Posted By Smple Staff

Still Animal: Francis Bacon


Bacon in his studio, Jane Bown ,1985

On an airless white soundstage, shutters scream up. A man steps in. He walks with brass dignity, a hand in his pocket, wearing the colours and contours of Berlin; black turtleneck, grey blazer; mouth ajar, as always, like the eyes above it have found something tasty in a trap. Another man waits for him, suited, with the aspect of someone who would wait forever. 

Not a word is spoken. They stand formally for a moment, a small blink of respect. Then the room goes dark. A projector burns fiercely. They turn to it, and see another open mouth. It is bottomless. A hole. A portal. “I had always thought,” says the first man, Francis Bacon, with the still-fluting voice of a Soho queen, “that I would be able to make the mouth with all the beauty of the Monet landscape. But I never did succeed in doing so.” 

The projector changes. Both men’s thoughts flicker with the image: Velasquez’s Pope, a cherub and a mirror, Van Gogh as a wobbling spectre. Melvyn Bragg, the second man, plays the foil to Bacon’s ruminations, does his darndest to discuss smears and ideas. “Can you remember what you felt when you made this painting?” he asks. 

The artist sniffs. “I don’t feel anything when I do paintings at all. I rather like the dog in this painting. The image down in the front . . . Perhaps it would’ve been better without it, I don’t quite know. I like the dog. It looks as if it’s lying there, like it’s had a really good run.” Shapeless emotions, wordless want – is this what the animal lays at his feet? By 1985, age 76, Francis was nearing the end of his own run, although this hallowed episode of The South Bank Show shows an imp still delighted by everything hot to the touch. 

They continue talking, touring, forcing or resisting connections. Bacon can be withering, most of all about himself. There is always an angle – a potential truth – to sod off. They wrap up. Move on. 

The next day, Bragg visits Bacon’s famously chaotic studio, a cave of photographs, paper heaps and gashed canvas. Again, they spar as interviewer and subject, rubbing against the demands of the programme. But this time, Bacon alights with a word: “Yes!” He points to a photo of a lion. “There, you put it very clearly. I think that’s exactly what it is.” The what being an admission of shock, of wanting a split pause in existence to take our breath away: for a thing to be nothing other than what it is. “I would like my paintings to have the same effect of this wild animal after the kill.” In the whole hour’s worth of footage, he never looks happier. 

A new show at London’s Royal Academy, Man & Beast, seeks the same revelation. We may half believe in it. Francis Bacon, one of the 20th century’s greatest painters – a gambling, sozzled menace upon figurative art; a man who threw commissions on casino tables with a red smile, and supposedly met a boyfriend when he fell through a studio skylight – never simply loved the animals we hide. That’s just too easy. And he enjoyed conversation too much. 

Few personalities crash so spritely through post-war Britain as Bacon’s. Born in 1909, he grew up on an Irish estate in fear of his father, The Major. The elder Bacon’s taciturn stiffness separated him and Francis by a good deal of emotional geography – his son’s fascination with women’s clothes soon made it unbridgeable. Yet the child began to delight his mother’s friends, discovering a caustic wit that helped him escape shyness and shameful asthma attacks. On a cushion, jazzed by slices of cake and petticoats, he could embrace his weaknesses, view them as shuddering flesh ripe for a putdown. The Major liked none of it. He had Francis whipped by stable boys, one of whom later took his virginity. “I don’t like the smell of horse dung,” he’d later say, “but I find it sexually arousing, like urine. It’s very real, it’s very virile.” Hay, faeces and wet dog perfumed his burgeoning arousals, not least of which was a sexual fascination with The Major – the strongman in the shadows. 

Man & Beast opens with stark visions of mouths and ears, and faces missing their human qualities. Head 1, from 1948, is a study of vanishment, what’s left of the corpse-grey skin hanging on a hook above the dark. The top half of the head is gone. The bottom is reconfiguring. On the melting wax of its neck, a row of teeth has split open like a parasite.

Head 1, 1948
Courtesy of the Royal Academy of the Arts, London, Dave Parry.
 © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2022.

Bacon’s early dalliances with sex and violence – if not inseperable, then leaving him with thrilling ways to rebel and keep love within punching distance – aren't conventionally erotic. For a country lad, he painted no horses, no swans or deer. Instead we see perverted, exotic fauna, such as the ape trying to catch a scrap of something in Chimpanzee, or a lumpy rhino’s hyde blurring his portrait of friend, artist and model Isabel Rawsthorne. 

Bacon’s bulls are more pedestrian at first, before you realise they are bound forever with their fighters, refusing to let go, or cross doorways toeing for a final game of risk. Study For Bullfight 1 is a storm of enmeshed bodies circled by Bacon’s astonishing orange. Here, beast and killer spar in a room that may or may not exist, the dots of a crowd trapped in a panel like a wardrobe mirror. His final work, Study Of A Bull, was only found in 2016, and stands at the end of the gallery – a spectral reminder to keep dancing with the devil, to never give up on the pure, instinctive lust for chance and chaos, even when age tries to rob you of the hunt. Such brutal adoration extends to his human subjects. When Bacon paints two men in a scene, they’re in a white tangle, sleeping or screwing or fighting for a hug.

Study Of A Bullfight no.1 & 2, 1969
Courtesy of the Royal Academy of the Arts, London, Dave Parry.  © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2022. 

From Tangier to Egypt and a host of random safaris, Francis travelled well off his fame in the 1940s and ‘50s. It made up for lost miles. Disqualified by sensitive lungs, he barely served in World War II, and thanks to his forced isolation, as well as the encouragement of Cubist painter Roy de Masitre, only seriously found his groove in 1944. 

Bacon excelled at convincing people he’d come from nowhere, with no proper training. In fact, he’d been craving attention for his art through the ‘30s, facing rejections from British cliques and Parisian Surrealists. Their landmark Mayfair exhibition in 1936, featuring works by Dali and Ernst, denied Bacon outright. A comment from organiser Roland Penrose cut him up for years: “Mr Bacon, don’t you realise a lot has happened to painting since the Impressionists?” He was sent limping to the purse of Eric Hall, a family friend who acted as his bank and sugar daddy. 

The painting that changed it all, Three Studies At The Base Of A Crucifixion, is present here. And whether you’re an inch or another room away, it’s a masterful triptych. Much like hearing The Velvet Underground for the first time and wondering how on earth anyone’s hippy brain could cope with something so dastardly odd, Three Studies . . . is a true watershed in British art. Three monsters, each contorted with shades of a bird, bull and carcass, command our sympathy. One of them, the middle beast, looks over its shoulder with a cloth binding its eyes, as if viciously startled. Another yawns for food or morphine. They are grieving passionately, unable to turn away from the event of the tyrptich’s title. 

But just as animals find expression in these sad creatures, another thought leaps out – furniture. They remind me of weird coat stands and ornaments. Returning to the peice in '88, he made one expressly so, placing it on a table. The privilege, you might say, of culture, and aesthetic taste for the unnatural.

Second Version of Triptych 1944, 1988
Courtesy of the Royal Academy of the Arts, London, Dave Parry.  © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2022. 

Part of Bacon’s self-revisionism was to erase his past as an interior designer. He didn’t want to be known as someone who, aside from Hall and de Maistre, had barely any customers. He couldn’t sell a rug, never mind himself. After hitting the pages of a fashionable home life magazine when he was 21, the young Bacon fell silent. Who was he? Effortlessly tasteful, or gleefully tasteless? As Mark Stevens and Amalyn Swan write in their recent-ish Bacon biography, “He sometimes seemed pulled in opposite directions. Explosive or restrained; bestial or civilised; masked or revealed; raw or cooked [...] a shy homosexual boy beset by illness might want to hide in a closet, growing there to love the shadowy thoughts and melancholy pleasures of the concealed life. That did not mean the same boy might not dream of delirious release.” 

The thin tightrope between refinement and impulse strung together many of Bacon’s relationships. Like George Dyer, the petty East End crook whom Francis delighted in making the very image of cockney royalty, buying his suits, shoes and booze while letting him loose him on bohemian London, bar to bar. His friends didn’t get the joke. Dyer was, in their estimations, a thug and a bore. But Bacon adored painting a sheen of respectability on a man whose mother used to pinch pocket money, dressing up the animal for cocktail hour. The story of Dyer’s death on a hotel toilet a day before the biggest night of Bacon’s career – which the artist almost prophesied with Three Figures In A Room, and had to ignore on the wall all evening – is a cruel collision of art and life. Such human drama is missing from the gallery notes. 

Equally, we don’t see Bacon’s studies of Lucian Freud, his most intense friend over the years. The two of them would drive other people round the bend, peeling away from admirers as soon as the other arrived, finding a bar’s dank nook to discuss beauty, parties and wicked affairs. Freud’s daughter remembers Lucian saying that Francis had the most exquisite forearms, “The sort of thing you’d say about a lover.” Bacon’s fleshy immediacy inspired Freud’s nudes – yet still, they hobnobbed with aristocrats and drank gallons of champagne, lived high and low. Whenever his money ran out, as it often did, Francis became madly depressed. 

This divided Bacon eludes Man & Beast. We are asked to consider his curtain pull on the human psyche, the bloody bones of the animal within. But to really understand what fed his horrors, we must look at the inverse: the tease of a sweet suit in bad company. The Academy’s exhibition puts too much emphasis on naked desire, without leaving much space for the creature comforts that disturbed it. 

But again, that’s what I feel right now, in the moment. And Francis would know that’s bound to change. 

The show is running till April 17th 2022. Pay a visit and send hot takes!

More from Joshua Potts
Trending Posts
Rug-pulls, Rampant Fraud and the NFT Wasteland
Our Favourite SMPLE Films So far
The Rise of Analog Horror
The Many Lives Of Kanye West Pt. 2
Featured Music
Playing Next
Explore Music