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Appetite and decay: the animal instincts in Bacon’s paintings

Published 8 October 2021

Author Colm Tóibín traces the conflation of the animal and human condition in 20th-century art and literature.

  • Colm Tóibín is an award-winning novelist, short story writer, poet and essayist.

    In a painting, the figure cannot speak or move. All we can see is the pose, the stillness. The figure is unable to perform; it has been taken into custody. The body in a painting is in its physical state. There may be a soul or a spirit. Such things, in creating the illusion of life, might be suggested or implied, but they cannot be clearly drawn. There may be life in the face, and the expression may be ambiguous, vivid, fresh, but it is captured and held in a single second.

    In the paintings of Francis Bacon, there seems to be something close to pleasure or satisfaction taken in depicting carnality, appetite and decay. For him, the human figure is meat and flesh. It will rot or feel pain or pounce or scream out. It is as though the frame and the canvas, and perhaps even the paint itself, are forms of caging. If we are not careful, the animal will escape.

  • For Bacon, the human figure is meat and flesh. It will rot or feel pain or pounce or scream out...If we are not careful, the animal will escape.

  • In literature, the dream of being an animal creates stark and memorable narratives, mixing grim comedy with unrelenting nightmare. In Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, for example, or the short novel by the filmmaker Neil Jordan, Dream of a Beast, or the man/animal poems of Thom Gunn, the male figure senses a body within his body struggling for a more intense, authentic and earthy life. While all around him the genteel world conducts its affairs, in the shadows, or in another room, the animal stands poised to display itself with a mixture of shame and sudden self-delight. Finally, a man has permission to say or show who he really is. Beware.

    In Kafka’s story, as in many of Bacon’s images, the animality of the figure is disguised or clothed or kept in check. Gregor Samsa, in The Metamorphosis, realises when he wakes “from uneasy dreams” that he has been transformed into an insect, but, as he contemplates his new state, he does not panic all the time. Sometimes, he thinks that he will soon be running to catch a train and continue his life as a salesman. He is surprised that his family are shocked by him and wish to shun him.

    In Bacon’s Figure Study I and Figure Study II, from 1945-46 (pictured below), for example, or his Three Figures and Portrait, from 1975, the sense of animal in the figure is both exposed and concealed. The drama comes from the same source as it does in Kafka, in the gap between the clothed human and the snarling figure hidden within the clothes.

    In Kafka, there is always a sense of parable. He is demonstrating, with considerable subtlety and irony, the gap between social veneer and some dark hidden space within the self that is vulnerable, shivering, afraid, but anxious also to emerge, to be seen and known. The conflict in his work is between what is ordered, rational and what connects to fears and longings that cannot be easily named.

  • Francis Bacon, Figure Study II

    Francis Bacon, Figure Study II, 1945-46.

    Oil on canvas. 145 x 129 cm. National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Huddersfield Art Gallery, Kirklees Council (Presented by the Contemporary Art Society to Bagshaw Museum, Batley) © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2021. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.

  • Kafka’s work is filled with pre-Hitler premonitions, as though he is an alchemist or a prophet, a writer whose psyche has been darkened by knowledge of what is to come. Bacon makes most of his paintings in a time after the Second World War, a time when philosophers and writers confront man’s isolation and the forces of evil that lurk energetically within the self. Even Bacon’s earliest works, such as Crucifixion from 1933, have the figure on the cross as a sign of helplessness and cruelty rather than something that might lead to redemption.

    As well as writing about the insect that lurks within us all, ready to surprise the world, Kafka also wrote a story called Investigations of a Dog, told from the canine perspective. His narrator, of course, can use language, so his doglike condition is provisional. In the way he speaks and notices, he is also human, even though he does not notice actual or genuine humans. His efforts to make sense of the universe are absurd, and their very absurdity mirrors the efforts humans make to come to terms with the meaning of life. Kafka’s dog often seems more humorous and decent than Kafka’s humans, but this does not make his dog noble or wise.

  • Francis Bacon, Study for Chimpanzee

    Francis Bacon, Study for Chimpanzee, 1957.

    Oil and pastel on canvas. 152.4 x 117 cm. Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York Photo © David Heald (NYC) © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2021.

  • When dogs and chimpanzees dominate the canvas in Bacon’s paintings (Study for Chimpanzee, pictured above), two things occur to us. The first is that the artist has now come clean about his concerns. He has stripped his figures of their human costume and made them bare, and all the more present for that. The second thing is that he has placed his beasts in an arena normally reserved for his human subjects, thus giving them a comic dignity.

    Neil Jordan’s novel The Dream of a Beast, published in 1983, mirrors Bacon’s work in the way it explores the solitary male figure, uneasy in any social setting but even more uneasy as he looks outwards into the dark. In the novel, it is as though the protagonist had been covered with a mask that is now fading. “I felt a sudden terror that the whole of me was about to be laid bare. Whatever adjunct of our persons it is that maintains this demeanour, it was slowly leaving me, I realised that now.”

  • Bacon is playing the human against the animal, playing intelligence against instinct, playing vulnerability against brute strength

  • That realisation has also come to the male figures in Bacon’s Study of the Human Head, or Study for a Portrait, both from 1953, or his Portrait of George Dyer Crouching, from 1966 (pictured below). It is not merely that their pose suggests the animal within, but the way they are painted also shows and dramatises what is human about them, until this sense of them as individuals who feel and see, who live in knowledge, who suffer in ways that animals do not, comes to the fore very powerfully.

    Thus we have the tension in all of Bacon’s paintings between the isolated solitary figure, fearful, self-aware, and the same figure as snarling, predatory, ill-intentioned, chilling. Bacon is playing the human against the animal, playing intelligence against instinct, playing vulnerability against brute strength.

  • Francis Bacon, Portrait of George Dyer Crouching

    Francis Bacon, Portrait of George Dyer Crouching, 1966.

    Oil on canvas. 198 x 147 cm. Private collection © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2021. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.

  • In August 1937, Samuel Beckett, in a letter about the work of the Irish painter Jack B. Yeats, offered his version of what the human figure in painting can achieve: “The way [Yeats] puts down a man’s head & a woman’s head side by side, or face to face, is terrifying, two irreducible singlenesses & the impassable immensity between… A kind of petrified insight into one’s ultimate hard irreducible inorganic singleness. All handled with the dispassionate acceptance that is beyond tragedy… Simply perception & dispassion.”

    Although Bacon’s paintings evoke human isolation and dramatise the savage in battle with the self, Bacon does not ask us to pity his figures. His image, as Beckett puts it in his account of Yeats, is dispassionately made. The vision in Bacon is unsparing, pitiless, stark.

  • His energy as a painter suggests a rough and dynamic interior life for his subjects. This struggle can be witnessed in the very way the paint is applied, especially on the face. The figure in Bacon is created with both textural energy and tonal variety.

  • While his figures are captured, on display, pinned down, this does not mean that the images Bacon creates are stable, easy to read, all surface work. His energy as a painter suggests a rough and dynamic interior life for his subjects. This struggle can be witnessed in the very way the paint is applied, especially on the face. The figure in Bacon is created with both textural energy and tonal variety. It is filled with work. This allows his human figures, including his portraits of women, to emerge ambiguously, to have a sort of suffering dignity, as well an animal response to fear and pain. The vitality comes from this doubleness.

    But it is still not true to say that Bacon’s paintings of men and women have both a body and soul. Rather there is an outer body guarding or concealing an inner beast. The English poet Thom Gunn explores this idea of an inner beast evolving and emerging, living close to the skin. In his poem ‘Tamer and Hawk’, he sees a human relationship, filled with images of power and dark sexuality, through the metaphor of man and bird of prey:

    You but half civilize,
    Taming me in this way.
    Through having only eyes
    For you I fear to lose,
    I lose to keep, and choose
    Tamer as prey.

    In Gunn’s ‘The Allegory of the Wolf Boy’, the boy “open and blond,/Breaks from the house”. Soon, “spikes enter his feet: he seeks the moon.” By the end of the poem, he “Drops on four feet. Yet he has bleeding paws.” In ‘Moly’, the man has become a beast:

    Nightmare of beasthood, snorting, how to wake. I woke. What beasthood skin she made me take?

    These poems by Gunn dramatise forms of energy and self assertion. They deal with the self as a mask for some inner set of strengths that emerge as a kind of power or do battle with more gentle and social forces, and win. In Gunn’s ‘Rites of Passage’, the poem’s own diction replicates the new certainty and sense of masculine toughness evolving as the man becomes beast. The poem opens:

    Something is taking place.
    Horns bud bright in my hair.

    And soon:

    My blood, it is like light.
    Behind an almond bough,
    Horns gaudy with its snow,
    I wait live, out of sight.

    The ‘I’ here is both ominous and vulnerable, the voice is both confident and hushed. From this drama between man and beast, Gunn finds complexity, images that remain unresolved, as the figure remains powerfully unresolved in Bacon’s work. There is a sense of primitive pain in Gunn’s beast poems and in Bacon’s figures that border on the animal, but are experienced by a creature who has known language, howling out a word rather than a cry, or a cry that has the persistent memory of a word.

  • Francis Bacon, Chimpanzee

    Francis Bacon, Chimpanzee, 1955.

    Oil on canvas. 152.5 x 117.2 cm. Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, transfer of the Ministry of Science and Culture Baden-Württemberg 1964 © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2021. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.

  • Bacon likes the simple idea that flesh is meat, but simplicity is never enough for him. His figures may look as though they are born to hunt and forage, but their wildness includes a sense that they are in possession not merely of instinct but dark knowledge. Their quest is not only for food or blood but something unnameable and unobtainable. Bacon’s task is not to give them symbolic value or have them on the canvas as metaphors; they must be real and particular, they must be fully themselves. They must menace the viewer with their duplicities and their strangeness. They suffer in a way that is particular.

    In the paintings, Bacon sets out not to represent, but to find hidden energy as he deforms the image, twists it, smudges it, moves the brush closer and closer to see what might emerge. As the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze writes, Bacon “dismantles the face”. In working with the image of the animal, Bacon is not interested in “the animal as a form, but rather the animal as a trait.”

  • Bacon's figures may look as though they are born to hunt and forage, but their wildness includes a sense that they are in possession not merely of instinct but dark knowledge.

  • Bacon’s paintings are a kind of anti-Darwin, playing with the possibilities that evolution moves sideways and backwards and inwards. His faces are distorted, uncomposed, unplacid. He liked figures crouching, bending, darting, snarling, screaming, pouncing (Triptych – Studies of the Human Body, 1970). Their surface life is all disturbance, a disturbance that moves inwards. In most cases, they are profoundly alone, and, as Beckett would have it, terrifying in their irreducible singleness.

    Pain in Bacon’s work is registered not just on the face itself but on the pose, on the way figures seem to flinch and smart, shrinking away from something. The pain is felt by the animal, even if the animal comes in the guise of the human. Bacon realises the visual possibilities of the hybrid form, the biomorphic form, the weirdly erotic shape, the strange body part. His men, women and beasts share an emphatic appetite. Bacon likes teeth and is fascinated by the shapes the mouth can make.

    Bacon began to put monkeys into his paintings in 1949 when he painted Head IV (Man with a Monkey), a sombre image in which both man and monkey seem oddly merged. His Figure Crouching, from around 1949, has a man’s head but the pose of an ape. This occurs also in Crouching Nude and Figure, both from around 1951, Crouching Nude from 1952, and Study of a Nude, from 1952-53. In Figure with Monkey, from 1951, the man feeding a caged monkey could almost be a supplicant. Behind the criss-cross wire, the monkey dominates the picture.

  • Francis Bacon, Man with Dog

    Francis Bacon, Man with Dog, 1953.

    Oil on canvas. 152 x 117 cm. Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York. Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1955. K1955:3 © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2021. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.

  • In this same period, Bacon made six large paintings of dogs. The first one, from 1952, shows a snarling mongrel in a green circle, more menacing because of the calm road in the background with a single palm tree. Man with Dog, from 1953 (pictured above), has the man as mere shadow, palpable absence, his proximity emphasised by the lead. It is the dog who dominates the picture, all coiled, moving, it seems, towards the grating beyond the pavement. The scene is made in washed-down muted colours that create an abstract landscape except for the line of the pavement, the grating and the dog.

    Bacon’s animals do not resemble humans. They are given their full animality. On the other hand, even his paintings of Popes look as though their fear and hunger are visceral before they are spiritual. What excited Bacon was not the idea of this but its visual possibilities. For him, the time had passed when a figure could pose as civilised and at ease in the world. His genius was to work with this idea of man and beast and make images from it that are not only disturbing but visually arresting, and not clear in their meaning, but fully strange, astonishing the nervous system before there is time for the intelligence to resist their impact.

    Francis Bacon: Man and Beast, Main Galleries, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 29 January — 17 April 2022


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