Jhe first hint of what is to come is a large bare canine, in Head 1 (1948). The painting featured in Francis Bacon’s first exhibition in London the year after it was made, and it now welcomes you to an opening room of its own at Royal Academy. The human form of the painting, which emerges from a black background in the sketchy geometry of a cage, has been reduced to a twisted mouth emerging from a body that suggests a side of lamb or a pork belly. It’s that enlarged fang that grabs your attention, though, gesturing not so much at Jekyll’s transformation into Hyde, but sure proof that the rough beast never left.
More than his previous carcass flayed by a crucifixion, this first To manage reveals Bacon’s preoccupation with art that persisted until his death; the question that this often magnificent and truly disturbing retrospective taps on all the walls: how animal are we?
After his sexual adventures in Berlin, Paris and London before the war, and his trial and error with interior design, Bacon seemed transformed into an artist by the knowledge of carnage. Excused from active duty due to his chronic asthma, he had once volunteered as an ARP, pulling bodies from the wreckage of the blitz. By 1948, a full picture of the horror of the death camps had emerged. Bacon collected and devoured everything from Nazi speeches to pathology textbooks.
This bestial rage slips into the superb trio of old paintings in the next room, arranged in a triptych because of their common orange background. Figure study I is a faceless form in a large herringbone coat, hanging upside down in a flower bed. Next, Figure Study II, a deformed body emerges from another overcoat, supporting the first of Bacon’s screaming mouths, cavernous black, facing the viewer, vomiting bile. Finally in Fury (1944), a variant of Three studies for Numbers to the base of a Crucifixion of the same year, Bacon conjures up the first of many grotesque mythologies, where the human figure has become a mutation of body parts and an alas-poor-Yorick jaw, gaping in horror.
Faced with this brutal opening, you wonder where the exhibition – co-curated by Michael Peppiatt, once co-carouser with Bacon in Soho and the most lively of his biographers – will take you next. One answer is among those Bacon himself found, in the 1950s. He’ll take you on safari. A series of paintings of mostly nightmarish animals – chimpanzees in particular – remind you that Bacon became an enthusiastic observer of big game during visits to Rhodesia, where his mother lived after the war, witnessing what he called “all the horror of life, of one living thing of another”.
His painting, we see, in this context, began to depict his lovers as animals in zoo cages, all flesh and torments. His nocturnal hunt for predators in the clubs of Soho in 1952 focused on Peter Lacy, the former Battle of Britain fighter pilot, with whom he entered into an obsessive sadomasochistic relationship. Lacy, he told Peppiatt, “wanted him chained to the wall, shitting and sleeping like an animal on a bed of straw.” He imagines Lacy in 1957, curled up after coitus on a sofa, all hips and shoulders. Earlier there are a pair of paintings of muscular exterior couplings including 1954 Two figures in the grassin which the lovers are spied on as though through field binoculars, and which prompted two complaints from outraged visitors to the ICA in 1955.
Some of these carnal scenes are inspired by the films of Eadweard Muybridge in the 19th century. The motion picture pioneer’s scenes of chaste struggle become powerfully erotic in Bacon’s hands. They are juxtaposed with low-swooping owls with human teeth and alley dogs keeping their noses on the sidewalk.
Bacon once told his confidant David Sylvester that his ambition had always been “to one day make the best painting of the human cry”. Here you see the different ways in which ambition sank for him. Instead of anything like the wild grief he revered in Poussin’s faces The Slaughter of the Innocents, he could summon variations of alienation and anguish. The four studies for screaming popes that occupy one wall never looked so wild; they see him experimenting with the papal purple, livid as a baboon’s behind.
Bacon’s animal instincts rarely separated lust from violence. A room of bullfighting images from 1969 finds him still under the influence of the carnal dance of muscles. He viewed bullfighting as “like boxing – a wonderful appetizer for sex”, and traced canvases in which matadors merged like satyrs with their prey with thick streaks of squirting white paint.
The two triptychs of her doomed lover Georges Dyer that follow seem to put an end to this idea of the flesh as dramatic life. In the first group, the male figure is downright human, squatting on a toilet, sprawled on a sofa, spinning on a bar stool. In the second, produced in 1972, a few months after the suicide of the alcoholic Dyer on the eve of Bacon’s triumphant retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris, the flesh of his subject melts and accumulates next to him, his body animal turns black.
That emotion is brought closer to home in the final piece here. A triptych from 1987 offers a sequel to the first images of bullfighting: gored flesh and bandages and bloody horns. The smashing autobiographical trajectory of this show culminates with Bacon’s last painting, made in 1991, the year before his death, and discovered in a private collection in 2016. It depicts an almost transparent bull, half in and half out of the darkness, prancing at handfuls of dust that Bacon scattered onto the canvas from the chaotic floor of his studio.