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Animals, humans and violence: Frederick Douglass and Francis Bacon

Published 20 January 2022

Ahead of ‘Francis Bacon: Man and Beast’, Isaac Julien RA explores how the violence of slavery equated humans and animals.

  • Isaac Julien RA is a Turner prize-nominated artist and filmmaker appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2017.

    The dehumanising horrors of the Second World War echo in Francis Bacon’s paintings of the mid-1940s. Figures are bent over into biomorphic creatures, howling under their hats or umbrellas (Figure Study II, 1945-46, below). Soon after primates and dogs take their place on his canvases.

    One hundred years earlier, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the subject of my film installation Lessons of the Hour (2019), explored the dehumanisation of slavery, in speeches and texts in which the human-animal relationship was of critical significance. In Douglass’s times, horses were sometimes treated as superior to enslaved persons. As the scholar Warren Crichlow points out, “the figure of the horse is a trope that Douglass mobilises in lectures throughout his lifetime, a rhetorical device to which he turns in both jest and exacting seriousness to confront the slave’s abjection in the world of human relationships, and, most notably, in contradiction to any semblance of natural rights professed by Enlightenment society, along with its Christian values.” In my work, I therefore created an image of Douglass that we might not be familiar with – beside a horse, not riding it (A Chattel Becomes a Man (Lessons of the Hour), 2019).

  • Isaac Julien RA,  Chattel Becomes a Man (Lessons of the Hour)

    Isaac Julien RA, Chattel Becomes a Man (Lessons of the Hour), 2019.

  • In Douglass’s times, horses were sometimes treated as superior to enslaved persons.

    Isaac Julien RA

  • In his 1845 autobiography, the famous orator signals the proximity of the horse to consciousness about his, the slave’s, ‘human’ condition: “By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant.” And later, he continues, expanding the comparison to other animals: “Men and women, old and young, married and single, were ranked with horses, sheep, and swine. There were horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children, all holding the same rank in the scale of being and were all subjected to the same narrow examination…[and] indelicate inspection.” Douglass expressed envy when discussing animals’ recognition over the slave, but he also admired them as creatures “of the finest form and noblest blood”.

  • 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 2022. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.

  • As we know, this question of interspecies relationship, and the problems that arise around the Anthropocene and our ecological urgency, are now an ever-growing philosophical presence. They closely relate to Douglass and his thinking. I think he was very much interested in a kind of Quaker idea of living in harmony with nature but, much like Bacon, he realised that the world is always imbued with human violence, no matter how civilised we claim to be.

    At the beginning of the film, Douglass remembers when he looked at a tree as a young boy and saw that there were black human remains hanging there – this creates the relationship between nature, terror and violence. It’s the violence that slaves have experienced throughout the centuries and the violence that Black people still experience when being seen as a non-equal entity and compared to non-human categories. Frederick Douglass’s activism, his aesthetic theory and the art they inspire have a role in establishing a new, post-Enlightenment humanity.

    Francis Bacon: Man and Beast runs from 29 January — 17 April 2022 in the Main Galleries, Burlington House, Royal Academy of Arts.

    • Beauty and the beast RA magazine page

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