Bacon was no sentimental painter of animals. As the Royal Academy’s Man and Beast blockbuster will show, he used apes, dogs, bulls and owls to create his own personal mythology of the perverse
Man and Beast, as the Royal Academy’s winter blockbuster is subtitled, are the same thing when Francis Bacon is looking at them. They are both meat. The artist’s painted world is a butcher’s shop: slabs of beef hang vertically in his triptychs among umbrellas and swastikas, bisected beasts drained of blood, flattened into red and white fatty flesh. But the people in his paintings are just as beastly – and just as butchered. Bodies wrestle and kiss. Nudes are splayed on dirty mattresses. We are just biological stuff.
Bacon would surely have seen the irony that the Royal Academy’s survey of his art through the lens of his interest in animals has been delayed by a virus. For Bacon sees no hierarchy of organisms, no sacred specialness in the human species. When the exhibition finally opens at the end of January, it will unveil a truly Darwinian artist in whose eyes a pope and a chimpanzee are equally tragicomic.