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The beastly return of Francis Bacon

The artist's distorted, visceral figures expose humanity’s animal nature
January 26, 2021

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.

But what precisely Bacon revealed to us—the scope and nature of his achievement—has been argued over ever since his first significant exhibition in 1945. For some, his distorted figures expose humanity’s animal nature in a godless world. They understand him as a violent seeker after truth. For others, he was, in the words of art critic Adrian Searle, “an entirely mannered and theatrical painter… a pasticheur, a mimic,” best at rendering male feet, doorknobs, teeth and toilet-ware.

Francis Bacon: Revelations by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan is published to coincide with a major new exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art. (The exhibition was due to open at the end of January, but has been postponed due to the pandemic.) Both offer new opportunities to consider Bacon and his legacy, nearly 30 years after his death in 1992. The book is a lively read. It follows every twist and turn of Bacon’s long and sometimes lurid life, gathering perspectives from friends, fellow artists and family as well as offering an adroit marshalling of new research. The revelations of the title are incremental rather than explosive but they do allow the reader to put the riotous days of the infamous gilded-gutter life in the context of years of uncertain self-questioning. It also covers his tenacious interests in philosophy and literature, enduring friendships with both men and women, as well as a commitment to painting that lasted to the end.

The exhibition “Francis Bacon: Man and Beast,” curated by Michael Peppiatt, takes a more focused approach. Peppiatt, a writer and friend of Bacon, unfolds a chronological story exploring Bacon’s fascination with animals. He claims the artist’s central goal was to “trap the fact” of our animal nature through painting. For Bacon, even truth itself is pictured as an animal. He once said to the critic David Sylvester: “I think that the very great artists were not trying to express themselves. They were trying to trap the fact because, after all, artists are obsessed by life and by certain things that obsess them that they want to record. And they’ve tried to find systems and construct the cages in which these things can be caught.” It is these various systems that Bacon spent his lifetime constructing: the deep litter of photographic images or reproductions of paintings he surrounded himself with in his studio; the compositional devices; the handling of paint; the gilt frames and triptych formats; the diagrammatic cages in which he placed his subjects, human or animal. Even the baroque extremity of his love life, with its bruising sadomasochism, was a type of experiment in pursuit of revelation.

The connection with animals can be traced to Bacon’s childhood. Born in 1909 into a wealthy Anglo-Irish family, he was a sickly, asthmatic boy. As Stevens and Swan evoke vividly, while the Bacon household observed the elaborate social proprieties of the Edwardian era, they also lived close to a community of horses, dogs, chickens, geese and cows. Fox hunting was the primary pastime. Bacon’s father, Major Eddy Bacon, was unimpressed with a son who could not ride to hounds and liked dressing in his mother’s underwear. He ordered the stable lads to give young Francis a humiliating thrashing, then sent the boy to Berlin with a family friend. That man first raped him in their hotel room, and then introduced him to the raw, sensual pleasures of the Weimar capital. At this time Bacon was reading Nietzsche. It also might have been in Berlin that he first saw Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, with its iconic image of a woman screaming, her glasses broken, blood pouring from her eye.

Moving to Paris, Bacon found lodgings near Chantilly with the bourgeois Bocquentin family. Madame Bocquentin took the teenager to museums and art galleries, including the nearby Musée Condé, where he first saw Poussin’s Massacre of the Innocents (1625-1632)—its central figure a mother screaming in the face of inhumane cruelty. Stevens and Swan suggest it might have been in Paris that Bacon first saw the work of Picasso and became aware of the surrealists. They note that Bacon’s gathering preoccupation with images of screaming mouths and animals dead and living was reflected in the surrealist art magazine Documents, launched by philosopher Georges Bataille in 1929, which Bacon might have known. A screaming mouth suggests a reversion to a prelinguistic state of emotion and sensation; it is the ground zero of sentience shared by man and beast. This was also the era of ranting dictators. The scream unites hunter and hunted; the pitiless and the pitiable.

Darwin and Nietzsche (“Error has turned animals into men; might truth be capable of turning man into an animal again?”) had reversed the conventional hierarchies of man and beast. Bacon wasn’t the only one to notice this. The Russian painter Chaïm Soutine’s visceral still lifes evoke the fleshy reality of animal death with as much impact as a crucifixion scene. Bacon had read Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” published in 1920, an apocalyptic vision of the world after the First World War, with the poem’s “rough beast”—“A shape with lion body and the head of a man”—slouching towards Bethlehem.

The artist’s namesake Sir Francis Bacon threw down the gauntlet in 1597: “They that deny a God destroy man’s nobility; for certainly man is of kin to the beasts by his body; and, if he be not of kin to God by his spirit, he is a base and ignoble creature.” Even as the avowedly atheist painter tried out a career in furniture design, Bacon’s imagination was stirred by the idea of beastly kinship.

It was Picasso who determined Bacon’s destiny. In his last interview, Bacon described him as “the father figure, who gave me the wish to paint.” He describes how, in 1929, he saw The Kiss (1929) and one of his Bathers paintings from the 1920s, which thrillingly reinvented the human figure. Bacon said: “Picasso was the first person to produce figurative paintings which overturned the rules of appearance; he suggested appearance without using the usual codes, without respecting the representational truth of form, but using a breath of irrationality instead, to make representation stronger and more direct; so that form could pass directly from the eye to the stomach without going through the brain. Picasso opened the door to all these systems.”

The spectral hanging figures in Bacon’s Crucifixion (1933) come directly from Picasso—though its visual ambiguity, inspired by X-ray imagery, was entirely original. This was the first work by Bacon to cause a stir. Exhibited at the Mayor Gallery in London, art historian Herbert Read included it in his book Art Now, opposite Picasso’s Female Bather with Raised Arms (1929). Bacon’s canvas showed how powerfully we can be stirred by paint to feel for even a partially figured person or creature. The work marked a dedication to figuration that Bacon never renounced.

The anguished creatures who bloomed across his next groundbreaking work were startlingly different. Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) was exhibited in war-battered London in April 1945 when—as Stevens and Swan comment—“the death camps flickered across the news reels.” The critic John Russell noted at the time that its figures seemed “equipped to probe, bite, and suck, but their functioning in other respects was mysterious. Ears and mouths they had, but at least two of them were sightless. One was unpleasantly bandaged.” The blood orange backgrounds to these furies offer a visual shock. Bacon often quoted the phrase “the reek of human blood smiles out at me” from the Oresteia. For him it exemplified Aeschylus’ brutal approach to tragedy, in contrast with the elegance of Sophocles.

If these disturbing images confounded and indeed revolted critics, they were also recognised as something wholly new. When writers were competing to define Bacon’s achievement after his death, the Independent’s art critic Tom Lubbock wrote that the artist was “a great and original caricaturist of the body and like the best caricaturists he became a creative natural historian: after Bacon, there are now these strange kind of creatures in the world which weren’t there before.”

The terrifying Painting 1946 (left) followed, with its vision of a gorilla/businessman half hidden beneath a protective umbrella, squeezed against the crucified carcass of a cow, his teeth gleaming. The scene is set within a decorous space graced with tasselled window blinds and a carpet. The businessman offers legs of lamb on a geometrically pure round table. Like so many of Bacon’s figures, he is effectively caged. So much for the redemptive Lamb of God.

Through the 1940s and 1950s, Bacon continued to expand his cast of creatures. He drew the primates at London Zoo and pored over Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs of animals and humans. The Royal Academy will show some from the series of unnerving heads Bacon painted in the period leading up to his first solo exhibition in 1949. Head I (1948) shows an animal skull struggling out from the head of a man. Head IV (1949), otherwise called Man with a Monkey, depicts a curtained oblique transaction between man and chimpanzee. Are they one creature or two?

The sixth in the series, painted in 1949, was the first of Bacon’s paintings inspired by Diego Velázquez’s famous portrait of Pope Innocent X. Here Bacon took on simultaneously the power of the Catholic Church and the authority of the Old Masters. Velázquez had exposed the frail cruelty of the aged pontiff. Bacon stripped the figure further: the Pope is in a bare cage, the gilt throne reduced to phantom scraps of paint, his mouth screaming. The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze would later say of these indeterminate, unstable, faceless heads that “instead of formal correspondences, what Bacon’s painting constitutes is a zone of the indiscernible, of the undecidable, between man and animal.”

There was exhilaration as well as despair in these violent acts of reimagination. One of his greatest works is the 1953 painting Two Figures, an image of homosexual passion so frank that it had to be hidden from view. Based on Muybridge’s homoerotic photographs of wrestling men, the picture is also indebted to Bacon’s observation of animal movement. But there are also the female nudes—of Henrietta Moraes, for instance—which, while far from the classical ideal, highlight bruised flesh to emphasise the still lovable mortal substance of our bodies. And while Triptych—Studies of the Human Body (1970) in one way offers simian parodies of female locomotion, in another it is a celebration of our animal gifts.

In the 1950s, Bacon visited his mother and sisters in Southern Africa, where they had emigrated, and was inspired by the wild animals moving freely in their native habitat. In 1967, he met the photographer and eco-warrior Peter Beard, whose work documented the devastation wrought on Africa’s fauna and flora by colonisation. (This spring Ordovas Gallery in London is planning to open “Wild Life: Francis Bacon and Peter Beard.”) Beyond a shared love of African game animals, they had a desire to “open the valves of sensation” of European audiences to such destruction. A series of interviews with Bacon taped by Beard in 1972 focused on the idea of the “triggering image,” and especially on a series of 49 aerial images Beard took of dead elephants in Tsavo National Park. For both, the question was how such images could confront truth without sentimentality. Triptych (1976), the culmination of a series of Bacon’s paintings of Beard, includes a dead elephant foetus.

The same confrontation with truth is on display in three depictions of bullfighting Bacon painted in 1969, all taut with eroticism and violence. Knowingly entering the arena after Goya and Picasso, Bacon’s paintings highlight the lonely confrontation of man and beast, in their intimate dance of death, both partners fearful, savage and graceful. For the first time in the UK, the Royal Academy will also show Study for a Bull, painted a year before his death in 1992. An almost monochrome composition constructed of oil, aerosol paint and dust on bare canvas, the bull appears like an apparition through a white screen. It recalls a 1932 painting by Roy de Meistre of Bacon’s first artist’s studio—its door opening from a dark space onto a bare floor already beginning to fill with pictures. Study for a Bull is Bacon’s “farewell to the ring,” as the authors put it, and as such is unusually poignant. 

Emma Crichton-Miller is a freelance arts writer