Man and Beast, like the subtitle of the Royal Academy’s winter blockbuster, are the same when Francis Bacon watches them. They are both meat. The artist’s painted universe is that of a butcher’s shop: plates of beef hang vertically in his triptychs among umbrellas and swastikas, beasts cut in two drained of blood, flattened into fatty red and white flesh. But the people in his paintings are just as bestial – and just as slaughtered. The bodies fight and kiss. Nudes are spread out on dirty mattresses. We’re just organic stuff.
Bacon surely would have seen the irony that the Royal Academy’s study of his art through the prism of his interest in animals was stunted by a virus. Because Bacon sees no hierarchy of organisms, no sacred particularity in the human species. When the exhibition finally opens at the end of January, it will unveil a true Darwinian artist in whose eyes a pope and a chimpanzee are equally tragicomic.
Bacon painted howling and lonely monkeys in cages during the same years he portrayed lonely and anguished papal figures in glass booths. In 1957’s Study for Chimpanzee, the animal looks like a sad prelate, sulking in the corner of a zoo enclosure. In the 1940s and 1950s, when he defined his vision and established his fame, he also painted dogs, elephants and owls. To visit a zoo is to experience a Francis Bacon theme park. Monkeys, monkeys, and birds of prey are isolated to be seen behind bars, fencing, or glass, with swings and dead branches, just as the people of Bacon receive odd tubular steel furniture in their orange rooms. or claustrophobic roses.
Bacon grew up close to nature. His father used to bet and try to breed horses. Young Francis had early sex with the grooms in his father’s stables. There were also many dogs in this minor aristocratic country house setting. Bacon had siblings who settled in colonial Africa, where he went on vacation. The big game fascinated him. He began collecting books on African wildlife as a teenager and one of his most surprising paintings, Elephant Fording a River from 1952, is a tender depiction of a large mammal eclipsed by a vast dark wilderness. .
Yet Bacon is a ruthless student of the human condition, not an artist of the sentimental nature. His animal studies are essentially fodder for his art of ideas. Approaching him through his menagerie of symbols, Man and Beast invites us to focus on Bacon’s awe-inspiring and frightening vision of life and death. After sitting next to JMW Turner at a dinner party, John Constable praised his “wonderful range of wit”. Bacon, the most important British artist since Turner, shared this great, bold mentality. And he used animals to build his personal pervert mythology.
The howl and squat creatures in his 1944 triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion are part chicken, part owl, part dog – and all human. We are no longer angels created in the image of God, Bacon tells the warrior generation. The Royal Academy exhibition features his 1988 painting, Second Version of the Triptych 1944, which marks the point for a new era. It was painted the year Damien Hirst mounted the group exhibition Freeze that launched the Young British Artists and a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, as if to insist that his take on brutal gargoyles is also relevant as long as humans exist. We are not saints. We are down.
Monsters are what happens when humans and animals cross paths. Egyptian and Greek art created beings with the head of a jackal and the body of a horse that represent states between human distinction and the impulses we share with our fellows. Bacon, too, is an artist of the myth. He set out to create a post-religious mythology of modern life, depicting people with skin resembling that of an elephant, squatting like monkeys and making love like dogs. In Figure Study II, painted in 1945-6, a naked and partially trained man turns a face without an upper half towards us. From his comparisons of human and animal anatomy – including photographs of animals and moving humans by Eadweard Muybridge – Bacon creates a new mutant nature of Frankenstein.
Only the greatest artists can get away with such visions. The reason Bacon’s art doesn’t collapse into melodramatic pretension is that he observes the details of life exactly and renders them in a richly decadent painting of bravery that is as satisfying as it is disturbing. In the 1960s, he was ready to take on the other great animal artist of the 20th century. He began to paint bullfights when the bullfight “belonged” to Pablo Picasso. Bacon’s bullfight takes place in a room, of course.
As the 1991 Study of a Bull reveals, Bacon could also look at lonely, peaceful animals existing for themselves. He has never portrayed a person so quietly.