LONDON — The painter Francis Bacon was never “particularly fond of animals,” Michael Peppiatt, one of his biographers, recalled in a recent telephone interview.
Bacon grew up largely on a stud farm in Ireland, but he “skewed back to horses and dogs because they triggered his asthma,” Peppiatt said. As an adult, Bacon also didn’t have any pets, in part because they allegedly placed restrictions on his single lifestyle, much of which involved visiting London’s drinking dens.
But even if Bacon avoided the company of animals in his everyday life, they were vital to his art. Now they’re at the heart of a major exhibition of Bacon’s work that opens Saturday at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
Dubbed “Man and Beast,” and running through April 17, the exhibit highlights Bacon’s paintings of animals — from screaming chimpanzees to terrifying, wide-eyed owls — as well as his grotesque half-animal, half-human figures known as the Furies . The exhibit also includes Bacon’s many paintings of people at their most animalistic, often no more than glistening chunks of flesh, fighting within the frame.
Peppiatt, who co-curated the show, said Bacon was always fascinated by animals because he felt observing them provided insight into human life. After all, Peppiatt said, “we are animals with a layer of civilization.” Bacon, he added, “was interested in that primal instinct.”
British art critics raved about the show ahead of its opening. But what do those closest to the subject think? We asked five animal experts, including a primatologist, a bullfighter and a chef who prefers “nose-to-tail” food, to give us their thoughts on some of Bacon’s works. Below are edited excerpts from those conversations.
‘Man with Dog,’ 1953
Rob Bays, dog behavior expert at Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, London
Maybe it’s my experience with rescue animals, but this painting really depicts the loneliness dogs can find themselves in – the fact that it’s so dark and the dog is almost separated from the human figure.
It really is a unique view. When people paint animals, they generally try to capture the companionship of pets and their warmth, while Bacon shows us the wilder, fiercer side of some pets. It’s very easy to avoid those cases as it can be emotionally difficult, but to me this painting shows the real need for rescue organizations like ours. It really is thought-provoking.
‘Study for Chimpanzee,’ 1957
Lindsay Murray, primatologist and animal psychology teacher
A chimpanzee sitting alone is one of the saddest sights because they are such highly social animals with such profound intellect, emotion and personality. And this really is a being unto itself.
I find the red background rather unappealing and stark. When I first saw it, all I thought of was blood, probably because it looks like the animal is holding a shape in its right hand, maybe a fresh monkey kill. That resonates with the dark side of chimpanzees’ lives, where they enjoy their meals with meat.
The painting is called “Study for a Chimpanzee”, but I saw it was once sold as a “Study for Baboon”, and the face looks more like a baboon to me, while the arms, the way they are extra long and curved at the end, looks more like a gibbon. If it was a chimpanzee, the head should be much larger. Art doesn’t have to be realistic, but…
Chris spear ring, conservation officer, Hawk and Owl Trust
Well, my first reaction was, “They’re barn owls.” There’s that faint glint off their heart-shaped face. And if you look at the lower branch, you can see two wings that fold over 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 these strange waving aliens from the original ’60s TV series “Lost in Space”!
But the owl on the right, he sure tells me a story. He has clamped on tightly meaning they are alert or alarmed. He tells me there’s something around him that he doesn’t like that makes him feel a little threatened. But he’s not going to fly away just yet, he’s going to make an effort to camouflage more.
‘Second version of triptych 1944,’ 1988′
Fergus Henderson, Chef and co-founder of the restaurant St. John
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 being a prude, but it’s the silliness here that kind of 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. He talks about violence, about nature that is red with teeth and claws, using meat as an expression of human pain, while I see meat as a way to exist sympathetically in the world, with respect for your environment.
I’m afraid his photos scare me away from the flesh rather. They are fleshy, but itchy. I think he probably liked meat himself – he was a famous eater – so it’s strange to paint your lunch like that before you sit down to enjoy it.
‘Study of a Bull,’ 1991
Frank Evans, “El Ingles”, Bullfighter
The biggest problem with bullfighting these days is that you will see a bull kill. I was raised by a butcher as a child – I went to the slaughterhouse with my father and the slaughterhouses – so the death of the bull was no 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 he shows is the bull about to step into the arena, but it skids to a stop. You can see it slipping because a plume of dust comes out of the sand.
One of the bull’s horns is still in the dark; the other horn is in the light. And the bull now looks at emptiness. There is no crowd. There are no bullfighters. There’s nothing there. Bacon says, “This is the end.” The bull is him.
Why would someone paint a bull as their very last painting? If you’re a bullfighting enthusiast like him, you couldn’t really think of anything more fun. When I die I won’t paint like our friend Bacon, but I have insurance that will take my body back to the south coast of Spain, and my coffin will have one last lap of honor around the bullring with my bullfighter’s hat on it.