Study for Bullfight No. 1, 1969. Oil on canvas, 198 x 147.5 cm. Private Collection. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd
Artillery Row

Humanity, red in tooth and claw

The Francis Bacon exhibition revels in the animalistic side of mankind

There’s a moment in D. H. Lawrence’s novel Women in Love (1920), that, for better or worse, I’ve never been able to forget. Coal-mine heir Gerald is riding his mare as a train rushes past and spooks her. Lawrence describes how Gerald “sank into her magnetically, and … thrust her back against herself”. In a novel peppered with odd sexual moments and a recurrent obsession with bestiality, this description is horrifyingly violent and sexual enough to stand out.

Now, think what you like about Lawrence (and I maintain he’s something of a genius), it is impossible to deny he understood something about the darker side of man’s relationship to animals. This is not a literary landscape which has space for the RSPCA or a sentimental portrait of a nation of dog-lovers: instead we have domination, cruelty, and inhumane and unhuman behaviour.

It is tempting to say something similar of Francis Bacon (1909 — 92). Famed for his spooky, encaged popes and his screaming mouths, the new exhibition at the Royal Academy is dedicated to his obsession with the relationship between man and beast. During his lifetime, Bacon made sure that exhibitions began with his “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” (1944) and proceeded to his most recent work: a distinct teleology that had no space for either earlier work or thematic grouping.

It is quite an idea to be confronted with for the gallery-goer who has wondered in from civilised Piccadilly

This exhibition — Man and Beast — eschews Bacon’s curatorial confines, and begins in 1933 with the spectral, ghostly form of “Crucifixion” and “Head I” (1948). The earlier “Crucifixion” is a quiet but no less unsettling precursor to the more famous triptych: the exoskeleton-like form is stretched to breaking point, and the typically Bacon-esque motif of cage-like lines appear in the bottom third. As the first painting of the exhibition, “Head I” sets the tone: teeth, fangs, flesh, neck, shoulders — the only recognisably human aspects are the subject’s ear and the colour of the flesh. The oddly domestic setting of what appears to be an iron bed-frame in the background does little to calm the nerves.

Head I, 1948. Oil and tempera on board, 100.3 x 74.9 cm. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.

The guiding force of the exhibition’s curation is the question of where man ends and animal starts — what curator Michael Peppiat describes as the “heart of a dilemma in Bacon’s art and in our own lives”. It is quite an idea to be confronted with for the gallery-goer who has wandered in from civilised Piccadilly — but there is no doubt that it is dramatic.

Bacon’s “Chimpanzee” (1955) and “Study for Chimpanzee” (1957) dominate the wall of the second room. For an artist who was so preoccupied with the proximity between man and animal, what is striking here is the distance. The earlier primate is separated from the viewer by a cage of white lines illuminated on the black background, whilst the latter is placed on the end of a box that propels him into the middle of the canvas and the perspective’s endpoint. This is not to say that the viewer is safe from these disconcertingly-human, disconcertingly-screaming figures. If anything, the cage and the distorted distance make them more unsettling: what exists between the viewer and the animal? Why are they kept at one remove?

The size of Bacon’s paintings is something that has to be seen in person. They seem almost  unthreatening on the page, but in situ their power is unmistakable — and this is not just true of the triptychs. “Dog” (1952) is a masterful exploration of perspective and space. The swathes of the blank canvas dwarf the tiny cars in the background almost as much as the giant canine in the centre. There’s something almost King Kong-like about the differences in scale.

The animal is the visual expression of the inexpressible

Much of Bacon’s work is about the inexpressible: the scream in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) that haunts his attempts to paint the “human cry” is a sound that is heard after words have failed. And, in another motif that reverberates throughout his work, Bacon’s preoccupation with The Oresteia has little to do with the expressivity of Aeschylus’s poetry. In a 1981 letter he wrote “I tried to create images of the sensations that some of the episodes created inside me”.

This preference for painted forms over words — Bacon famously thwarted publications that sought to explain either him or his work — has not been heeded in the recent spate of publications: Max Porter’s The Death of Francis Bacon (2021) attempts, brilliantly, to transcribe seven paintings on the artist’s deathbed, and James Birch’s Bacon in Moscow (2022) is a hilarious account of the difficulties of staging an exhibition as the USSR began to crumble.

But, despite what the artist may have thought about the now countless books about himself, there is something similar about these divides between expressible and inexpressible and man and beast. In “Head IV” (1949), the blurred, distorted head of the monkey seems to be everything that the man with his back turned in the suit is not; the animal is the visual expression of the inexpressible.

Study for Chimpanzee, 1957. Oil and pastel on canvas, 152.4 x 117 cm. Photo: David Heald (NYC)

In Bacon’s many portraits, this tension between representation and obfuscation reaches its nadir: the figure of fellow artist Isabel Rawsthorne glows and reaches out of the dark canvas, but there is a continual sense that there is something withheld, unknown, and not-human.

The exhibition is impressive in its scope — despite difficulties with importing works due to customs restrictions, there is no shortage of canvases to be amazed by. But, make no mistake, this is not a show where you linger simply because the paintings are beautiful or pleasing. Rather, the overall affect is one of horror mixed with sheer appreciation. “Sublime” is used casually of art and artists too often, but Bacon’s work achieves it in its purest form — in Burke’s terms, it “excites the ideas of pain and danger” and elicits only the “strongest emotions”.

Subverting Catholicism, revelling in bullfighting, and toying with humanity’s basest desires: the work of Francis Bacon leaves little unexplored. Just make sure to have a copy of Women in Love with you as you walk round.

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