Horizon Line

The bestial beauty of Francis Bacon

Max Lunn

In 2013 Francis Bacon’s triptych, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, 1969, sold for $142m at Christie’s New York, making it, then, the most expensive work of art ever sold. I was at school, and reading that headline was my first inkling of the pull Bacon had, decades after his death.

Still considered the most important British artist since Turner, Bacon’s influence has steered his successors and added a filter to the way we see the world. Now, a new generation can appreciate his work with the first major exhibition for almost fifteen years: the Royal Academy’s Francis Bacon: Man and Beast. 

This is the second retrospective in the UK since Bacon’s death in 1992, and his legacy is stronger than ever: Bacon’s grip on the psyche of writers is extraordinary. Few artists have inspired such a variety of recent literary outpouring, all of which illustrate our collective obsession.

First there is the forensic new biography Revelations, emerging last year from critics Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, who deftly tease out the paradox at the very centre of the great artist: Bacon was at once revealing, dishing out his Nietzschean aphorisms to anyone who would listen, but he could also be highly guarded, especially about his early life. They describe the huge pressure his bon vivant Soho performance placed him under, leading to a “tremendous need” for alcohol and several strong drugs. 

Then there is the ambitious attempt by Max Porter to write as Bacon painted in his short book The Death of Francis Bacon, which came out at the end of 2020. It chronicles the artist’s near-anonymous final days in Madrid, where he was cared for by a nun called Sister Mercedes. It is fragmentary but communicates that crucial part of Bacon missing since his death: his voice, and with it his wit. Porter quotes the writer John Berger commenting: “Bacon is a very remarkable but not finally important painter,” and Porter imagines Bacon replying “Oh naff off, you skag”. 

A brilliantly entertaining new book from curator James Birch, Bacon in Moscow, also vividly quotes Bacon, making abundantly clear the charm and generosity which characterised the artist’s personality, in contrast to the horror and violence which many saw in his art and beliefs.

Birch’s book stands out for its richness: it is first and foremost a genuinely amusing – and occasionally moving – account of Birch’s attempt to mount a retrospective of Bacon’s work in the Soviet Union in the mid1980s, amidst the newly proclaimed era of openness ushered in by Gorbachev in the form of glasnost and perestroika. It would be the first exhibition of Western art there since 1917.  

Birch started writing the diaries on which the book is based in the early 1980s, when he first met a man called Sergei Klokov, through an introduction from a self-described “cultural entrepreneur” by the name of Bob Chenciner. Klokov – a self-aggrandising man who carried around a manbag with a small vodka bottle – was a Soviet official and KGB officer, who had torched the Mujahideen in the Soviet-Afghan war with a flamethrower.

Klokov was also closely involved with the USSR’s Union of Artists: the only organisation that could make any exhibition happen, and which also employed every single artist in the Soviet Union. With a sharp sense of humour, Birch describes the bizarre world of characters which became his life for the next couple of years, including a love interest in the form of Elena: a beautiful but peculiar young fashion designer, about whom he was never clear if she was another KGB agent.   

Perhaps the most remarkable thing to emerge from Birch’s account is the power of Bacon’s art to register with such a diverse audience. Birch originally went to Moscow under the guise of persuading the Soviets to allow him to exhibit the Neo Naturists, a group of artists that included Grayson Perry.

When in Moscow, however, he visited the predictably-conservative Union of Artists and asked members about their favourite Western painters. Invariably the response was Francis Bacon. One artist commented, “If you are Soviet then the way Bacon paints, it feels like he is with you. Bacon sees the darkness.”

This was the spark. Extracts from the Moscow exhibition’s visitor book form an epilogue to Birch’s book, with comments such as, “we want bacon, not Francis Bacon” interspersed with “Bacon is beautiful in his monstrosity. If he is mad, he is neither more nor less so than the modern world.” Such a dramatic encounter between an isolated state and the work of a celebrated artist was unique and unlikely to happen again. 

Back in London, Bacon’s work feels as dark and powerful as ever, his brooding canvases snarling in their heavy, gilded frames in the Royal Academy. By focusing on the artist’s fascination with animals, the exhibition brings out Bacon’s fundamental interest in instinct. Bacon wanted to capture instinctive feelings in his art, but he also wanted his viewers to be moved viscerally, reacting like animals to his arresting situations.

This is brilliantly illustrated by a couple of the lesser-known works on view like Man with Dog, 1953 (image 1), a nervous image where a spectral figure stands behind a dog on the verge of pouncing, instantly conveying what is unseen but felt. The dog, like many of Bacon’s subjects, is taken from one of Victorian photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s time-lapse photographic series. 

All the animals are presented as solitary and pathetic – there is no denying Bacon’s vision is a cruel one. There is a sense in all these beasts of innate vulnerability, as well as a lurking potential for viciousness. This violence was inherently connected to Bacon’s sexuality, and we see this in one painting of a wretched, dog-like Peter Lacy curled up, seemingly in pain or remorse.

Bacon had an S&M relationship with Lacy, which involved regularly goading Lacy into beating him violently. Bacon has said that violent, animalistic individuals were more interesting to him as “they are much clearer about where their real instincts lie – for violence, for power, for excitement … And animals themselves are fascinating because they are of course much less inhibited in their behaviour.” In a godless world, Bacon saw humans as animals: subject to the same innate urges. 

Time and time again, the exhibition shows us Bacon violently ripping off the thin veil of civilisation that separates us from beasts: the horribly beautiful Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne, 1966, (image 2) captures the precision with which Bacon moved between abstraction and figuration, intention and accident, man and beast.

Looking at this mirror-sized painting also reminds us of his unflinching maxim taken from John Cocteau: “Each day in the mirror I watch death at work.” We emerge from the exhibition bruised, but exhilarated.

Max Lunn is a journalist based in London

Arts & Culture

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