Francis Bacon "Man and Beast" is at the Royal Academy of Arts
Primal. Electrifying. Visceral. Francis Bacon’s “Man And Beast” exhibition at the Royal Academy is not one for the faint-hearted. Expect one of those shocking once-in-a-lifetime artistic encounters that make you want to scream, run and hide, but at the same time pops your eyes with stirring amazement, awakening the curious beast within yourself.
Francis Bacon (1909-1992) began his career in interior decoration and furniture design. In 1945, his career as a painter took off and he managed to make a name for himself as one of the most talented and popular painters of the 20th century. Despite his relatively late start and his harsh habits of self-editing, by painting the animal darkness at the core of the human condition, he produced a considerable body of works that continues to electrify.
During his lifetime he enjoyed a colossal success, particularly as part of a London artistic elite that included contemporaries Lucian Freud and John Deakin. By eschewing the distinctions between animals and humans, Bacon’s “beasts” exude strange human emotions while human subjects turn into primitive creatures driven by base instincts like fear and pain. In his vision, man and beast are inseparable.
This exhibition focuses on his varied sources of inspiration, such as Surrealist literature, Expressionist paintings, Eisenstein’s film “Battleship Potemkin”, the photography of Eadweard Muybridge, and his lifelong interest in medical research and X-ray studies.
The weakling of the family
The exhibition delves deep into his past, starting with Bacon’s childhood in the wilds of Ireland, surrounded by dogs, horses, and a wide landscape. His father, an irascible former infantry officer, was a horse trainer. He never came to terms with the fact that little Francis, proudly baptised to celebrate his collateral descent from the authentic Francis Bacon, suffered from acute asthma. Any contact with animals would trigger severe asthma attacks, so he was too delicate to hunt or ride.
The middle-born of five children, he would spend days confined to bed, but just like in Andy Warhol’s case, the silver lining was that isolation enriched his imagination. To his father’s dismay yet at the same time his mother’s delight, he looked and acted like a girl. So his father sent him to Berlin with someone who was supposed to make a man out of him. The two became lovers instead.
Berlin and Paris
Experiencing a decadent and modern metropolis like Berlin in the 1920s opened a new – this time very exciting - chapter in Bacon’s life, fuelled by absolute sexual freedom. Next stop was Paris, where he discovered “the best human cry in painting” after seeing Poussin’s “Massacre of the Innocents” at Chateau de Chantilly.
At this stage, Francis’s interest was already shifting towards the extreme, dramatic moments and emotions that led to releasing something as primal as a scream. Profound thoughts about humans and beasts were already inhabiting him. From his life in Paris dates another seminal source of inspiration for his works: a photographic reportage about the abattoirs in La Villette.
War and London
As Fascism was rising in Germany, Spain, and Italy, newspapers were flooded by a stream of photographic images of powerful men in attractive uniforms who unleashed virtual screams, instantly triggering Bacon’s attention and creativity to the point that he pinned photos of Hitler in full rant on his studio walls for inspiration.
Soon, violent images became reality as war, air raids, blackouts, and a general feeling of fear took over London where Bacon was living. He joined in a corps to save bodies from the bombed areas, and the unbearable scream grew more and more inside him, like a monster that needed to be released. Follow the rest of the story for yourself by visiting "Man and beast."
📍 Visit "Man and Beast" at the Royal Academy of Arts in London (Burlington House, Piccadilly, W1J 0BD)
📆 Until 17 April 2022.
🚇 The closest London Underground stations are Green Park ( on the Victoria, Jubilee, and Piccadilly lines) and Piccadilly Circus (on the Bakerloo and Piccadilly lines).
*All photos were taken by Ina/WithinLondon, unless stated otherwise.