Man as beast

There is still time to see the unique RA exhibition of Francis Bacon’s paintings, says John Evans

Thursday, 31st March — By John Evans

Key 67

Francis Bacon, Study of a Bull, 1991, oil, aerosol paint and dust on canvas, 198 x 147.5cm, private collection. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd

HERE is the head of a man beside, or even fused with, that of a monkey; studies for a bullfight; studies of the human body; a crucifixion scene painted as early as 1933.

All are rarely-seen works by Francis Bacon, all from private collections, and all are at a Royal Academy exhibition until April 17.

The power of his distortions, twistings and cagings of his subjects is evident throughout and the show has been billed as the first to explore the fascination of Bacon (1909-1992) with animals and how it affected his depiction of the human form.

Bacon knew and used the work of photographer Eadweard Muybridge, exploring humans and animals in motion, but with exaggerated effect of extreme distortion.

Francis Bacon, Head I, 1948, oil and tempera on board, 100.3 x 74.9cm, lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Richard S. Zeisler, 2007 (2007.247.1). Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd

Yet while the scream of a wild, caged, creature is a recurring theme, so is the acceptance of a sheer brutality, through which Bacon viewed existence. Humans suffer precisely because they are animals.

So the paintings are part therapy, never more powerful than when most personal.

From the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich there is a haunting study “for Portrait of P.L.”, that is, Peter Lacy, with whom Bacon had a tempestuous and violent sexual relationship until his death in 1962.

Another private loan depicts Bacon’s doomed lover, Portrait of George Dyer Crouching, from 1966. Dyer committed suicide two days before the opening of Bacon’s 1971 retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris.

That exhibition, of course, went ahead. Depictions of Dyer would continue after his death.

Other highlights include the Tate’s Second Version of Triptych 1944, with three howling creatures that first appeared in Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. For the reworked painting, from 1988, Bacon changed the background to a blood red, compared with earlier orange, to add more power to figures he associated with the Greek Furies.

Francis Bacon, Fragment of a Crucifixion, 1950, oil and cotton wool on canvas, 140 x 108.5cm, Collection Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven. Photo: Hugo Maertens All images © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2021

Among other large works on display is the private loan, Triptych – Studies of the Human Body from 1970, “ostensibly of female nudes”. It’s a good example of how the artist uses the background colour, here a violet, to define his territory, with three twisted forms almost perched on a floating rail.

Bacon’s Diego Velázquez-inspired popes, his screaming heads, and bullfighters are generally darker subjects.

Man and Beast spans an entire career and in a final room there is a powerful bullfighting triptych from 1987. And the poignant, final, work Bacon made, showing for the first time in the UK, Study of a Bull, from1991. It, too, is from a private collection and the RA says it was not “discovered” until 2016. In this painting, oil and aerosol paint is used but also dust, and Bacon has moved away from using strong colours.

The contrast with his trio of paintings of bullfights from 1969, which are also included in this exhibition of some 45 major works, could hardly be greater.

With the bull there’s no real distortion and a real sadness is discernible.

Quite a sign-off.

• Francis Bacon: Man and Beast, is at the Main Galleries, Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, until April 17.

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