Francis Bacon: Man and Beast
Royal Academy of Arts, London, UK: 29 January to 17 April 2022
In Francis Bacon’s art we are always aware of what acts of violence do to the human form. Flesh is punctured or flayed, carved from bones so the body resembles (or is sometimes replaced by) a carcass in an abattoir. In some portraits it seems to slip downwards, as though gravity were pulling the top layer off the people, the paint revealing what T. S. Eliot called the ‘skull beneath the skin’. Bodies are mangled, with the sites that should be faces identifiable, like murder victims, only through the placement of their teeth. To visit the Royal Academy of Arts’ ‘Francis Bacon: Man and Beast’ exhibition on the day that Russian tanks rolled over Ukraine’s borders and missiles rained down on targets both military and civilian inside the country was to be particularly reminded of this fragility, this capacity to be harmed, or to inflict harm. It was also a reminder, though, of another facet of Bacon’s painting: his undermining the sense of grandeur that Vladimir Putin has aped in his recent appearances to show how our flesh mocks our arrogance. For Bacon, we are all bodies, frail even in our pretensions to power, even if we are often powerless when others act out these pretensions on us.
In a world still getting used to again seeing art in the company of many bodies, this immense survey of Bacon’s large-format painting is a timely reminder of his output, his life, and his continuing relevance. His 1988 exhibition in late-Soviet Moscow has recently been recalled in a memoir by its curator James Birch. Then, the presence of Bacon’s work in the Russian capital was a measure of a changing cultural climate, an artist from the West suddenly visible to a Russian populace both excited and bemused at what had appeared in its midst. Now, as the full measure of what Putin’s regime is becomes clear to all, Bacon is on display in London, or ‘Londongrad’ as some commentators call it as they draw attention to the vast sums of Russian money that have flowed through the city in recent years. While the rhetoric of the Cold War is dusted down and put to work again, his paintings come back to haunt a world still recovering from a pandemic, and which now sees another Apocalyptic horseman on the horizon.
After two years of on/off social distancing, where much of life has been, at times, reduced to an online conversation between two people sitting alone in their respective rooms, we have acquired a new level of insight into many of Bacon’s images. Issues of isolation recur in his paintings, where subjects often occupy solitary, claustrophobic spaces inside their frames. These famous boxes of glass or light surround them like personal booths, while curtains of light fall in front of their faces. Space is tightly demarcated and policed by lines of perspective, painted in like the laser beams of a security system. As television images in recent years have shown, Russian courtrooms often place the accused in a glass booth so as to establish a symbolic distance between them and the events in the room that decides their fate. Footage shows this applied to murderers but also to political dissidents like Alexander Navalny and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, or the members of Pussy Riot (in her memoir, Riot Days, describing her role in the ‘Punk Prayer’ protest of 2012 and its aftermath, group member Maria Alyokhina refers to it as ‘the aquarium’). Such a setting invariably seeks to turn the individual into an object of curiosity or disgust, as though confined to protect society from their influence. Bacon anticipates this, although his sitters veer from looking like threats behind glass to freaks exhibited for the public’s fascinated horror. Under his gaze, Pope Innocent X changes from the symbol of supreme if psychologically uneasy power that Velázquez produced into a troubled figure, sometimes twisting awkwardly on his throne, sometimes staring out at the viewer, screaming into the void that separates us from him. These were joined, in the 1950s, by a series of portraits of businessmen; dark-suited figures sometimes captured sitting on beds or chairs in dimly-lit rooms, whose formal attire only accentuates the melting face with its teeth in a rictus of a smile.
What would the artist who produced such images have made of Putin’s pre-war public appearances? How would he have depicted the comically long tables at which incoming heads of government were made to sit (social distancing taken to an absurdist extreme in a country with one of the worst records of COVID-19 deaths in the world), or the staged security council meeting of 21 February in which Putin sat one side of a vast Kremlin reception hall while one after the other his ministers obligingly reinforced a decision he had surely taken anyway. What would he have made of the rambling televised address that preceded the invasion, with Putin at his desk with its bank of telephones, delivering to camera a diatribe the consequences of which are now filling the world’s screens?
Such images, repeated across the media, take on their own power to inspire responses, and the Royal Academy helps us to see where some of Bacon’s images drew their inspiration, returning us to that famously chaotic studio at 7 Reece Mews to find the books or photographs that were painted into many canvases. From the Muybridge photographs of wrestlers, dogs, and birds, to the press cuttings and the books of wildlife that showed the natural world to be every bit as brutal as his vision of the human one could be, Bacon’s art is suffused with images from somewhere else. Amongst these, a key reference point was one of the most celebrated screaming faces in cinema: the nurse from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), seen with her spectacles smashed over her face and her mouth wide in horror as she watches a pram bounce down the Odessa Steps in the midst of murderous Tsarist troops. In a 1957 work at the RA, ‘Study for a Nurse in Battleship Potemkin’, Bacon grafts that face onto a nude body, sitting as though on a swing with its legs dangling outside the transparent cube in which it sits. Eisenstein’s representation of a massacre reflected in one screaming face became for Bacon a symbol of a world of horrors both existential and all too real. Many of the UK newspaper front pages on Friday 25 February featured the bloodied and bandaged face of Olena Kurilo, a schoolteacher in the city of Chuhuiv wounded in an air-raid that destroyed her home. If Bacon were alive today, one could imagine the image cut out and stuck on his studio wall.
‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’, the 1944 triptych that catapulted Bacon to fame, is not in this exhibition, although other works from the same period stand in for its absence. Against other versions of that acidic orange background, half-human figures seem to writhe and squirm, snarling at the viewer like caged animals, or like the very worst reflections of what human nature was capable of in the years that surrounded the famous work’s first appearance. His career as an artist began in an age that felt to many like the lowest point that humanity had reached, where its most bestial and its most coldly sadistic aspects had been given free rein with such devastating consequences.
The body, for Bacon, was where the marks of inhumanity were always visible. It would record each blow, each act of violence. Bacon destroyed many paintings throughout his life, often being as violent with them as their subject matter suggested, but as Annalyn Swan and Mark Stevens record in their 2021 biography, Revelations, he later regretted having done away with a mid-1930s work known only as ‘Wound’, which (from surviving accounts) depicted the area around a gash in human flesh. His later crucifixions are rarely those that a Christian church would wish to have on display, but in stripping away the religious nature of the event, they reflect its horrific violence, the disregard for the human form, the process by which a body becomes offal. Images from Kharkiv, Kyiv, Mariupol, and other towns and cities along what is now a frontline in a warzone show those paintings turned into realities for tens of thousands of people, as the world looks on with that blend of outrage and powerlessness that so often follows our exposure to someone else’s pain.
Meanwhile, the dark-suited Putin sits behind his desk trying to justify his actions in a logic of perverted history and present-day mania. As the trials of Nazi war criminals in Bacon’s lifetime showed, evil is often bureaucratic in its appearance and horrific in its effects. From his Popes to his businessmen, to the twisted bodies of models, lovers, and friends, Bacon represented a world coming to terms with a degree of violence that it realised was always latent and horrifically likely to be repeated on a personal and a global scale. His art was produced in response to its time, but its truths were timeless, like the Old Masters Velázquez and Rembrandt, which he never failed to praise. In W. H. Auden’s assessment, when it came to making suffering visible and comprehensible both in its banality and its horror, the Old Masters ‘were never wrong’. And neither was Francis Bacon.