The Soul within the Beast

"Head VI" (1949), a 91.4 x 76.2 cm oil on canvas by Francis Bacon, Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre,

Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.

Avant-garde critics are instinctive contrarians and therefore likely to disagree, but there is nothing obviously beautiful about Francis Bacon’s painting. That said, the Royal Academy’s current exhibition, “Francis Bacon: Man and Beast,” shows that the Irishman’s disturbing artwork, if not a source of aesthetic delight, is at the very least a prompt to philosophical thought.

Bacon started to experiment with half-beast, half-human forms in the 1940s, and from then on they became a staple of his entrancing, nightmarish work. In these paintings, filling half a dozen rooms in Burlington House, human forms are transfigured to appear beast-like and animal forms in turn come to resemble us.

The exhibition is appropriately curated, with chilly expansive rooms and a stony, basement-like interior. Regrettably, there are one or two bones thrown to appease any ‘wokesters’ who might otherwise be triggered. Referring to one of Bacon’s less sensitive productions, which deals with the topic of disability, the curators write loftily: “the resulting images support hierarchies and taxonomies of bodies that are unacceptable today.”

“Head I” (1948), a 100.3 x 74.9 cm oil and tempera on board by Francis Bacon. Lent to the Royal Academy of Arts by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

One wonders whom the curators mean to address with such a fatuous side-script. It takes a certain kind of philistine to visit a Bacon exhibition in the hope of being reassured by the material. Indeed, the grotesque tone is set from the very first painting, Head I, in which a distinctly lifelike ear—so photographic it might have been painted by Jan Van Eyck—stands alone amid alienating slashes of paint and a monstrous figure that screams at us from the canvas.

Bacon saw portraiture as a way of probing the animal side of human nature. His sitters are ascribed no dignity, honour, or prestige. Such is the case with the artist’s subversive re-interpretation of Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X. The warm, resplendent colours brought into being by the Spanish painter are replaced by disordered striations of paint in Bacon’s rendition, which together with the mutilation of the sitter’s face purge the scene of everything that might have been reassuringly human. Far from being light and majestic, the objects, including the Pope’s throne, now appear to us weighed down and discoloured. The transformation is one from enrobed subject to ravaged carcass.

It is the incongruous mix of the human and the animalistic that gives Bacon’s artwork its violent, unsettling power. There is no decorum, no elegance, no point of light that is not overpowered by the surrounding chaos and decay. Nature’s wildness is alien to modern man, but it is not necessarily disturbing. Sir David Attenborough has made millions making documentaries that broadcast the most savage violence, be it in the Amazon rainforest or on the plains of sub-Saharan Africa. Yet people continue to tune in with curiosity and excitement. On the contrary, only the most lurid mind could be excited by Bacon’s contorted melding of human with beastly elements.

“Man with Dog” (1953), a 152 x 117 cm oil on canvas by Francis Bacon, collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.

Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.

Sometimes, as in Head IV, the animal is even more lifelike, more colourfully foregrounded, than the ghostly human shape. The monkey is peculiarly composed and looks less estranged than the man who stares into the abyss. The same is true of Man with Dog, in which the ostensibly human figure takes on the aspect of a directionless shadow. The dog is the more lively, muscular being—a real, breathing organism, seemingly leading its own cipher of a master.

Bacon rejected abstract expressionism on the grounds that it was a fundamentally aesthetic movement, much too obsessed with theory and not enough with raw passion. But like his contemporaries, he also felt that representational art had exhausted the old forms and was in need of a radical overhaul. Nothing less than a ferocious new style could fulfil the artistic mission that Bacon set for himself: “To unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently.” If this was the ambition, his paintings cannot be attacked for falling short.

But did it come at the expense of self-examination? In some sense, Bacon wished to evoke feelings that could not be explained on the level of consciousness. His watchwords were immediacy, drama, and horror. But what did he think he was doing? After all, only self-conscious minds create art. More eerily still, it is the free moral agency to which self-consciousness gives rise that makes the beast within us so disturbing. Animals may kill, but only man murders.

As might be expected, Bacon’s pessimism stemmed from the bloodbath of the 20th century through which he lived. Mankind, he observed, had proved little more than a relatively advanced beast in the years from 1914-1945, turning the fields of Flanders and the city of Stalingrad into the most nightmarish abattoirs. Far worse, we learned that even one of the world’s most advanced nations could be monstrous enough to build factories of industrial genocide, as at Auschwitz and Treblinka. 

But the question returns: if our beastly aspects are so central, what did Bacon think he was doing when he painted? No beast is troubled by the fact of being a beast, still less moved to produce art expressing such anxiety. Even in our most savage conduct, human beings are nothing like wild animals. We are distinctly human, at times even fiendishly artistic, in our beastliness:

Politics is the highest art there is, since the sculptor shapes only the stone, the dead stone, and the poet only the word, which in itself is dead. But the statesman shapes the masses, gives them statute and structure, breathes in form and life so that a people arises from them.

These words come from a speech by Joseph Goebbels in May 1933. We all know about the atrocities inflicted on the world by the Nazis’ aestheticization of totalitarian politics, here extolled as “the highest art” by Hitler’s chief propagandist. But only a human being, a self-conscious moral agent, could dream up such twistedly romantic grounds for domination and mass murder.

The soul within the beast is much more horrifying than the beast just under the surface that Bacon sought to capture. The Nazi mass slaughters demand an explanation, even if we are unlikely ever to find a satisfactory one. Lions and bears have no need to explain themselves. They are excused by the brute reality of their unsheddable instincts. Higher than the beasts in one sense, we are also more debased in being fully morally accountable for wherever our depravity leads. Human beings possess an imagination for evil that the lower animals have been spared. No troop of chimpanzees ever set up guillotines, gulags, or gas chambers.

Bacon saw through the 19th century fairy tale of a civilised mankind climbing inexorably towards higher peaks of prosperity and enlightenment. The vicious brushstrokes and the contorted images, on full display in this new exhibition, are reflections of the horrors that become visible once the veneer of civilisation has been breached. But there is also a strange sense in which Bacon, if he believed that men were animals to their core, was rather less pessimistic than he ought to have been. The real terror is not that we can match the wild savagery of beasts, but that we are never more human than when we tell ourselves stories that convince us to exceed it.

Harrison Pitt is a writer for The European Conservative. Based in the UK, he has also been published in The Spectator, Quillette, Spiked-Online, The Critic, and others.