THE majority of retrospective exhibitions from blockbuster artists can often feel like entering a time capsule with rose tinted glasses on, wondering how groundbreaking it was for its time.
However Francis Bacon’s Man and Beast at The Royal Academy still packs an almighty punch. Having endured both of the world wars, the backdrop of Bacon’s life was extremely violent and yet post pandemic, amidst a climate and refugee crisis, we can still seek an unnerving alliance in Bacon’s work today.
So the title suggests, Bacon metaphorically and literally draws out the beast in man. At times they are indistinguishable, setting an internal fire alight inside one another. Bacon believed “we are meat, we are all potential carcasses.”
Growing up on a stud farm in rural County Kildare, Ireland, stirred an awareness in Bacon on the carnal nature of animals. He explored this theme further once his father died in 1940 when his mother and sisters moved to South Africa. It was on game reserves here that he became “mesmerised” by the hunt and impassioned fight between animals.
Eadweard Muybridge’s discovery of time-lapse photography had a profound effect on Bacon, so much so that he kept a copy of Muybridge’s Human and Animal Locomotion 1887 in his studio. Later he noted “[I] look at animal photographs all the time. Because animal movement and human movement are continually linked in my imagery of human movement.”
We see this most clearly in Two Figures 1953 and in 1954, where two tousling men are reduced to a blur of figures, fighting to be on top, both conceptually and sexually. So erotic are these paintings that two women after seeing the 1954 Two Figures at the ICA in 1955, lodged a formal complaint with the police.
However, thanks to Muybridge’s studies of men wrestling, Bacon was let off. Bacon’s sexuality was punished from day one. He was banished from his family home aged 16 after he was found trying on his mothers underwear.
He practised punishment further in his sadomasochistic relationship with Peter Lacy whose various incarnations we witness throughout the exhibition, whether that be as a slumped, vulnerable nude, lying on a black sofa, or sat staring at us from the corner of a lurid green room.
Bacon’s work is at once unpleasantly unrecognisable and disturbingly apparent, pushing and pulling the viewer between repulsion and fascination. Each figure is presented to us a like animals in a cage, surrounded by a glass box, or pushed back into the corner of the room.
We are pressing ourselves onto his subjects, whether that be man or monkey, and yet they loom large over us on the enormous canvases, suffocating us with their alarming palette and feverish energy.
You feel uncomfortable for standing and staring so long, and yet you can’t leave, encouraging us “to unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently.”
This feels most potent in his studies of Bullfighting during the late 1960’s, a sport Bacon described as “like boxing — a marvellous aperitif to sex”.
The crowds excitement is palpable, delighting in the matador’s performance, mirroring our own experience viewing Bacon’s artistry.
The white splatter of paint symbolises the matador’s spinning cape but also ejaculation. For Bacon, paint was so much more than an artists tool, he believed that there “is an area of the nervous system to which the texture of paint communicates more violently than anything else.” Lucien Freud described Bacon’s technique as “calculated recklessness”.
Francis Bacon,Figure Study II, 1945-46
Indeed his work is extremely calculated and can seem like an art historians handbook, referencing the crucifixion, Ancient Greek plays namely The Oresteia by Aeschylus, depicting a Study from Portrait of Pope Innocent X in 1965 and of course his biomorphs, reminiscent of Picasso’s “organic form that relates to the human image but is a complete distortion of it.”
While his references might seem aloof to the everyday man (he even rented John Everett Millais’s studio in South Kensington in the early 1940s), Bacon’s themes are brought crashing down to earth when littered with mundanities, such as an umbrella, cars, hats and flowers.
In conversation with Time magazine in 1948, he explained how he wished “to paint like Velazquez but with the texture of hippopotamus skin.” Bacon’s visceral art is supposed to jar us, stirring deep primal and sometimes terrifying truths within you.
You can’t help but think Bacon might have been cancelled in todays age, but as always he has the final laugh. Who would have thought a man who so revelled in revulsion would be hanging in the revered walls of the Royal Academy?
by Charlie Newman
Francis Bacon’s Man and Beast is on at The Royal Academy until April 17, 2022