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.
Bacon is a manipulative painter, getting us up close then pushing us away. Teasing us with something familiar – a plainly painted doorknob and the key in the lock, a bit of bedframe, a plain acre or two of carpeting, the dangling light-pull, a tweed coat, a stage prop or two of modernist furniture, with the mess of a human or animal form in some sort of paroxysm rearing up in the middle of it all. Bacon is good at this sort of stuff. We are forever being accompanied by silent screams, human and simian dental-work, tongues and lips, bulging calf muscles and cheeks and forearms, the convex and concave meetings of shoulders and neck, prow-like jawlines, twisted physiognomies and ears so well sculpted by his brush, so contoured and thrown into relief you could stick your finger down there and it would go all the way in. Great at ears, and the tender naked soles of the feet, great at asses, toilet plumbing, pleated curtains and furniture, he could never do hands and his Baconised heads became an awful mannerism. Bacon is always arresting, but not always very good. His paintings can flail terribly. The best are when he keeps things straightforward. His 1961 Paralytic Child Walking on All Fours (derived, like many of his images, from a late 19th-century series of photographs by Eadweard Muybridge of humans and animals in motion) is genuinely shocking, in the way the child crosses the room beyond an open window frame that juts in on the right, keeping us at bay.
The dog pausing by the drain in the gutter, its owner no more than a shadow of legs, is a wonderful moment of everyday abject silence. But when Bacon paints his late lover George Dyer seated, one leg pooling away on to the floor like a puddle of Silly Putty, the effect is merely absurd. Bacon’s bullfights (all three of them bought together here, for the first time) might be all swerve and torque and slew, an attempt at bravura, but the crowds half-seen through a gap in the sliding wall – like a Nazi rally in a nearby room – feel overcooked. Bacon’s 1944 Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (not in the show) is a great piece of late surrealism, but the second 1988 version here is suave and silly, as is his 1981 Triptych inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus, with their wiggly, unbelievable sci-fi forms.
The caption to Bacon’s study of his ex-lover Peter Lacy, curled up and burying his head in the couch, says it might be an image “of pain or remorse”. Or maybe he’s waiting for a good seeing-to, in their fraught S&M affair. Bacon didn’t want stories, but his paintings are full of them, and life, fame and gossip leaked out of Soho and caught up with his obfuscations and the misdirections he gave in interviews. I look forward to the day (it won’t be in my lifetime) when someone who couldn’t possibly have known Bacon or his milieu can look back and evaluate his art without all the trappings, the overheated talk of “man’s inhumanity to man” and all the rest of it. We are still lumbered with all the baggage, all the heavy breathing.