Francis Bacon’s art is a physical experience. It assaults you, it leers off the walls at you. Every figure in this exhibition is twisted and contorted, every face is screaming, every orifice is bleeding. It’s claustrophobic, violent, and properly overpowering. And it’s totally brilliant.
Bacon is one of the great masters of twentieth-century art, and this exhibition focuses on the influence of animal figures on his painting. It turns out that the brutality of the animal kingdom pulses through the veins of almost everything he did.
It starts with a scream: a disembodied head with pallid, deathly flesh and the howling mouth of a chimp. Then there’s crucifixion, a body splayed on a cross like a carcass in an abattoir. Bacon grew up on a stud farm, so he knew all about the visceral ins and outs of meat, and you can tell.
Then there’s a whole menagerie of wildlife: dogs, birds, monkeys. Some are obvious, others morph into human figures. The rutting animals in long grass are actually naked men, the cowering dog on the sofa is Bacon’s battered lover Peter Lacy, the owl swooping past a bleeding body has a yelling human mouth. Animals here are analogues to man, they’re part of a living continuum of beast to human, containing all of our violent base instincts.
A huge, daunting, breathtaking show, filled with violence and blood
Even his more straightforward portraiture is ravaged by claw marks. One man bares his teeth like a rabid dog, a pope barks out a grimacing scream, another has his face mangled as if chewed up by wild animals.
The shadow of World War II looms over everything here, just like violence looms over all the sex, and, ultimately, death looms over life. The most vicious, nasty, in-your-face stuff is from the 1950s when Bacon’s work was full of black and shadow and blood and pain. The 1970s work is infinitely lighter and more polished. Where the human-animal hybrids of the earlier work are fighting and shagging in the wild, the later ones are more like pets kept carefully indoors.
Two red triptychs from the 1980s amp the aggression back up, like an injured, dying animal lashing out, Frankie’s last snarl before he ends up old and de-fanged.
This is a huge, daunting, breathtaking show, filled with violence and blood. It leaves you uncomfortable, physically affected by what you’ve seen. Bacon makes you lose faith in humanity, in our morality and culture and superiority. You can dress it up any way you like, but in the end, we’re all just animals.