There are certain people for whom name is destiny. Usain Bolt bolted his way to Olympic gold. Bernie Madoff made off with his clients’ savings. Naughty 10-year-olds still joke about Anthony Weiner’s wiener. And the gods themselves must have been joking when they cooked up Francis Bacon, the artist who painted human beings as cold, mute slabs of meat.
Bacon’s relationship with the animal side of humanity started early. He was still a boy, legend has it, when his father had him horsewhipped to put him off homosexual behavior. (It didn’t work.) “Francis Bacon: Man and Beast,” an exhibition opening today at the Royal Academy of Arts, is as earnest and wide-ranging as its title implies, though most of what it has to say, compared with the artist’s train wreck of a childhood, seems downright cheerful.
We learn about Bacon’s elephant sightings in South Africa; his fondness for Luis Buñuel’s 1929 Surrealist masterpiece, Un Chien Andalou (the movie that sees a razor blade slicing open a calf’s eye); and his obsession with the photographs of Eadweard Muybridge, stop-action studies of movement in which man and beast seem not just displayed in the frame but imprisoned there.
In a career spanning most of the last century, Bacon’s grim, hyaline style seems unusually consistent—partly because he destroyed so many canvases that didn’t fit the bill. One unexpected pleasure of this show, then, is its emphasis on experiments and one-offs—artworks that take some of the edge off the master’s fearsome reputation.
Owls (1956) is a loose, unpretentious, and wonderfully surprising painting, all the more so because Bacon completed it in between the portraits of writhing, howling popes for which he’s best known today. Bacon painted man-beasts so often it’s a relief to find him dealing with plain old beasts. Co-curator Michael Peppiatt notes, “Some of Bacon’s animals look almost amiable compared to his humans, and certainly less stressed.” This gives his final work, Study of a Bull (1991), a curious distinction: with its sharp horns and glistening back, the animal has a grace that Bacon rarely allowed his human or half-human figures. For once, he painted something that looks comfortable in its cage. —Jackson Arn
“Francis Bacon: Man and Beast” is on through April 17 at the Royal Academy of Arts, in London
Jackson Arn writes about art and literature and is currently finishing his first novel. He’s thinking about leaving New York, like many people who wind up never leaving New York