LONDON — The painter Francis Bacon never “particularly liked animals,” recalled Michael Peppiatt, one of his biographers, in a recent telephone interview.
Bacon largely grew up on a stud farm in Ireland, but he “avoided horses and dogs because they triggered his asthma,” Peppiatt said. As an adult, Bacon also had no pets, in part because they would have placed limits on his bachelor lifestyle, much of which involved frequenting London drinking establishments. .
Yet even though Bacon avoided the company of animals in his daily life, they were essential to his art. Now they are the focus of a major exhibition of Bacon’s work which opens at the Royal Academy of Arts in London on Saturday.
Called “man and beast“, and until April 17, the exhibition highlights Bacon’s paintings of animals – from howling chimpanzees to haunting wide-eyed owls – as well as his grotesque half-animal, half-human figures known as Furies The exhibition also includes Bacon’s many paintings of people in their most animal form, often little more than shimmering bits of flesh, fighting in the frame.
Peppiatt, who co-hosted the show, said Bacon had always been fascinated by animals because he felt watching them offered insight into human life. After all, said Peppiatt, “we are animals with a civilization veneer.” Bacon, he added, “was interested in this primal instinct”.
British art critics have been delusional on the show before it opens. But what do those closest to his subject think? We interviewed five animal experts, including a primatologist, a bullfighter and a chef who favors “End to end” eat, to give us their point of view on certain works of Bacon. Below are edited excerpts from those conversations.
“The Man with the Dog”, 1953
Rob Bays, canine behavior expert at Battersea Dogs & Cats HomeLondon
Maybe it’s because of my experience with rescue animals, but this painting really captures the loneliness that dogs can find themselves in – the fact that it’s so dark and the dog is almost separated from the figure human.
It’s a really unique take. Generally, when people paint animals, they try to capture the companionship of pets and their warmth, while Bacon shows us the wilder and fiercer side of some domestic animals. It’s really easy to avoid these cases, as it can be emotionally difficult, but to me this chart shows the real need for relief organizations like ours. It’s really stimulating.
“Study for the chimpanzee”, 1957
Lindsay Murray, primatologist and lecturer in animal psychology
A chimpanzee sitting alone is one of the saddest sights, as they are very social animals with such depth of intellect, emotion and personality. And it really is a being in its own right.
I find the red background quite unpleasant and austere. When I first saw it I just thought of blood, probably because it looks like the animal is holding a shape in its right hand, maybe a new monkey kill. It resonates with the darker side of chimpanzee life where they relish their meals of meat.
The painting is called “Study for a Chimpanzee”, but I saw that it was once sold as a “baboon study”, and the face looks more like a baboon to me, while the arms, the way they’re extra long and curved at the end, looks more like a gibbon. If it was a chimpanzee, the head would have to be much bigger. Art doesn’t have to be realistic, but…
Chris Sperring, preservative, Hawk and Owl Trust
Well, my first reaction was, “They’re barn owls.” There’s this faint glow of their heart-shaped faces. And if you look at the bottom branch, there’s what looks like two folded wings on a short tail, which is the adaptation that 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 swinging aliens from the original 1960s “Lost in Space” TV series!
But the owl on the right, he’s definitely telling me a story. He has huddled close to him, which means they are alert or alarmed. He tells me that there is something near him that he doesn’t like, that he feels a little threatened. But it’s not going to fly away yet, it’s going to tighten up to further camouflage itself.
“Second version of the 1944 triptych”, 1988
Fergus Henderson, Chief and co-founder of St. John’s Restaurant
These works always remind me of hens and testicles, hostile. These two make appearances in my kitchens, but not in this way. I’m not often accused of being disgusted, but it’s the dripping here that rather puts 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 from mine. His speaks of violence, of a red-toothed and clawed nature, using meat as an expression of human pain, while I think of meat as a way to sympathetically exist in the world, respecting one’s environment.
I’m afraid his photos make me sick of meat. They are fleshy, but itchy. I think he probably liked meat himself – he was a famous restaurant – so it’s odd to paint your lunch that way before you sit down to enjoy it.
“Study of a bull”, 1991
Frank Evans, “El Ingles”, bfighter
The biggest problem with bullfighting these days is that you are going to see a bull being put to death. I was raised by a butcher as a kid – I went to the slaughterhouse with my dad and slaughterhouses – so the death of the bull didn’t come as a shock to me. Bacon grew up on a farm, so he must have felt the same way.
I think the painting has something to do with Bacon’s impending death. What it shows is the bull about to enter the arena, but it has stopped skidding. You can see it skidded because there is a plume of dust 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 are no crowds. There are no bullfighters. There is nothing there. Bacon says, “This is the end.” The bull is him.
Why would someone paint a bull as his last painting? Well, if you’re a bullfighting aficionado like him, you couldn’t think of anything nicer, really. When I die I won’t paint like our friend Bacon, but I have an insurance policy that will bring my body back to the south coast of Spain, and my coffin will get a final lap of the arena with my bullfighting hat on it.