Francis Bacon, "Second Version of Triptych 1944" (1988), oil paint and acrylic paint on three canvases, 198 x 147.5 cm (each). Tate: Presented by the artist 1991 (© The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2021. Photo by Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd)

LONDON — Full in your face, you might say. Before you enter the exhibition proper, you see a photograph of Francis Bacon as a relatively young man, confronting you through the glass in the double doors. It’s blocking your way — and throwing down a challenge. It was taken in 1957 by an old friend of his called John Deakin, and it shows him against a door that is slightly on the tilt. 

He’s staring back at you, with a brutish and almost sneerily cold lack of concern. The collar of his mac is turned up. A smattered smear of red just off to the left suggests blood — or danger. He looks pinned there, ready for anything, any amount of fight-back, by fist or boot or brush — should it ever come to it. A bit of a bruiser, a likely lad, a roughneck, a street brawler, a jack-the-lad. And so he was, this self-taught painter from Dublin. 

Bacon always lived close to the edge, and close to the sheer thrill, the energizing power, of violence. His sadomasochistic excesses are well documented. He knew how to take a good beating. His father had shown him the way by beating him as a child. But there was much more to Bacon than that. He also knew how to put all these impulses of excess to good use as an artist. There was violence for sure and, as with Jean Genet, another street fighter, there was also an extraordinary ability to make art out of it.

Francis Bacon, “Study for Chimpanzee” (March 1957), oil and pastel on canvas, 152.4 x 117 cm. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, 1976 76.2553.172 (© 2017 The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. ARS, New York/DACS, London Painting)

When I saw him on the streets of Soho a couple of years before his death in 1992, he was clinging to the image of the man by which he had always been known. His cheeks, slightly puffed out, were hectic with rouge; that dyed black quiff of hair was still well sculpted. A black leather jacket gave definition to his shoulders. He was leaning on a fashionable cane. Had he just emerged from a drinking dive or a night club? He could have. After all, it was way past dawn. In fact, it was 11 in the morning. 

There was always something very animal about Bacon himself and the work that he made, and for the first time an entire exhibition is devoted to the theme of Bacon, animals, and the animality of his art, Francis Bacon: Man and Beast. As we pass beyond that photograph, we hit a warning: Adult Content. If you happen to be an adult yourself today, that nifty little turn of phrase, especially when capitalized (my choice), always manages to be more than a tad appetite-whetting. The Royal Academy, often the modicum of restraint and decorum, has decided to let its hair down. The show is well staged, almost smoothly cinematic in its unfolding. The first galleries are very low lit (this is a subterranean world after all), but the paintings themselves are spotlit. It’s quite a decorative spectacle.

Bacon was obsessed by animals lifelong. He traveled to Africa to see them in the wild. He kept hundreds of cuttings of them in action. Rawness. Beastliness. Fearsomeness. The way they lived. The way they died. The way they preyed upon each other. Their erotic unconcern — none of them was much preoccupied by sin. All these matters were abiding preoccupations that fed into his art. 

Picasso showed him the way with his Boisgeloup sculptures of the early 1930s. Bacon almost reprised some of those tortured, swelling, elongated forms, part man, part beast, in some of his earliest paintings. (Several years ago, the Bacon Estate refused to allow these early, derivative works to be shown beside Picasso’s. Now they are happy to acknowledge Bacon’s debt.)

Francis Bacon, “Portrait of George Dyer Crouching” (1966), oil on canvas, 198 x 147 cm. Private collection (© The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2021. Photo by Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd)

You see, Bacon was more than a bit of a renegade, a man outside the law, a potential criminal, for much of his creative life. It was not until 1967 that Welsh Home Secretary called Roy Jenkins (in the Labour Government of Harold Wilson) steered legislation through parliament that made consensual sex between men legal in the United Kingdom. Which means that Bacon, stealing some words from Bob Dylan’s great “Key West,” often had to operate “under the radar/under the gun ….” He had to cover his tracks, and this may explain, in part at least, why his gyrating, turning, twisting, copulating figures are so often blurred, their gender indefinite. Bacon was wholly besotted by indefinition. The floor of his studio was a dramatic mashing of images of all sorts from all kinds of sources. Everything piled in, from images of Hitler to the figures in movement — horses and men — captured by the revolutionary photographer Eadweard Muybridge. And today this outsider, this boozer of the night, is welcomed with open arms by the establishment, and these huge works hang here, many in the kind of over-the-top gilded frames that their plutocrat owners would expect. 

One of the most interesting things to be said about the Bacon on view in this show is to do with the little explored issue of art and teeth. Human teeth hadn’t played much of a role in art until Bacon. Skulls — emblems of this passing masquerade that goes by the name of life — often show them off, but we seldom see teeth lodged within the warmer skulls of the living. Why? Perhaps they rotted too soon to be shown off as objects of desire, before cosmetic dentistry was able to weave its magic. Do we remember Rembrandt, Raphael, or Ingres for their angles on human teeth? Exactly. With Bacon it is quite otherwise. Teeth abound. Sometimes they are almost side-on inside the mouth — such a flourish of grotesquerie. Most often we see them because Bacon’s human heads, such as his miserably pent popes, often howl inside their cages — and when a human howls, teeth generally go on full display. On the other hand, there are paintings by many artists of animals with teeth on the snarl and the snatch and the chomp. Bacon does it to establish that link with animality. We proceed through life with slavering fangs to the fore, posing on all fours. 

This show sprawls needlessly. It gives you ten paintings when two might have sufficed to illustrate various aspects of the chosen theme. Fortunately these galleries are huge, and the paintings are never dwarfed by their surroundings. What is more, the staging is so good — the walls of individual galleries change color to match the paintings. The beastly Bacon roars on from first to last.

Francis Bacon, “Man with Dog” (1953), oil on canvas, 152 x 117 cm. Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York. Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1955. K1955:3 (© The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2021. Photo by Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd)

Francis Bacon: Man and Beast continues at the Royal Academy (Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, England) through April 17. The exhibition was organized by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and curated by Michael Peppiatt with Sarah Lea and Anna Testar. Francis Outred served as Special Adviser to the exhibition.

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Michael Glover

Michael Glover is a Sheffield-born, Cambridge-educated, London-based poet and art critic, and poetry editor of The Tablet. He has written regularly for the Independent, the Times,...