At The Royal Academy – Man and Beast: Francis Bacon

Study for Chimpanzee (1957)

Dear Readers, as you might remember I am ploughing through a biography of Lucian Freud at the moment, and he was great pals with Francis Bacon. I find many similarities between their work – an obsession with the colour and texture of flesh, an insistence on what is actually there, a sense that ‘prettification’ is anathema. No one ever goes to see Francis Bacon to be cheered up, because although the word ‘visceral’ is overused, that’s what it is – these paintings go straight past the rational mind to something underneath.

As I stroll through the galleries of the Royal Academy (and to be out and about and doing something cultural is such a treat), I am struck by how many people look either bamboozled or disgusted, and I suspect that Bacon has been eliciting these emotions since he first started painting. Bacon was raised on a stud farm in Ireland, and was always fascinated by animals, though to my knowledge he never actually painted a horse. Still, he would have witnessed the raw emotions of ‘beasts’ at first hand, their lust and their violence, and also their deaths. He had well-thumbed copies of Muybridge’s books on animals and people in motion in his studio, and some of his paintings combine the human and the animal until they are the same.

In the Portrait of George Dyer (below), the human figure seems to be crouched in some kind of enclosure, like a zoo animal. Bacon’s subjects are often alone and confined. The reproduction doesn’t show it very clearly, but the ‘cloth’ to the right of the ‘enclosure’ was the same colour and texture as raw meat. The figure seems to be horned, or to have the mandibles of a beetle. He crouches as if uncertain what to do next.

Dyer was Bacon’s lover. They met in 1963, when Dyer was a handsome small-time gangster. Their relationship was sadomasochistic, alcohol-fuelled and deeply dysfunctional, particularly for Dyer, who discovered that being a muse, and a kept man, was not an easy life, regardless of how it appeared from the outside. He died of a deliberate overdose in 1971, two days before Bacon had a huge retrospective show in Paris.

Portrait of George Dyer Crouching, 1966

Bacon is, perhaps, the painter who most articulates sheer dread. His figures are always distorted, his mouths always screaming. The painting below predates Bacon’s ‘Screaming Popes’ series by several years, but already there’s the sense of existential horror – the figure encased and isolated in a glass cube. Is this about the loss of faith, the total loss of meaning? As usual with Bacon, it’s impossible to pin him down – the face is said to have been influenced by Eisenstein’s screaming woman from the film ‘Battleship Potemkin’, but the images are also based on Velasquez’s studies of Pope Innocent X.

Head VI (1949)

Towards the end of his life, Bacon was pushing the human figure about as far as it could go. He was working in the triptych form, and in 1988 he reworked his 1944 painting ‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’, changing the background colour from orange to red, and making the figures smaller. The figures in both paintings are based on the Furies, who hunted down those who had committed matricide and patricide. One line from Aeschylus was said to have haunted Bacon throughout his life – “the reek of human blood smiles out at me”. When mouths are not screaming, they are looking to take a chunk out of someone.

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944)

Study for Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1988)

But strangely, after all that sound and fury, Bacon’s last painting is a subdued work. He had been fascinated by bullfights, with their combination of blood, cruelty, passion and death. But this image, with its muted tones and static subject, seems like a farewell to me: among the materials used in its creation is dust (and not for the first time – Bacon was notoriously slovenly in spite of his acute asthma, and would often use dust to create the colours and texture that his paintings needed).

“The world is just a dung heap,” Bacon told Joshua Gilder in 1980, when he was seventy-one. “It’s made up of compost of the millions and millions who have died and are blowing about. The dead are blowing in your nostrils every hour, every second you breathe in. It’s a macabre way of putting it, perhaps; but anything that’s at all accurate about life is always macabre. After all, you’re born, you die.” (Cabinet Magazine, Issue 35)

Bacon is undoubtedly one of the great painters of the twentieth century, with his unique vision. There is a truth to his work that it’s hard to deny. It’s not the only truth, however. There is no room in his work for beauty, and precious little for love. I can admire him without wanting to live in his world.

Francis Bacon: Man and Beast is at the Royal Academy until 17th April, so get your skates on if you want to visit!

Study of a Bull, 1991

3 thoughts on “At The Royal Academy – Man and Beast: Francis Bacon

  1. Pen Thompson CBE

    A wonderful review of a striking , disturbing and essential exhibition. You could give @LauraCummingArt a run for her money with this ( she’s the art critic /writer I most admire ).


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