Francis Bacon, Man and Beast, a fulsome exhibition of his visceral work opens at the Royal Academy, London.

I guess I should begin by saying that I’ve never been that keen on Francis Bacon’s paintings. But I do admire them. He forged a very distinctive, expressive style, which is immediately recognisable, beguiling and fascinating to look at close up. In fact, what I liked most about this show at the Royal Academy was the chance to stare at the canvases at close quarters and see how he’d used a certain colour of ground (a great many start off with a kind of pale burnt umber wash) the vigorous brush strokes and the way he impressed wet paint with various fabrics; you can see the ridges of dishcloth or corduroy.

The title of this exhibition gives the steer to the show – it’s about his fascination with man as a human beast, simply a creature made of flesh and blood, skin and hair, and not vastly different from animals. I hadn’t known about his interest in the photographs of Edweard Muybridge which captured the movement of animals. The details to the side of some paintings show paint-spattered pages torn from these reference books and it’s clear that these animal images fuelled the composition of the paintings.

It’s impressive to see how, within the curious swirly, many-layered style, a strong likeness is achieved with his portraits. They’re not flattering but they do capture character and personality. it’s no surprise to learn that he was very impressed by the work of Picasso. He was inspired by an exhibition of Picasso’s work he saw while lodging with a family in France and determined to live in Paris and become an artist.

Isabel Rawsthorne, portrait 1966

The other thing about being able to see these paintings, in the flesh (what an apposite expression!) and close up, is the bravery of his technique. He often created perfectly satisfactory works, in his distinctive style, and would then throw great gobbets of paint at the canvas. These random hurlings of pigment often enhanced the work with tremendous energy but there are some where you think, maybe it hasn’t really ‘helped’ the work.

Second version of Study for Bullfight No 1 1969

So, despite my innate reservations about Bacon, I was impressed by this work and very pleased to have seen such a strong selection of work and had the chance to understand more about his practice and his turbulent life.

On show at the Royal Academy until 17th April 2022

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