The Royal Academy has been transformed for Francis Bacon: Man and Beast. There are no more cheerful cascades of Summer Exhibition paintings; it’s now close to the catacomb darkness of a spiritual experience. Then a small, ghostly crucifixion scene miraculously comes into view, all by itself on a very large wall.
This is the first such apparition that I’ve encountered at the Royal Academy since Dalí’s Christ of St John of the Cross five years ago. One is perhaps the most famous crucifixion of the 20th century; Bacon’s might be the least. The popular fixation is on Bacon the colourist, not the X-ray technician. This version is very early (1933) and is titled Crucifixion. It’s unlike anything else in the exhibition, which is about man and beast – not the beatific.
From this promising and unexpected start we move into Bacon, the man who lived up to his name. There is evidence everywhere of his deep interest in the nitty-gritty of the animal kingdom. Despite spending part of his childhood on an Irish stud farm there’s no evidence he was involved in anything grisly, except proximity to his father. Apparently the former Army officer liked to take his riding crop to the young Francis.
Bacon is famous for other paintings with the title Crucifixion. Many are misleading, but at least it’s not an exhibition full of untitled works. Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion is apparently about the three Furies, not a Calvary scene. This is the extra-large 1988 version of a triptych from 1944. Critics were less kind about the newer reworking, maybe because they were seeing it without the majestic setting it now enjoys, illuminated by high-intensity LED spotlights.
The 1988 version is on a scale that should stun those who have only seen it before as a gatefold pullout in an art book. A Victorian exhibition could have crammed 30 paintings into the space occupied by this triptych. It’s breathtaking in all respects. The size, the intense colours and the disturbing composition shout at the viewer with furious vigour. This work is a far more convincing evocation of torture than Picasso’s undersized and overblown rendering of Grünewald’s 16th-century Isenheim altarpiece.
When you take the next massive triptych into account, the price of the ticket could be justified by these two works alone. It is called Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus, which is more useful than the previous work. There are more distorted figures than the last, and the painting is just as large. It was sold two years ago by Sotheby’s New York for $85 million. One of the Furies here is described by the Royal Academy as a diving pelican. Could this be a distortion of the Christian imagery in which the pelican represents Christ’s sacrifice? This version looks like it’s going for the kill rather than pecking its chest to give blood to its hungry progeny. Bacon might have enjoyed the old imagery. We are told he loved this line in the Oresteia: “The reek of human blood smiles out at me”.
As he was just as interested in blood-spattered animals, bullfighting is around the corner in this exhibition. The corrida room shows Bacon once again thinking along the same lines as Picasso. Whereas the Spanish/French aficionado shows the heroism of the bullring, the Irish/British newcomer introduces an element of political oppression. The curators believe the crowd in the background to be a swastika-waving rally. Visitors might wonder whether this is ancient Rome instead. Despite Hitler’s atrocities to humans, his party passed animal-rights laws far ahead of their time. The ancient Romans perfected cruelty to wild beasts on a pay-per-view basis.
Is it possible that there is a Roman soldier present in Fragment of a Crucifixion (1950)? The animal kingdom is present in this one, with a rather humanoid owl screeching against a Tau-shaped cross. There’s some living creature above the owl-human’s head and it might be attaching an inscription.
For confirmed Romans, of a later date, bring on Bacon’s popes. There are four of them on display. The images are among his best known and have little to do with religion. Like Picasso and that Isenheim altarpiece, it was the image of the thing rather than the thing itself that obsessed Bacon. Who could fail to be impressed by Velazquez’s 1650 impression of the restless, suspicious power of Innocent X, a pope who was born and died in Rome. Bacon’s contribution was the screaming mouth and claustrophobic box-like forms, especially for his popes.
Innocent had only five years to live when this portrait was painted at the age of 75. Bacon was two years older than the pope when he died. He had become increasingly preoccupied with death while keeping his distance from religion. In the end, the two came together. Fascinated though he was with animals and wide open spaces, his end did not come in a national park. He died in Madrid, city of Velazquez, in a private hospital run by Catholic nuns. As crucifixes hang in many of the rooms, I wonder if these brought him any calm at the end of an anguished life.
Francis Bacon: Man and Beast is on at the Royal Academy until 17 April.
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