State of Nature

Francis Bacon: Man and Beast

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Francis Bacon, the English artist whose life and radical painting during the second half of the 20th century continues to throw up new revelations and blockbuster exhibitions.

Caged mammals. Bacon at the Tate, 2008.

There has been a flurry of new Bacon scholarship in recent years, many published by the artist’s estate. 

In 2021, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan published Francis Bacon: Revelations, which may well become the definitive biography of the artist, simultaneously opening up yet more avenues of interpretation into his work, and speculations about his complex private life. 

It seems appropriate that a Bacon blockbuster would appear in London at the breaking of our Covid-induced culture fast, just as in April 1945 visitors to London’s Lefevre Gallery were confronted with the artist’s first “mature” work; the startling triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, which nearly eight decades later has lost none of its power to shock. 

Francis Bacon: Man and Beast, which ran through the first four months of this year, is the most notable showing of the artist’s work in the city since the Tate Gallery’s retrospective in 2008. 

Two years delayed owing to the pandemic, and considering the difficulty in securing loans for these valuable works from their reclusive owners, it is something of a minor miracle that this grand show in the even grander halls of London’s Royal Academy of Arts even took place. 

Bacon is perhaps one of the few contemporary painters whose work sits comfortably in such opulent surroundings. Visitors to the exhibition have been treated to a complete tour of the artist’s major periods as well as several works that have never previously been on public display. 

The show’s theme reflects a recent trend toward bringing out the ambiguity in Francis Bacon’s work and questioning the standard interpretation — often repeated by the artist himself — that his art was merely a reflection of his life. 

By focussing attention on the animal in Bacon’s painting, the curators raise questions, not just about his sources, but also his philosophy, and his ambivalent relationship to the animal in man. 

Indeed, the distinction between Man AND Animal signalled by the show’s title is one which Francis Bacon’s work continually refutes. Nowhere is this demonstrated more aggressively than in the case of the first painting encountered in the exhibition, the disarmingly titled Head I (1948). 

The head, though, is scarcely visible, only the right ear protrudes from out of a truncated mass of grey white flesh, on the opposite side of which a twisted feral mouth bares its teeth. 

Screaming mouths were a frequent motif in Bacon’s paintings in the late 1940s and 1950s, during which the ambiguity between man and animal in his work is at its greatest intensity. These mouths, which predate their most memorable evocation in the artist’s series of Velazquez-inspired Popes, are like a point of transposition between the human and animal. 

It’s striking how the howling faces in Study for a Baboon (1953) and Chimpanzee (1955) track with awful clarity the pained expression on the face of the Pontiff in the later series. Another unnerving work from the late 1940s (Head IV, 1949) has the face of a monkey emerging like a ghostly apparition from the side of an almost entirely obscured human head. 

Francis Bacon grew up in Ireland, near the Curragh in County Kildare. It was an environment that was filled with animals — notably the race horses bred by his father, Eddie Bacon. 

Michael Peppiatt, the art historian and former friend of Bacon reports that Francis once described his childhood as something cold and hard, like a block of ice. This experience could not have been improved by the artist’s asthma, which was aggravated by the presence of dogs and horses. 

Horses never appear in Bacon’s collection of animal studies, perhaps being too closely associated with his father, whom he despised. The animals that the artist chose as subjects were more often exotic and influenced by his visits with his mother and sister in South Africa, where he encountered elephants, monkeys and big game near his family’s farm on the Limpopo. 

After the 1950s, as Francis Bacon’s reputation as a unique voice in British painting continued to grow, animals no longer featured as a major subject. What appeared in their place was a more disquieting and poignant meditation on what unites and separates man and beast.

An Art of Immanent Sensation

In public, Bacon carefully managed his image and the way his art was interpreted. The series of interviews with the broadcaster David Sylvester throughout the 1960s and 1970s were characteristic of his willingness to both court publicity and carefully stage manage it. 

The published transcript of those interviews has become something of a how-to guide for budding young artists interested in nurturing their enigmatic side. Damien Hirst particularly prized them. 

Whenever Sylvester raised the question of interpretation Bacon would push back with his Paul Valery-inspired claim that what he aspired to with his painting was to “give the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance”. 

This guiding principle towards an imminent form of figurative painting, as opposed to mere illustrative representation, is powerfully demonstrated by three pictures that the curators of the exhibition cleverly group together within the same room.

Two Figures in the Grass (1954) shows the amorphous contours of a pair of naked human bodies conjoined in an intense embrace within a beautifully painted field. The whole scene, however — grass and all — is enclosed in what looks like dark curtains or even the bars of a cell, which gives the sexual scene a darkly Lynchian tone, as if the couple were halfway between worlds. 

Figures in a Landscape (1956-57) pushes this same sexual scene into the realm of abjection. The brush strokes are cruder, more aggressive, and the posture of the figures, only one of which can be clearly made out, is ambiguously poised between tenderness and violence. 

At the time of painting, Francis Bacon was in a relationship with a former Royal Air Force pilot called Peter Lacy which was tempestuous and violent enough for the artist to occasionally require medical treatment for the injuries he sustained. 

Lacy eventually moved to Tangier where Bacon would regularly visit him during the 1950s, encountering the Beat writers and other notable ex-pat figures of the era like Paul and Jane Bowles. As his career took off in the early 1960s, Lacy slid into alcoholism, dying in Tangier in 1962. 

Francis Bacon painted Landscape near Malabata (1963) as a veiled tribute to his former lover. There is nothing else like it in the artist’s oeuvre. A swirling mass of colour and shadow painted as if viewed through a fish-eye lens dominates the centre of the canvas. 

The brushstrokes are applied with the same passion and colour palette as in the earlier Figures in a Landscape. But now there are no figures present. Instead, long thin shadows cast from somewhere outside the frame mingle with diaphanous forms as they circle each other. It is an image infused with dark sexual energy.

Bacon courted chance and disaster throughout his life. His method of painting was such that he would often gamble everything on the next brush stroke. If the artist was dissatisfied with the result, he would destroy often perfectly presentable pictures. 

This was a practice Francis Bacon maintained until his death even though by that point he was throwing away millions of pounds. It is speculated that the artist destroyed just as many paintings as he “let out”, to use his phrase. 

It’s perhaps not surprising that someone with a gambler’s love of chance, attracted to intense physical experiences, would be drawn to bullfighting. Bacon produced three magisterial paintings in 1969 on the subject of the bullfight, all of which were on show in London, neatly placed at an equal distance around a circular room. 

Ernest Hemingway wrote that the art of bullfighting — which elsewhere he compared to sculpture — exists only in the minds of those who have seen it, and dies with them. Bacon’s three studies go a considerable way in refuting Hemingway. 

Only an artist with the ability to capture movement in the manner Francis Bacon does could possibly approach the bullfight as a subject. Each panel of this unofficial triptych centres the corrida within a tight circle, completely abstracting it from the context of the arena. 

The images capture the matador’s sweeping motion as he passes his cape in front of the bull, which is immediately identifiable by lowered horns and stamping hooves, but is otherwise a mass of shuddering meat caught on the turn. 

Bacon’s success here isn’t so much in representing the drama of the bullfight, but in capturing the raw sensation of the spectacle, where man and beast engage in a dance of death. 

The matador and bull coalesce just as the human and animal images had done in his series of heads twenty years previously, and the lovers do in his pictures of their couplings. 

Yet another layer of interpretation is suggested by the inclusion of the Nazi Parteiadler (Eagle and Swastika emblem) above the crowd at the side of the arena. 

Francis Bacon had a longstanding fascination with Nazi imagery, from Hermann Göring’s bellicose mouth which found its way into his paintings of the 1940s, to the Swastika which appears on the arm of the figure in Crucifixion (1965). 

The potential violence of the crowd and of human beings more generally was a common subtext to interpretations of Bacon’s work. The painter himself always refuted the claim of being the originator of such horrors, telling David Sylvester that “my work is a reflection of my life — if you want violence you only need to look at life”. 

Bacon’s nihilism collapses the distinction between human and animal suffering. “Man is meat” he would say in the 1950s while having publicity shots made of him holding sides of beef! 

In the photographs of slaughtered elephants taken in Africa by his friend Peter Beard, he would recognise the same destructive effects upon the natural environment as he had done during the war period. 

With his bullfight series, Francis Bacon makes perhaps his greatest statement on the inseparability of man and beast.

The Way of All Flesh

Bacon’s later years were characterised by increasing commercial success, but also tragedy and failing health. 

After the death of his lover George Dyer in Paris in 1971, the day before the opening of his exhibition at the Grand Palais, the artist’s work increasingly took on a reflective and more refined quality. 

The triptych became increasingly central to his practice and he produced several during the 1970s and 1980s, including three dedicated to Dyer. 

Several of these later triptychs were included in the London show, among them a pair which return to the frightening images of the Eumenides (Greek vengeance deities) which he first introduced with Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944). 

In his Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus (1981) the god of vengeance is seen lingering at the threshold of a room from which a trickle of blood is flowing. 

Triptych (1987) features a fascinating combination of figures including a bull which is seen lunging downwards as a spectral Eumenides hangs above it. 

The central and left panels of the triptych show the lower part of an injured body with what looks like cuts to the knee and a wound to the abdomen suggestive of goring by the horns of a bull. 

A brilliant recent study by Sophie Pretorius on Bacon’s medical records reveals that around the time of producing this painting, the artist was suffering from an umbilical hernia, the appearance of which is uncannily similar to the injury depicted in the central panel. 

The medical records reveal that Bacon and his doctor Paul Brass carefully managed his numerous illnesses in a quite deliberate way to produce what Pretorius calls a “state of utilitarian suffering”. 

That Bacon would bring together images of the bull, the Eumenides, and his own injured flesh, is tantalisingly suggestive of a deeper engagement with the fact that suffering unites man and animal. 

An avowed existentialist, Francis Bacon was never shy in offering up statements about the meaninglessness and absurdity of life, usually with a glass of champagne in his hand. 

He once said that feelings of desperation and unhappiness were more useful to an artist than feelings of contentment because desperation and unhappiness stretch your whole sensibility. 

Suffering, then, is an inescapable fact of life for all living things, but only man can reflect upon that fact, to externalise it into art, and in doing so put meaning into his otherwise meaningless condition. 

In the face of this reality, the only response is to live a life in voluptuous abandon, perched unashamedly between conscious intention and pure chance. Bacon, the masochist and gambler, who nevertheless strived for “a very ordered image”, once described this ethos as exhilarated despair. 

Why then make use of religious armatures like triptychs and the crucifixion? 

Francis Bacon was always coy and dismissive of attempts to draw deeper significance from his use of the crucifixion, saying only that it was an example of man’s behaviour. 

On the surface, this sounds like a standard atheist rationalisation. But from the standpoint of his embrace of man as a universally suffering and irredeemable creature, the crucifixion takes on a tragic quality. 

For Bacon, if human life is just a cycle of birth, copulation, and death (as T. S.  Elliot’s Sweeney Agonistes would have it), then Christ’s suffering and all those attempts, both secular and religious, to secure mankind’s salvation are but a fool’s errand. 

It stands to reason then that any transcendence in this life can only be achieved through sensation, through the heightening of one’s existence as a mortal human animal. 

Fittingly, the exhibition concludes with the artist’s last completed work, Study of a Bull (1991), a poignant statement distilling in awful finality all that had gone before. 

The picture is mostly raw canvas with the spectre of the bull balanced as if between two places. The animal’s head is straight rather than lowered in a charge, and there’s nothing of the muscular force which the 1969 bulls conveyed. This is an animal approaching in peace, resigned to its fate. 

Francis Bacon never ceased to strive after new sensations and against the advice of his doctor travelled to Madrid in pursuit of his young Spanish lover José Capelo, where he died of a heart attack in April 1992. 

Bacon’s posthumous star continues to rise, an irony considering his devotion to figurative painting was often considered an anachronism during his lifetime. His work forces us to look mortality and suffering in the face. 

When asked about the theme of death in his work, he told David Sylvester “…perhaps, I have a feeling of mortality all the time. Because, if life excites you, its opposite, like a shadow, death, must excite you”. 

In the wake of the pandemic, Francis Bacon’s ethos and his unswerving commitment to a life lived to the full in the glare of man’s mortality may be a lesson for us all. 

Photograph courtesy of Jean-Pierre Dalbéra. Published under a Creative Commons license.