Artist of the week: Francis Bacon


Artist of the week: Francis Bacon

 Francis Bacon (1909-1992) had a “lifelong fascination” with the animal kingdom, said Mark Brown in The Guardian. He liked to watch chimps at the zoo and big game in South Africa; he amassed a huge collection of wildlife books. And he painted bulls, dogs, horses, birds of prey and baboons. The artist believed that “he could see true, normally camouflaged, human nature in animals”, and that only a veneer of civility separated man from beast. When pandemic restrictions are lifted in the coming months, the Royal Academy will play host to a stellar selection of Bacon’s works in an exhibition that will, for the first time, chart his development as an artist through his fascination with animals – tracing his career from the 1930s, when he created his earliest paintings, to the final weeks of his life in 1992. Among the highlights of Francis Bacon: Man and Beast will be Head I, a 1948 picture based on a photo of a chimpanzee, “in which he reduces the human form to a snarling mouth with fangs”; two “screaming pope” paintings portraying a Renaissanceera pontiff as a “caged animal”; and his final work, a two-metre-tall vision of a bull painted “just days” before his death in April 1992. The animal is depicted “backing away from life into a void”, just as the artist himself was about to “enter the dark”.

Bacon’s fascination with animals may have had its roots in childhood, said Jackie Wullschläger in the FT. Born in Dublin in 1909 to a “brutal racehorse trainer”, he spent much of his youth at the family stables, and would later derive much inspiration from the pioneering Victorian photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s studies of horses in motion. The Bacons also owned a pack of red setters, with whom he had a more complicated relationship. He spent his life “frightened yet fascinated” by dogs – they “triggered his severe asthma” – and depicted numerous visions of menacing, predatory canines. On occasion, though, they came in handy: as one story has it, Bacon managed to avoid conscription in the Second World War by hiring a dog from Harrods the day before his Army medical exam; the result was an asthma attack so acute that it disqualified him from military service.

It wasn’t just live animals that captivated the artist, said Sebastian Smee in The Washington Post. Inspired by Rembrandt and Soutine – “painters who saw great beauty in the colours and textures of meat” – he studied livestock carcasses and incorporated them into his nightmarish compositions. His interest, however, was more than purely formal. “Well, of course, we are meat,” he told the critic David Sylvester in 1966. “We are potential carcasses. If I go into a butcher’s shop I always think it’s surprising I wasn’t there instead of the animal.” This was the key to Bacon’s worldview, said Jackie Wullschläger. “Consciousness of mortality sharpens one’s sense of existing,” the artist once said. His “genius”, though, “was to find a heightened pictorial language of animal sensation”, while simultaneously evoking the “imagination and interiority which distinguish man from beast”.

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