LONDON — The painter Francis Bacon was never “particularly fond of animals,” recalled Michael Peppiatt, one of his biographers, in a recent telephone interview.
Bacon largely grew up on a stud farm in Ireland, but he “shied away from horses and dogs because they triggered his asthma,” Peppiatt said. As an adult, Bacon didn’t have pets either, partly because they would have put limits on his bachelor lifestyle, much of which involved frequenting the drinking dens of London.
Yet even if Bacon avoided the companionship of animals in his daily life, they were vital to his art. Now, they are the heart of a major exhibition of Bacon’s work that is opening at the Royal Academy of Arts in London on Saturday.
Called “Man and Beast,” and running until Apr. 17, the exhibition highlights Bacon’s paintings of animals — from screaming chimpanzees to haunting, wide-eyed owls — as well as his grotesque half-animal, half-human figures known as the Furies. The exhibition also includes Bacon’s many paintings of people at their most animalistic, often little more than glistening lumps of flesh, fighting in the frame.
Peppiatt, who co-curated the show, said Bacon was always fascinated by animals because he felt observing them offered insights into human life. After all, Peppiatt said, “we are animals with a veneer of civilization.” Bacon, he added, “was interested in that primal instinct.”
British art critics have been raving about the show ahead of its opening. But what do those closest to its subject matter think? We asked five animal experts, including a primatologist, a bullfighter and a chef who favors “nose to tail” eating, to give us their take on some of Bacon’s works. Below are edited extracts of those conversations.
‘Man with Dog,’ 1953
Rob Bays, canine behavior expert at Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, London
Maybe it’s because of my experience with rescue animals, but this painting really captures the loneliness that dogs can find themselves in — the fact that it’s so dark, and the dog’s almost separate from the human figure.
It’s a really unique take. Generally when people paint animals, they try to capture the companionship of pets and their warmth, whereas Bacon is showing us the wilder, more fierce side of some domestic animals. It’s really easy to shy away from those cases, because it can be emotionally difficult, but for me this painting shows the real need for rescue organizations like ours. It’s really thought provoking.
‘Study for Chimpanzee,’ 1957
Lindsay Murray, primatologist and lecturer on animal psychology
A chimp sitting on its own is one of the saddest sights, because they’re such highly social animals with such depths of intellect, and emotion and personality. And this really is a being on its own.
I find the red background quite unappealing and stark. When I first saw it I just thought of blood, probably because it looks like the animal is holding a form in its right hand, maybe a fresh monkey kill. That resonates with the darker side of chimp life where they relish their meals of meat.
The painting is called “Study for a Chimpanzee,” but I saw it was once sold as a “Study for Baboon,” and the face does look more baboon-like to me, while the arms, the way they’re extra long and curved at the end, is more like a gibbon. If it was a chimp, the head should be much larger. Art doesn’t have to be realistic, but…
Chris Sperring, conservation officer, Hawk and Owl Trust
Well, my first reaction was, “It’s barn owls.” There’s that faint glimmer of their heart-shaped face. And if you look at the bottom branch there’s what looks like two wings folding over a short tail, which is the adaptation that barn owls have.
But they’re strange barn owls to say the least.
Do you want to know what my second impression was? That they looked like these weird swaying aliens from the original 1960s “Lost in Space” TV series!
But the owl on the right, he’s definitely telling me a story. He’s pulled himself tight, which means they’re alert or alarmed. He’s telling me that there’s something close to him he doesn’t like, that he feels slightly threatened by. But he isn’t going to fly away yet, he’s going to pull himself tight 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 ones. Both of these make appearances in my kitchens, but not in this way. I am not often accused of being squeamish, but it’s the drippiness here that rather puts me off. Call me old fashioned, but I’m not crazy about other people’s drippy bodily fluids.
Francis Bacon’s approach to meat could not be more different from my own. His speaks of violence, of nature red in tooth and claw, using meat as an expression of human pain, whereas I think about meat as a way of existing sympathetically in the world, respecting your surroundings.
I’m afraid his pictures rather put me off meat. They are meaty, but itchy. I think he probably did like meat himself — he was a famous eater-out — so it is strange to paint your lunch in such a way before sitting down to enjoy it.
‘Study of a Bull,’ 1991
Frank Evans, “El Inglés,” bullfighter
The biggest problem with bullfighting these days is that you are going to see a bull put to death. I was brought up by a butcher as a child — I went to the slaughterhouse with my dad and the abattoirs — so the bull’s death wasn’t a shock for me. Bacon grew up on a farm so he must have felt the same.
I think the painting’s got something to do with Bacon’s impending death. What he’s showing is the bull about to step into the bullring, but he’s skidded to a stop. You can see he’s skidded because there’s a plume of dust coming from the sand.
One of the bull’s horns is in the dark still; the other horn is in the light. And the bull’s looking now at emptiness. There is no crowd. There are no bullfighters. There’s nothing there. Bacon is saying, “This is the end.” The bull is him.
Why would someone paint a bull as their last-ever painting? Well if you’re a bullfighting aficionado like him, you couldn’t think of anything nicer, really. When I die, I’m not going to be painting like our friend Bacon, but I’ve got an insurance policy, which will take my body back to the south coast of Spain, and my coffin will get a final lap of honor around the bull ring with my bullfighter’s hat on top.