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Francis Bacon: Man and Beast | Royal Academy

Francis Bacon, Léon Spilliaert, Pablo Picasso, Royal Academy, London2 min read

I caught COVID a few days ago. Worse than the sharp, uncanny fever has been the confinement - the daily stare at the fading T line on my LFT test, the lack of human contact, exercise… and gallery trips. This means I have nothing new to write about this week.

It’s possible I caught it at the last show I saw, this major Francis Bacon retrospective at the Royal Academy. I breezed around the large exhibition in around half an hour, not paying very close attention but taking in the atmosphere and getting my bearings: it’s on for a few months, so plenty of other chances to go back, I thought. (I did exactly the same at the RA’s outstanding Spilliaert show in March 2020, and regretted the brevity of my first visit for months of lockdown afterwards.)

Francis Bacon, Study of a Bull

I wonder if I retained any memories of Bacon’s unique atmosphere of confinement and dread during the worst fever days - if he made it all worse somehow. The galleries certainly amplified the interior horrors of the paintings, with sparse hanging, dark-painted walls and low lighting. But actually the cultural event that kept replaying in my head when it was too painful to lift it from my pillow was a lot tackier: songs from the flop 80s Broadway musical Carrie that I’d been playing on YouTube the day before I got sick.

My notes from my visit don’t help much either, they only record the (accurate) remark of a fellow viewer, that Bacon’s triptych monsters look like the enemies from video game Doom!

What do I take from this retrospective then? It has very impressive breadth, bolstered by some stunning loans from private collections. One of these, Study of a Bull, pictured above, is Bacon’s last painting, from 1991. The artist had a sad final act: going to Madrid in pursuit of love; the lover didn’t visit him in hospital when the travel and excitement proved too much for his frail bones.

Bacon’s bull bluntly copies a worn Picasso motif, but renders it unique: trapping the animal indoors through careful gridlines and a bullring-like curve. It’s ghostly where so many of his other animals - his raging chimpanzees and popes and muscle men of decades past - are viciously corporeal. I don’t remember it being much to look out, a faded presence, an echo of greatness.

Or maybe the bull didn’t burn itself into my brain because I wasn’t paying attention, assuming I’d be back to give it a proper look before too long. Or maybe it’s just the brain fog from COVID. Lucky me that I can go back to refresh my memory and get my bearings again, soon.

Francis Bacon: Man and Beast is at the Royal Academy (London). 29 January - 17 April 2022

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