Royal Academy, London
Animal cries and distorted bodies confront us at every turn in this dramatic survey of the artist’s shocking paintings

Francis Bacon: Man and Beast is a frequently grim but endlessly fascinating parade through the Royal Academy’s main galleries. Room after room – all oxblood and indigo – track the artist’s development from the mid-1930s, with his early, Picasso-ish Crucifixion, to the end, with his last, somewhat unsuccessful and schematic 1991 painting of a bull. It looks like the artist’s heart wasn’t really in it; his use of spray-can shadowing and flicked-on dust doesn’t really help. As well as all the human intrigue, occasional tenderness and persistent cruelty, Man and Beast also looks at Bacon’s interest in animals, and how interchangeable one species becomes with another. A human head with an ape’s shriek or aggressive smile, the dance between bullfighter and bull, a study of two owls on a branch (one of the few genuine surprises in the show, though there isn’t much surprise in that it isn’t very good), Bacon’s monsters and monstrous Bacons confront us at every turn. I want to run away, I can’t stop looking.

With their theatrical painterliness, their flat planes and gnarly eruptions, Bacon’s painted situations and entrapments are nothing if not dramatic. And then there are the screams and the animal cries, the vulnerable and distorted bodies, the flung paint, the arrested high-speed blurs, the slashing grass stems and the rumpled sheets. Sometimes it’s as if all the air has been sucked out of Bacon’s paintings, leaving a dog panting somewhere off an Egyptian highway, with cartoonish cars beetling along the coast road in the background, and the pope on his throne in his cloistered solitude, gasping for air. Is His Holiness all right in there, you ask. Bacon’s figures are invariably in a bit of a state, squirming on the sofa, burying their heads in flowers, naked in the undergrowth, caged in their human zoos. It is what we expect. Should bodies ever be so bendy? I’d have a little scream myself, in rooms done up like that, the light so flat and strong, the colour scheme so ghastly, the spaces between things so empty and so full of threat.

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