Francis Bacon: Man and Beast (Royal Academy of Arts, London)
Review by Ben Ware
At one point in his famous interviews with David Sylvester, Francis Bacon remarks: ‘we are meat, we are potential carcasses. If I go into a butcher’s shop, I always think it’s surprising that I wasn’t there instead of the animal.’ In the butcher’s shop, as Bacon goes on to say, we ‘see how beautiful meat can be’, but we are also reminded of ‘the whole horror of life – of one thing living off another.’ Francis Bacon: Man and Beast not only tracks the artist’s life-long interest in non-human animals (some of his well-known studies of dogs, chimpanzees and bullfights are presented here), it also shines an important light onto Bacon’s preoccupation with the ‘animality’ of the human.
This preoccupation plays out in a number of ways. First, as Bacon himself says, ‘animal movement and human movement are continually linked in my imaginary’; and we see this most effectively in works such as Two Studies for the Human Body (1974-5) and Paralytic Child Walking on All Fours (from Muybridge) (1961). In the latter (one of the most striking images in the current show), a zoomorphic figure crawls awkwardly on limbs too large for its own body: naked and alone (the figure is set against a completely black background), this could well be a defenceless animal fearing attack from a predator. And maybe this predator, as the opened window blind on the right of the canvas suggests, is none other than we the spectator. Second, for Bacon there is a straight line to be drawn from the Crucifixion to the contemporary slaughterhouse: both provide examples of what he casually calls ‘man’s behaviour’. Here the artist shares something of Freud’s view that the human animal is, by nature, a ‘savage beast’; but look again, and beyond the screams and mutilations one can’t help but be reminded of the great tenderness in Bacon’s painting, notably evidenced in Two Figures in the Grass (1954) and the 1966 portrait of Henrietta Moraes. The Moraes portrait, in particular, is a wonderful example of what the philosopher Gilles Deleuze calls Bacon’s ‘pity for the flesh’.
There are certain philosophical ideas about Bacon’s work that have now become well-known. Most notable among these is the idea that the art directs itself at the viewer’s ‘nervous system’; avoiding the ‘boredom’ of ‘story telling’, it aims to ‘unlock sensation’, to provoke a violent shudder in those who dare to look. While these ideas were repeated almost obsessively by Bacon himself in various interviews – and were later given a theoretical re-rendering by Deleuze in his short book Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation – it is now high time to give this modernist aesthetic doxa the slip. In a digital era of image saturation – now including daily images of apocalyptic climate catastrophe and an ongoing deadly pandemic – it seems almost quaint to imagine Bacon’s series of screaming Popes violently impacting the viewer’s ‘nerves’. Indeed, the straining of these early works to strike an affective blow often comes across as somewhat comical, as demonstrated here by the cartoonish Head VI (1949).
So we need a different way of approaching Bacon’s art; and perhaps our contemporary situation can assist us in this. Bacon is a brilliantly dialectical painter (although he would no doubt have rejected the term). For him, the essence or truth of a subject is to be found in the distorted recording of its appearance. His brutalised faces and disappearing bodies are in no way ‘abstract’, but are, in fact, a way of arriving at the ‘real’ through the ‘artificial’ – a real that is paradoxically more real than reality itself. But what is this real that the painting seeks to capture? Nothing less, we might say, then the real of transience: what Freud describes, in his great essay on the topic, as the fact that all beauty, including human beauty and the beauty of nature, is ‘fated to extinction’. In the extremely powerful Triptych August 1972 (very much the centrepiece of the current exhibition), Bacon’s late lover George Dyer is shown to be literally decomposing: his flesh melting into a pool of liquified pinkish-grey matter at the base of the stool on which he is seated. The effect here is not one of shock, the image does not come across violently onto the nervous system; rather, in a subtle and controlled way, the triptych invites us (in Hegel’s phrase) to look the negative (i.e. non-being) in the face, and to tarry with it. Almost all of Bacon’s successful figures appear to have life flowing out of them; and yet, strangely, and for the most part, they are able to maintain themselves in this state of devastation – indeed, their devastation appears to be the very source of their strength. What lessons, then, both artistically and politically, can we take from Bacon’s dialectics? Could it be the case (as Theodor Adorno might suggest) that it is only through an encounter with the real of extinction that humanity finally comes to glimpse the possibility of its own realisation? On this way of thinking, might there be hope in Bacon’s beastly universe after all?
Ben Ware is Co-Director of the Centre for Philosophy and Art at King’s College London. He is the author Dialectic of the Ladder: Wittgenstein, the ‘Tractatus’ and Modernism; Living Wrong Life Rightly: Modernism, Ethics, and the Political Imagination; and editor of Francis Bacon: Painting, Philosophy, Psychoanalysis. His new book on extinction and philosophy will appear next year with Verso.