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The beastly return of Francis Bacon

The artist's distorted, visceral figures expose humanity’s animal nature

At the start of 2020, Penguin launched its latest reprint of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The cover is a self-portrait by Francis Bacon, painted in 1976, when the artist was 67 years old. It is one of a series of introspective works he created in the mid-1970s (two shown here from 1972 and 1973, left) after the tragic death of his lover George Dyer. The characteristic roundness of Bacon’s head is warped by grief. The face is divided. One half is highly coloured and clearly delineated with a mask-like stability—a public face. The other is monochrome, half obliterated by a lens-like ellipse, hidden from scrutiny. Back in 1973, Penguin had chosen Bacon’s desolate Man in Blue V (1954) as the cover for Arthur Koestler’s Gulag novel Darkness at Noon. Bacon has long been the go-to cover boy for the 20th-century’s bleakest moments—and its most unsparing self-reckonings.

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