The Animals and Animalism of Francis Bacon’s Paintings

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Francis Bacon: Man and Beast opens at the Royal Academy
Francis Bacon, Study for Bullfight No. 1, 1969 Oil on canvas, 198 x 147.5cmPrivate collection © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2021. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd

As Francis Bacon: Man and Beast opens at the Royal Academy, James Cahill spotlights seven works from the show that lay bare the artist’s conception of “the animal within”

For Francis Bacon, the animal was a facet of the human; dogs, birds, bulls and monkeys populate his canvases, while humans and animals combine into strange chimeras. The Royal Academy’s long-awaited exhibition Man and Beast demonstrates that animals weren’t merely a tangent of his art, but a pervasive sensibility. “He didn’t like animals”, remarks the show’s curator Michael Peppiatt. Since childhood, horses and dogs had triggered Bacon’s asthma, and yet they were a persistent source of fascination, fundamental to his conception of life.

Peppiatt had the idea for Man and Beast three years ago. He realised that discussions of Bacon’s paintings had focused heavily on the human form, paying little attention to the animals that the artist observed and translated into his pictures – whether the big game that he witnessed in South Africa in the 1950s, or the photographs of birds and other wildlife that provided cues for his biomorphic creations. “A large number of paintings have animals either as their main subject or as an accompanying subject,” Peppiatt says, “and I started to wonder why this was. He always professed to hate the countryside, and never wanted to stray from city centres. But it occurred to me that he’d had a completely countrified upbringing on a stud farm in Ireland. His whole formation took place among animals.”

The resulting show is a formidable survey spread across the RA’s main galleries, featuring little-seen works from private collections, while simultaneously stripping Bacon’s art of some of its ingrained familiarity. Below, we’ve picked out several paintings from the show that lay bare Bacon’s conception of “the animal within”.

Head I (1948)

Head I (1948), the first work in the show, depicts a fanged mouth – taken from a photograph of a chimpanzee – conjoined with a human ear. Rendered in chalky white paint on black, like a transcription of an X-Ray, this hybrid being is an early incarnation of the human animal that would recur, in various guises, throughout Bacon’s art. The painting seems to suggest that the chimp is utterly different from us – and yet just the same. “He saw human beings more clearly by looking at animals,” Peppiatt says. “Animals were less camouflaged than humans. He liked to get right through to the primal instinct – without the veneer of so-called civilisation.”

Study for a Figure (1945)

That idea of the animal as a foil for the civilised veneer emerges in Study for a Figure (1945), a close echo of the screaming Furies of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (the triptych of 1944 – not included in the RA show – that brought Bacon to fame after years of obscurity). A half-formed being swoops across the centre of the picture, its illegible head protruding from two hillock-like shoulders. Trailing a swathe of black shadow, it extends its face towards a bouquet of pink-red flowers – the vestige, perhaps, of some social ritual. 

Figure Study II (1945-46)

Figure Study II (1945-46) repeats the motif: a humanoid body, pale and stunted, slides from beneath a herringbone coat and edges towards a spray of ferns, its head shaded by an umbrella. Plants and cut flowers suggest the tamed nature of everyday life. It is tempting to wonder whether the creature in these pictures is enticed by the stuff of an ordinary life, like the semi-feral Steppenwolf of Hermann Hesse’s novel, who craves bourgeois normality even as he shuns it – or whether the animal intends to devour and destroy.

Fragment of a Crucifixion (1950)

Banal, sedate reality is reflected in the background details of Fragment of a Crucifixion (1950) – the small, scurrying pedestrians and cars that evoke WH Auden’s “someone … just walking dully along” while a disaster unfolds close by. Across the centre of the picture, an open-mouthed apparition plunges across the dark axes of a cross. Bacon’s crucified body – conjured out of white paint, stamped with a black mouth – was based on a photograph of an owl.

Dog (1952)

Auden also remarked in his poem Musée des Beaux Arts that “the dogs go on with their doggy life”. Something of the kind is happening in Dog (1952). Here, there is no violent upheaval – no crucifixion – to puncture the carapace of mundane reality, and yet the dog itself becomes an index of raw, untameable instinct. Its twisting body – marooned on a hexagon of unprimed canvas – is frozen in agitation. A line of papal red borders the ground on which it sits, a strange formalist touch that rhymes with the red tongue of the panting animal. In the background, cars glide along the Monte Carlo seafront.

Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus (1982)

For Bacon, the ‘animal’ wasn’t simply a vector of instinct, violence, fear and flesh. It could be a mythic quality, something arcane and metamorphic. By extension, realism in art was about capturing life’s cryptic, encoded, incalculable aspects. In Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus (1982), the Fury on the left derives from a photograph of a diving pelican. The natural world transmutes into an emblem of antiquity and otherness, framed within a theatrical space.

Man with Dog (1953)

The same combination of theatre and violence is glimpsable in Bacon’s three virtuoso pictures of the stages or tercios of the bullfight, dating from 1969, brought together for the first time. For all the high-mythic drama (Bacon quotes in one picture from a photo of a Nazi rally), the rage and exertion of the bull are not so different from the straining of the dog on its lead in Man with Dog (1953). Animals were a point of connection between base reality and the otherworldly. “Bacon was a powerful enough painter to make those very mundane, banal scenes of dogs almost mythical,” as Peppiatt puts it. “It was that moment where you might say a reality is revealed, just as powerful as a Mithraic sun deity.”

Francis Bacon: Man and Beast is on at the Royal Academy of Arts in London from 29 January – 17 April 2022.

James Cahill’s debut novel Tiepolo Blue will be published in June 2022 by Sceptre.