'Francis Bacon: Man and Beast', the major survey exhibition scheduled at London's Royal Academy of Arts (postponed until 2022), will explore how Francis Bacon's enduring fascination with animals significantly influenced his instinctive approach to corporeality.
His unyielding distortion of the body blurred the line between man and beast, exploiting the extreme vicissitude of human experience, and conveying raw, tortured expressions of suffering and vulnerability. As the press release for the show phrases it, Bacon was 'mesmerised by animal movement... filling his studio with wildlife books, and constantly referring to Eadweard Muybridge's nineteenth-century photographs of humans and animals in motion... [he] felt he could get closer to understanding the true nature of humankind by watching the uninhibited behaviour of animals.'
The early masterwork Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (which will be shown at the Royal Academy alongside the second version he made in 1988) marked Bacon's first foray into the creation of his eponymous hybridised beings: superimposing howling and grotesque bestial features onto the contorted flesh of human figures.
Matthew Gale, who co-curated a retrospective of Bacon's work at Tate Britain in 2008, has written about the artist's atheism and his insistence that 'in a world without God, humans are no different to any other animal, subject to the same innate urges; transient and alone, they are victims and perpetrators of meaningless acts' and that 'Bacon's collecting of photographs of wild animals fits alongside his obsession with images of violence and of hieratic figures.'
Bacon first exhibited Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, with its lurid orange background and thickly laden paintwork, alongside the darker, ambiguous Figure in a Landscape in April 1945 as part of a group show at Lefevre Gallery on New Bond Street in London. The other artists were Frances Hodgkins, Henry Moore, Matthew Smith, and Graham Sutherland. Sutherland, who admired Bacon's uncompromising spirit, recommended him for the exhibition after Ben Nicholson withdrew.
During this period, Bacon was living and working from the ground floor of 7 Cromwell Place in South Kensington, where he had moved in 1943, funded by his lover and patron Eric Hall. Coincidentally, the same house was once owned by another artist, John Everett Millais, who had lived there between 1862 and 1877. Bacon converted the building's disused former billiard room into his studio space. This studio also conveniently doubled up as an illicit gambling den for roulette games, which he organised with his former nanny Jessie Lightfoot, who lived with him until her death in 1951.
The title of the work, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, referred to the figures that are typically featured in Christian paintings of the death of Jesus. According to John's Gospel, these were the disciple John, Mary the mother of Christ, her sister and Mary Magdalene. Bacon said that the figures in his work represented the ancient Furies, the vengeful Greek goddesses who punished human wrongdoing. The creatures' disturbing elongated, serpentine necks and vicious individuated teeth were akin to mythologised representations of the Loch Ness monster.
In his review of the Lefevre exhibition, the critic Raymond Mortimer objected to the shock value: 'with ostrich necks and button heads protruding from bags – the whole effect gloomily phallic... expressing his sense of the atrocious world... symbols of outrage rather than works of art.'
The intensity of Bacon's painting distilled the violence of the era. It was shown in the final months of the Second World War, when the horrific magnitude of the Holocaust was revealed through the liberation of the concentration camps.
Francis Bacon said the figures in his triptych 'Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion' represent the Furies—ancient Greek goddesses who punished human wrongdoing.— Tate (@Tate) February 27, 2021
Experience the Furies face-to-face when Tate Britain's galleries reopen. https://t.co/iLweL5pSRr pic.twitter.com/31qV2cho0Q
The snarling, cruel mouths were deliberately reminiscent of fascist dictators, taken from propaganda images of them making speeches, specifically a press image of the Nazi politician Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda, that Bacon had in his studio.
In his essay in the 2008 Tate Britain catalogue, curator Chris Stephens responded to a reading of Bacon's work made by the art historian Dawn Ades, when she compared his work to the writing of philosopher Georges Bataille, notably due to their shared interest in 'the violent pulling together of man/beast'. He writes, 'Bataille goes on to describe how the human scream is accompanied by extreme physical movement as the neck extends in mimicry of the animal, much like the figure in the right-hand panel [of Three Studies]'. The disturbing motif of the wide mouth would recur throughout Bacon's practice, notably in his 'screaming pope' series, such as in Head VI (1949).
In conversation with David Sylvester in 1962, Bacon remarked that his work balanced on 'a tightrope' between what is 'called figurative painting and abstraction... [in] an attempt to bring the figurative thing up onto the nervous system more violently and more poignantly'.
In Second Version of Triptych 1944 (1988), Bacon recreated his Three Studies painting, this time placing more theatrical space around the anguished figures, as if the chimeric demons existed in a chasm or void. The painting is nearly 20 feet wide and five feet high. The intense hot orange was substituted with a hyperbolic deep red.
Sylvester wrote that the original orange was a 'metaphor for violence' whereas the new red 'was literally the colour of blood'. This alignment of the crucifixion with butchered flesh and the reality of blood asserted Bacon's vision of the animal that existed inside man.
In an interview in 1991 Bacon had commented: 'I had always intended to rework that painting in a much bigger format and then one day I decided to do it... but I didn't recreate exactly the same work.'
Created just before his death in 1992, his re-engagement with the painting – that catapulted him into public view four decades prior – demonstrated the self-reflexive nature of his later oeuvre.
Philomena Epps, writer
'Francis Bacon: Man and Beast' at The Royal Academy of Arts, London will show from 29th January to 17th April 2022.