Francis Bacon's Superb Paintings Sizzle With Emotion At Royal Academy

Francis Bacon, Royal Academy of Arts ★★★★★

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Francis Bacon's Superb Paintings Sizzle With Emotion At Royal Academy Francis Bacon, Royal Academy of Arts 5
One of his overwhelming triptychs. © Royal Academy of Arts, London / David Parry. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2022

A caged chimpanzee's face is frozen in a primal scream. It's a terrifying sight and I take a step back lest it come to life, leap from the painting, sink its teeth into me and rip me limb from limb. It's a painting of raw intensity and emotion, and one of dozens in a major Francis Bacon exhibition at Royal Academy of Arts. This is one show that's not for the faint-hearted.

The exhibition is titled 'Man and Beast' and often it's hard to tell which I'm looking at —in one of the opening paintings, half a man's head is missing so all I can make out is an ear and his mouth which contains fangs and is oriented vertically. The effect is jarring. As far as I know there isn't a Francis Bacon-inspired horror movie, though from this show it's clear he produced lots of nightmare fuel.

Nightmare fuel comes as standard. © Royal Academy of Arts, London / David Parry. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2022

While there are screams and angst aplenty, there are moments of tenderness too with paintings showing naked men embracing. Francis Bacon was gay at a time when it was criminalised, so he had to position the work as being based on a photo of two wrestlers, though it's plain for any viewer to see they are lovers.

A painting of Pope Innocent by Spanish Old Master Diego Velazquez was a repeat subject for Bacon. There are several of his versions on display here, including one where the top of his head is missing and the bottom is dominated by a scream that feels like a brief moment locked for eternity inside the painting. Yes, I'm back on the screams and I can't help but be drawn to them — it's intimidating, it's exhausting and it's also addictive to keep staring into these open-mouthed abysses.

A rare tender moment of two men embracing. © Royal Academy of Arts, London / David Parry. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2022

The show contains many of Bacon's large-scale triptychs which overwhelm and cause me to step back, as well as paintings where the intensity of motion at a bullfight turns figures into a blur — but leaves the threatening bull clearer to ensure no viewer ever feels comfortable while standing in front of it.

It's fantastic when a painting leaves a lasting emotional impact on a viewer, and in this blockbuster exhibitions dozens left me reeling. Though it's such heavyweight subject matter — I recommend spending the rest of the day with comfort food and lightweight telly to make up for it.  

Francis Bacon: Man and Beast is on at Royal Academy of Arts from 29 January until 17 April 2022. Tickets are £22-£24.50. For those looking for more Bacon there's also an excellent selection of his prints round the corner in a free exhibition at Marlborough London.

Last Updated 27 January 2022