Exhibition of the Year – Francis Bacon: Man and Beast

6 April 2022

Exhibition of the Year – Francis Bacon: Man and Beast

We have listed the Francis Bacon exhibition at the Royal Academy as one of the most anticipated events of this year. Our London correspondent, EduArt lecturer and art advisor on Post-War and Contemporary Art, Bojana Popovic, took a closer look at Bacon´s artistic vision and exploration of violence as part of human nature. We are left asking ourselves how it is that these artworks remain relevant in the world today, in the world we currently inhabit.

“My painting is not violent; it’s life that is violent. I have endured physical violence, I have even had my teeth broken. Sexuality, human emotion, everyday life, personal humiliation (you only have to watch television) ― violence is part of human nature.” - Bacon

This long-awaited exhibition Francis Bacon: Man and Beast curated by art historian and writer Michael Peppiatt exposes the relationships, loves, losses, traumas and fears that inspired the body of work that Bacon produced throughout his prolific career. Reading any of Peppiatt's several books on Bacon, it is inherently clear that the writer not only admires the painter as a personal mentor, but also witnessed the life and practice of one of the most famous artists of our time unfold.

Francis Bacon grew up on a farm in Ireland where his father was a racehorse trainer. Years later, the artist spoke of how informative his early experiences of animals were – he saw them live, hunt, procreate and die. These inevitably led him to perceive life in a new way and draw parallels between humans and wild animals. In Peppiatt´s words: “He saw human beings more clearly by looking at animals. Animals were less camouflaged than humans. He liked to get right through to the primal instinct – without the veneer of so-called civilisation.”

Undoubtedly, the experience of living through two World Wars and hearing of the horrors of the Holocaust that were published in the late 1940s profoundly solidified his perception of humans as utterly capable of ruthlessly bestial behaviour. In this exhibition we see three vast paintings of a bullfight, united together for the first time since their inception, in each background we see a Nazi flag identifying the mob as something more sinister, and we are forced to re-evaluate the entire scene. Similarly, the triptych of the monstrous, contorted Furies (Ancient Greek goddesses who drove criminals mad by exposing them to their own guilt and fear) take on a more modern role as they are presented going about everyday life, sometimes dressed in tweed and with an umbrella in hand.

Francis Bacon is an artist whose life story is just as remarkable and enticing as his paintings, and this exhibition certainly charts its chapters by bringing together well-known masterpieces alongside rarely seen gems from international collections. Each key series of his career is represented – from his screaming Velázquez-inspired Popes to his intimate portraits of his lover George Dyer – all brought together under the theme of ‘Man and Beast.’ The bestial, the violent, the raw emotions – caged, lashing out, all exposed through the aggressive smears of paint and the tortured expressions of Bacon’s subjects. But perhaps most poignantly, through the wide-ranging subject matters the artist’s own tormented state of mind is brought to light. To put it bluntly, this is a show not to be missed.