When Francis Bacon looks at them, Man and Beast, as the Royal Academy’s winter blockbuster is entitled, are the same thing. They’re both made of flesh.
The artist’s painted universe resembles a butcher’s shop: vertically hung slabs of meat dangle amid umbrellas and swastikas in his triptychs, bisected creatures drained of blood and flattened into red and white fatty flesh. People in his paintings, on the other hand, are just as monstrous – and just as killed.
Bodies wrestle and kiss each other. Nudes are strewn on filthy beds. We are nothing more than biological matter.
Bacon would have recognized the irony in the Royal Academy’s exhibition of his work through the lens of his interest in animals being postponed due to a virus. In the human species, Bacon finds no order of organisms, no holy specialization.
When the show opens at the end of January, it will reveal a profoundly Darwinian artist who sees a pope and a chimp as equally tragicomic.
In the same years as he painted lonely sad pope figures in glass booths, Bacon portrayed screaming, solitary animals in cages. The animal seems to be a melancholy primate sulking in the corner of a zoo cage in 1957’s Study for Chimpanzee.
He also painted dogs, elephants, and owls throughout the 1940s and 1950s, when he was defining his vision and establishing his name. A zoo visit is like visiting a Francis Bacon theme park.
Apes, primates, and birds of prey are kept inside bars, mesh or glass, with swings and dead branches, much as Bacon’s characters are given strange tubular-steel furnishings in their cramped orange or pink chambers.
Bacon grew up in the woods. His father gambled on horses and attempted to breed them.
Francis had his first sexual interactions with grooms in his father’s stables when he was a child. In this minor-aristocratic country home setting, there were also a lot of pets. Bacon had siblings who lived in colonial Africa, and he visited them on vacation. He was enthralled with big game.
As a child, he began collecting African wildlife books, and Elephant Fording a River, painted in 1952, is a sympathetic depiction of a large beast dwarfed by a huge gloomy landscape.
Bacon, on the other hand, is a harsh observer of human behavior, not a romantic naturalist. His animal studies are simply fuel for his conceptual paintings.
Man and Beast asks us to concentrate on Bacon’s magnificent, terrifying vision of life and death by approaching him via his zoo of symbols. John Constable lauded JMW Turner’s “wonderful range of mind” after sitting next to him at a dinner.
Since Turner, Bacon has been regarded as the most prominent British artist. He also exploited animals to create his own perverted mythology.
In his 1944 triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, the animals that scream and squat are half chicken, part owl, part dog – and all human. Bacon teaches the war generation that we are no longer angels formed in God’s image.
Second Version of Triptych 1944, a 1988 artwork in the Royal Academy exhibition, hammers home the idea for a new generation. It was painted the year Damien Hirst started the Young British Artists with his group exhibition Freeze and a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, as if to assert that his image of brutal gargoyles remains as relevant as long as humans live.
We aren’t saints. We are the foundation.
When humans and animals crossbreed, monsters emerge. The jackal-headed and horse-bodied figures seen in Egyptian and Greek art signify states of human distinctness and the urges we share with our fellow animals.
Bacon, too, is a mythic artist. He set out to construct a post-religious mythology of contemporary life, depicting humans with elephant-like skin, ape-like crouching, and dog-like sex.
A nude and partially formed guy turns a face with no top half towards us in Figure Study II, painted in 1945-6. Bacon constructs a new, mutant Frankensteinian nature from his comparisons of human and animal anatomy, including Eadweard Muybridge’s images of animals and people in motion.
Only the most gifted painters are capable of such visions. Bacon’s work avoids histrionic pretense because he meticulously examines life’s intricacies and depicts them in highly decadent, bravura paint that is as pleasurable as it is frightening.
He was ready to take on the other great animal artist of the twentieth century by the 1960s. Despite the fact that the corrida “belonged” to Pablo Picasso, he began painting bullfights. Of course, Bacon’s bullfight takes place in a room.
Bacon might also gaze at animals alone, peacefully living for themselves, as seen in 1991’s Study of a Bull. He had never presented a person in such a serene light before.
Thanks to Jonathan Jones at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.