LONDON – The painter Francis Bacon was never “very fond of animals,” Michael Peppiatt, one of his biographers, recalled in a recent telephone interview.
Bacon grew up mostly on a stud farm in Ireland, but he “shyed away from horses and dogs because they triggered his asthma,” Peppiatt said. As an adult, Bacon didn’t have pets either, partly because they would have limited his bachelor life, much of which consisted of hitting the pubs of London.
Yet even when Bacon avoided the company of animals in his daily life, they were vital to his art. Now they are the centerpiece of a major exhibition of Bacon’s work which opens on Saturday at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
Dubbed Man and Beast, the exhibition, which runs through April 17, features Bacon’s paintings of animals — from screeching chimpanzees to haunting, wide-eyed owls — as well as his grotesque half-animal, half-human figures portrayed as Furies are known . The exhibition also includes Bacon’s many images of people at their most animalistic, often little more than glistening blobs of flesh fighting in frames.
Peppiatt, who co-curated the show, said Bacon has always been fascinated by animals because he believes observing them offers insights into human life. Finally, Peppiatt said, “We are animals with a touch of civilization.” Bacon, he added, “was interested in that primal instinct.”
British art critics raved about the show even before it opened. But what do those closest to the topic think? We asked five animal experts, including a primatologist, a bullfighter and a nose-to-tail chef, to give us their opinions on some of Bacon’s work. Below are edited excerpts from these interviews.
“Man with Dog”, 1953
Rob Bays, Dog Behavior Specialist at Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, London
Maybe it’s because of my experience with rescued animals, but this painting really captures the solitude dogs can be in – the fact that it’s so dark and the dog is almost separated from the human figure.
It’s a really unique recording. Generally when people paint animals they try to capture the companionship of pets and their warmth, while Bacon shows us the wilder, wilder side of some pets. It’s really easy to shy away from cases like this because it can be emotionally difficult, but to me this picture shows the real need for rescue organizations like ours. It’s really thought-provoking.
“Study for Chimpanzees”, 1957
Lindsay Murray, primatologist and lecturer in animal psychology
A chimpanzee sitting alone is one of the saddest sights because they are such highly social animals with so much intellect, emotion and personality. And that is really a being in itself.
I find the red background quite unattractive and strong. When I first saw it all I thought about was blood, probably because it looks like the animal is holding a shape in its right hand, maybe a freshly slaughtered monkey. This resonates with the darker side of chimpanzee life where they enjoy their meat meals.
The painting is called “Study for a Chimpanzee” but I saw that it was once sold as “Study for a Baboon” and the face looks more like a baboon to me, while the arms, the way they extra long, and curved at the end, more closely resembles a gibbon. If it was a chimpanzee, the head should be much larger. Art doesn’t have to be realistic, but…
Chris Lock, Conservation Officer, Hawk and Owl Trust
Well, my first reaction was, “It’s barn owls.” There’s that faint glimmer of her heart-shaped face. And if you look at the lower branch, it looks like two wings folding over a short tail, which is the adaptation barn owls have.
But they are strange barn owls, to say the least.
Do you want to know what my second impression was? That they looked like those weird, swaying aliens from the original 1960’s TV series Lost in Space!
But the owl on the right definitely tells me a story. He’s dressed up, meaning they’re alert or alarmed. He tells me he doesn’t like something around him that makes him feel slightly threatened. But he will not fly away yet, he will tighten to better camouflage himself.
‘Second Version of Triptych 1944’, 1988
Fergus Henderson, Cook & Co-founder of the St. John restaurant
These works always remind me of chickens and testicles – unfriendly. Both appear in my kitchens, but not in this way. I’m not often accused of squeamishness, but the dribble here tends to put me off. Call me old fashioned, but I’m not crazy about other people’s dripping bodily fluids.
Francis Bacon’s approach to meat couldn’t be more different than my own. He speaks of violence, of the tooth and claw red nature, and uses flesh as an expression of human pain, while I think of flesh as a way to exist compassionately in the world and respect one’s surroundings.
I’m afraid his pictures rather put me off. They are fleshy but itchy. I think he probably liked meat himself – he was a famous eater – so it’s odd to paint your lunch like this before sitting down to enjoy it.
‘Study of a Bull’, 1991
frank evans, “El Ingles”, Bfull fighter
The biggest problem with bullfighting nowadays is that you will see a bull being killed. I grew up working for a butcher as a kid – I went to the slaughterhouse with my father and the slaughterhouses – so the bull death didn’t come as a shock to me. Bacon grew up on a farm, so it must have been the same for him.
I believe the picture has something to do with Bacon’s impending death. What he shows is the bull about to step into the bullring but skids to a halt. You can see he slipped because of a cloud of dust rising from the sand.
One of the bull’s horns is still in darkness; the other horn is in the light. And the bull is now staring into space. There is no crowd. There are no bullfighters. There is nothing. Bacon says, “This is the end.” The bull is him.
Why would anyone paint a bull as their very last picture? Well, if you’re a bullfighting fan like him, you really can’t think of anything better. When I die I won’t paint like our friend Bacon, but I have an insurance policy that will take my body back to the south coast of Spain and my coffin will make one last lap of honor around the bullring with my bullfighter’s hat on it.