “AGO Exhibition: Terror And Beauty”

  1. We went to that exhibition when were were in Toronto in April/May. Wonderful exhibition. I love how you’ve written it up. I only wrote up the Canadian art on my blog, but we spent half our time in the Bacon-Moore exhibition and half looking at some Canadian exhibits. Great gallery.

    I too loved the presentation on the Blitz, the tube station shelters and Moore’s drawing. And was sorry also that I couldn’t take photos – though even where you can take photos they are supposed to be for personal use which makes me wonder about blogs. Our blogs aren’t commercial but they are public. I did use a couple on the blog but not good photos of one work, so I hoped that would be OK. I have no idea really!


    1. WG,

      You’ve just reminded me… and I’ve totally forgotten. The last time I was at AGO it was the Ai Wei Wei exhibition and I took a lot of photos, as well as the Canadian section too. I think it’s just certain sections that they don’t allow photos, like this Bacon/Moore exhibit.

      Glad you’d enjoyed your Toronto stay, and I suppose your daughter likes it there too. I now go there mainly for TIFF, except this time, which is a special occasion, for my son’s convocation.


      1. Yes, I’m guessing it was to do with rights involved in acquiring works for that exhibition. Our daughter has really enjoyed Toronto, made some great friends, but will come home later this year. The cold, more that anything, has done her in. We Aussies, though I speak generally, like our warmth. Congrats to your son.


  2. Wow — I’ll have to check that one out if I am able to end up in Toronto en route to pick up Rick from his summer ride to Canada. Anything WWII/Brit-related I find fascinating. And I’m glad you shared the link of photos — the ones of the people on the tracks frightened me both with the desperation and the knowledge that sleeping on subway tracks was infinitely safer than being in your home.

    I have mixed feelings about Kate Atkinson’s novel “Life After Life,” which I found pretty confusing to read until I decided it was Rashamon set in the London war years, but the chapters where she is focusing on WWII during the air raids are so well written, they are chilling. Lately I’ve been watching lots of television documentary series on WWII also, and seeing the courage of those who were put in just terrifying situations staggers me. I suspect we rise to what we must — but I can’t begin to imagine it…

    A wonderful post. Thanks.


    1. Jeanie,

      I’ve not read KA’s Life After Life but what an interesting concept if it’s as you said, a literary London Rashomon. As for this exhibit, it will end on July 20th. Hope you’ll have a chance to see it. The AGO is more than just this special exhibit, of course, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy the other collections.

      As for your interest in “anything WWII/Brit-related”, I second that. Maybe it’s the ripple effects of Downton Abbey. I know, starting from WWI. 😉


    1. Stefanie,

      Same here. That’s why I was totally captivated by the exhibit. And hey, on another note, you know the TV series “Fargo”, based on the Coen brothers movie, which has a setting in small town MN, is actually shot here in Cowtown Calgary. I just learned that today. 😉


      1. In Calgary? They didn’t shoot it in Bemidji? Well, I was fooled. You all certainly look a lot like Minnesota there! I’ve been watching and enjoying the TV show. It’s delightfully sick 🙂


        1. Actually in a Calgary studio. But other places include small towns Alberta. As a matter of fact I’m still trying to locate the time schedule to watch it, albeit the Coen bros. movie is excellent I feel.


  3. I didn’t know about the tube/shelter use and was amazed to see the photos you’ve posted. Amazing resilience, indeed. I wonder what it must’ve been like to be official war photographer.


  4. I have two friends who experienced WWII first hand. One, a German woman, went through the bombing of Dresden. And the other, English, actually was in London at the time of the Blitz, and spent time in the tubes. I’m surprised to find people who don’t know about all that — but I suppose it makes sense. I grew up looking at such photos and listening to the stories. But I’m old!

    What’s so striking about these photos and the ones you linked are the number of smiling people. That “Keep Calm and Carry On” business is just so true. Self-sufficiency and a lack of drama certainly seem to characterize the older Brits I know. I suspect they learned a good bit during those war years about “carrying on.”

    And how great that you made it again to Toronto. You mentioned your son’s convocation — what does that mean, up there? Is it graduation, or something else?


    1. Linda,

      You sure can get memorable first-hand narratives from your friends. I admit this is the first time I know about the subway bomb shelters, and definitely first time seeing real photos of the situation. I’m totally amazed by how calm and resilient Londoners were during those circumstances, from the link of the 9 incredible photos. I can’t imagine myself surviving any bombing today, if I have to hide underground or stay in a hole, like so many did during the war. How can any claustrophobic person handle that?


  5. Arti, if you’re interested you could look into the role of places like The Ritz in wartime London. Fancy hotels, restaurants and cinemas all became places for people to stay together, keep entertained, a little safer and saner and more comforted for the solidarity. I hadn’t seen the photos that you’ve kindly displayed, though I’ve seen others. The resilience of the population during wartime was amazing. Oh and the buses! The bus routes kept changing every morning, as drivers discovered new parts of the routine journeys had been bombed and were impassable. What people lived through and learned to deal with is humbling to my softie 21st century eyes.


    1. Litlove,

      Thanks for adding in the info. I’m so impressed by the war efforts the Brits put forth. I’ve read that the Highclere Castle where ‘Downton Abbey’ is filmed was used as a hospital during WWI, much more involved than the TV series has portrayed. You’re absolutely right, ‘softie’ is the right word for us/me. What will I do without a warm shower and running water… I’ve seen rats in subway tracks, can’t imagine sleeping there.


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