The dog slouches towards us, tongue lolling, ears lowered, rump hunched. Exhaustion in every line of its fleshless, chalk-white body. Around it, a fern-green circle is nature’s last stand in a prairie of blank canvas. In the distance, cars fly down a highway, blind and purposeful. Beyond them a blue scrim of sea fringed by a lonely palm tree can not leaven the desolation. Entitled “Dog” (1952), this painting says we’ve reached the end of the road.
Most significant artists with a monograph in 2022 would look altered by our post-pandemic light. But Francis Bacon looks like a prophet. He’s always come with a bunch of question marks. Was he too dark, too cruel, too male? A queer man who, so Desmond Morris in the catalog says, cursed the “do-gooders” for campaigning to legalize homosexuality because safety would strip it of its underground allure, Bacon’s penchant for sexual power games and innate pitilessness is palpable in every painting. Even his reds are cold as ice.
But he’s a man for our season. Bringing together 45 paintings from the course of his 60-year career, the new show at the Royal Academy, Francis Bacon: Man and Beast, is an invigorating if abrasive adventure through a mind that was – to quote Bacon’s fellow Irishman WB Yeats on Maud Gonne – “simple as a fire”. You leave burnt-out yet braced to face whatever fresh hell is coming next. Global sickness, climate catastrophes, refugee crises – with his parched cells and solitary suffering fingers, Bacon covers the whole spectrum.
The show sizzles not just because Bacon’s in sync with the times. The curators, who include Michael Peppiatt, Bacon’s close friend and biographer, have done a tip-top job. With the lofty galleries painted in hues – dark green, moody red, arid sand – to chime with the artist’s own palette, and theatrical yet subtle lighting, it’s an impeccable setting for art that, though spare, reflected the melodrama of the painter’s own life .
As the title suggests, the theme spotlights Bacon’s predilection for fusing animal and human. The opening gambit is “Head I” (1948). In oil and tempera, the image shows a face snapped back, yelping in agony, one bestial fang creepily out of joint with a human ear. But this stricken monster, perhaps tied to the bed frame that looms above him, testifies to a world where metamorphosis is not the stuff of sensual, mischievous Ovidian allure – à la Titian and Picasso – but pain, terror and abjection.
Contradiction is the clay of the imagination. Bacon forged his art on the anvil-hard paradox that man – because he was all about men – was caught in the trap between reason and nature, instinct and thought, savage desire and civilized behavior. Bacon’s cages – the corner of one hovers above chimp-man – were probably inspired by the bars Giacometti sometimes used to frame his figures but their effect is to declare man’s captivity in his own tormented head.
Animals, though, were free to follow their noses, cocks, appetites, needs. Bacon, born in 1909 into a posh, horsey Anglo-Irish family but too weedy and asthmatic to join in the macho fun, unleashed his own instincts on sex and art. One took him out of himself but nearly killed him. His notoriously louche lifestyle revolved around Soho drinking dens and turbulent love affairs. (In the 1950s, his masochistic relationship with Peter Lacy, the great love of his life, involved rhino whips and other squalid physical humiliations.)
Art, too, put him in a double bind. Bacon the painter wanted to nail base human instinct but he had to think to do it. Lucian Freud, Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach were the postwar British artists who let paint do the talking. Bacon’s ideas crowd his images – those conceptual cages, background color slapped down as metaphor – like the Furies that he once said haunted him.
Animals riveted Bacon because, they were “much less inhibited. . . if you watch them you can see exactly what they like. Whereas most people live a kind of veiled life and tend to disguise what they are, what they want, what they really feel. ”
Bacon’s aim was to strip men of that veneer and “make the animal thing come through the human”. After stints in Berlin and Paris in the 1920s, he returned to London in 1929. Ostensibly, he was working as a furniture designer, but a show of Picasso drawings in 1927 had inspired him to start painting himself. He was always drawn to images of slaughterhouses and fresh meat, and the discovery of Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs of animals in motion in 1949, plus African safaris with Lacy in the early 1950s, proved revelatory.
The RA show’s fine array of paintings from this crucial period include “Two Figures in the Grass” (1954). Hugely bold given that homosexuality would not be legal for another 12 years and possibly inspired by watching animals in Africa “move through the long grass” which Bacon said “mesmerized” him, the painting shows two pallid, simian bodies, faces buried in each other’s necks, limbs dissolved by desire, on a bed of wispy green blades hemmed in by a dingy curtain. Triggering a complaint to the police when it was shown at the ICA, the picture declares that Bacon’s sexuality was both his staircase to heaven and gateway to hell. If the cops did not get him, the guilt would.
Bacon’s inner jailers encompassed the father who despised him – he was thrown out of the family home aged 16 after he was caught dressed in his mum’s lingerie – the Christianity that condemned him and the Old Masters whose technique he could never match. Based on Velázquez’s painting of Pope Innocent X, his series of pontiffs – screaming, caged, reduced to primordial terror – stormed all the barricades. In “Pope and Chimpanzee” (c1960), he eclipses Innocent with a triumphant howling monkey. In “Head VI” (1949), he wickedly suspends a tassel – which can symbolize a penis – over Innocent’s nose, just above his open mouth.
Yet Bacon needed the safety net of tradition to perform his iconoclastic tightrope act. Brimming with crucifixions, triptychs, portraits, nudes and bullfights, his oeuvre is one long riff on what went before. The fact that he stuck with figurative painting, however brutalized, when all around had embraced abstraction, Pop and later multimedia – suggests a closet conservative lurked within the rebel. Often his nudes, especially his women – “Henrietta Moraes” (1966), “Triptych – Studies of the Human Body” (1970) – fail to convince. With their Jessica Rabbit curves and smeary features, these are immaterial girls, too cartoonish even to offend.
You can not help comparing Bacon to Picasso, who painted women, for better and worse, as if wreaking revenge on the entire female species. The Spaniard’s shadow looms especially large over Bacon’s bullfights, a series of which are on show here. But in, say, “Study for Bullfight No 1” (1969), which shows matador and bull locked in a swirl of lines and planes on a murky orange arena, the effect is thoughtful rather than raw, observed rather than felt. Bacon watched the bull. Picasso became it.
Yet by the time you reach the titanic triptychs which close this exhibition, the accumulation of images of men at their most desperate and defiled makes it impossible not to be awed by Bacon’s sheer capacity for outrage. No Buddhist he; mortality and suffering made him snarl. (He once said he thought about death every day of his life.) Bacon’s fury at the many shocks to which our flesh is heir oozes through the bloody goo – a rare venture into to thinkisre for this driest of painters – that escapes an orifice of the Bosch-vile hybrid in “Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus” (1981). Some years later, when he paints “Second Version of Triptych 1944” (1988), the incandescent hiss out of the deformed serpent forced to writhe alone on meagre scraps of furniture that mock the notion of a sculptural plinth declares he’s steaming angry still.
The very last work, painted the year before his death in 1992, suggests his rage against the dying light had dimmed a little. It shows a bull emerging through a black portal on to a desert of unpainted canvas, his body smoking down to crematorial ash thanks to Bacon’s use of dust and aerosol paint as well as oil. Only the sinuous blade of his horn retains the cut and thrust of youth.
One hopes that by the time he painted this rare, evanescent whisper of surrender, Bacon had conquered some of his demons. Despite working at a time when figurative painting fell out of favor, he had shown all over the world – including at the Metropolitan Museum and Tate – to critical acclaim. Today, the human figure is back in vogue. With artists such as Damien Hirst and Jenny Saville owing him credit, his star is high. In an era when collective tempers are running high, this show feels like artistic license to get madder still. It should nudge Bacon one more notch up the firmament.
To April 17, royalacademy.org.uk
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