In the latter half of the 20th Century, Francis Bacon was often hailed as the only figurative artist who, in his unflinching images of suffering, barbarism and human grotesquerie, had truly absorbed the horrific lessons of the Holocaust and Hiroshima.
Now, as the world reels from a pandemic caused by zoonotic transmission – that is, the spread of a pathogen from animals to people – and wrestles with the devastating impact of anthropogenic climate change upon nature, the painter’s achievement has been reframed in a stunning new exhibition, Francis Bacon: Man and Beast at the Royal Academy of Arts (29 January-17 April).
As Michael Peppiatt, one of its curators (as well as a close friend of the artist), writes in the exhibition catalogue, the relationship between man and animals was “the anvil on which he forged his deeply divided, tumultuous imagery as savagely and accurately as he could… This was the real issue of his art: the animality of man and the repercussions it had on life.”
As an organising principle, this is a truly revealing and original basis upon which to look afresh at Bacon’s achievement. The Second Version of Triptych (1944), a breakthrough work, draws its power from an oscillation between disfigured humanity and animal ferocity. His numerous paintings of chimpanzees express the same captivity – and the animal scream – that is such a feature of his legendary reinterpretations of the portrait of Innocent X by Velázquez. Images such as Head I (1948), often misunderstood as surrealist, are better seen as reflections upon the porous border between man and other species – and the hybrid possibilities when the two merge.
Ostensibly, Bacon was the epitome of the urban artist, a denizen of Soho and its drinking dens (for a definitive account of this milieu, check out Darren Coffield’s Tales from the Colony Room: Soho’s Lost Bohemia). But his childhood had been spent on his father’s estate in County Kildare – his direct contact with animals thwarted only by the chronic asthma that afflicted him until his death in 1992.
In 1951 and 1952, he visited his mother in South Africa, where she had migrated after his father’s death, and, captivated by the wildlife and scenery, briefly considered settling there himself. He was profoundly influenced by the photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s studies in animal and human locomotion – an inspiration evident in erotic paintings such as Two Figures (1953) and Two Figures in the Grass (1954).
No less than Orson Welles and Ernest Hemingway, Bacon was also deeply drawn to bullfighting – and his principal works on the subject are displayed together for the first time in this exhibition. In Study for Bullfight No 1 (1969), the bloodlust of the corrida and the crowd is explicitly linked to fascism by the Nazi rally and standard in the background.
What drew Bacon to lift the veil so insistently and reveal the beast within? According to one of his lovers, the poet Thomas Blackburn, he was compelled to capture what lay beneath the veneer of civilisation, “the sudden moment of truth when the mask disintegrates and the raw animal appears” (for this and much else, see Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan’s magisterial 2021 biography, Francis Bacon: Revelations, and David Sylvester’s Interviews with Francis Bacon).
In this sense, the core artistic mission was, as the painter himself put it, to “trap realism” and confront the “brutality of fact” (as he believed Picasso had done). There was, Bacon believed, a fundamental difference between mere “illustration” and art that depicted the “intensity” of reality. This compelled him to “wash the realism back on to the nervous system by his invention”.
Such an undertaking, as the RA exhibition shows to remarkable effect, involved a fearless confrontation with the animal nature of humanity, the transience of flesh and the continuum that links all species. He wanted, he said, “to paint like Velázquez, but with the texture of a hippopotamus skin.”
In this bloodless age of NFT art, of trigger warnings and of pearl-clutching squeamishness, we need such fearlessness more than ever. Do not miss this show.
…and, while we’re on the subject: the opening of the RA exhibition coincides with the publication of an excellent new book on an extraordinary episode in the painter’s life: Bacon in Moscow by James Birch (Cheerio). In the late Eighties, Birch – an entrepreneurial young gallery owner and friend of the painter – proposed that an exhibition of his work in the USSR’s capital would be in keeping with Gorbachev’s spirit of glasnost. Identifying a KGB officer, Sergei Klokov – a self-styled cultural diplomat, whose trademark was Pierre Cardin manbags – as the intermediary who could open doors in Moscow, Birch set about a project of almost ludicrous ambition. The book reads like an adventure story, with Bacon (in the last years of his life) at the heart of it all, simultaneously amused, flattered and occasionally outraged. Bohemia meets geopolitics, in the most delightful way.
Here are this week’s recommendations.
Parallel Mothers (general release, 28 January)
Pedro Almodóvar’s eighth collaboration with Penélope Cruz is also one of the best movies of his four decades in film. Still present are the flamboyance, colour and fascination with strong female characters that propelled him to the first rank of directors in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988). But the 72-year-old Almodovar has also grown interested in history, politics and emotional freight that cannot be shrugged off by the saving power of farce. Cruz plays Janis, a highly regarded photographer, who gives birth on the same day as her hospital roommate, 17-year-old Ana (the brilliant Milena Smit). The father of Janis’s child is Arturo (Israel Elejalde) – a forensic anthropologist who promises to help her exhume the mass grave where her grandfather’s body was buried after his execution by the Falangists in the Spanish Civil War. Ana, it emerges, is a rape survivor. The two women’s lives become quickly and sometimes painfully entangled, in ways that make the movie a deeply moving reflection upon motherhood, generation gaps and the burden of the past. It would be quite wrong to reveal more of a plot full of twists and turns, except to say that Cruz has never given a finer performance and that Almodovar remains one of the handful of directors whose work is absolutely unmissable.
The Responder (all episodes, iPlayer)
More than twenty years after Martin Freeman first entered the viewing public’s consciousness as Tim Canterbury, lovestruck workplace wit in The Office, he is now one of Britain’s most reliably excellent dramatic performers – as likely to deliver a fine stage interpretation of Richard III as to engage in a deadly battle of wits with Billy Bob Thornton in a season of Fargo. In The Responder, a five-parter written and created by former police officer Tony Schumacher, Freeman is nothing short of mesmerising as Chris Carson, a Merseyside Police officer disintegrating before our very eyes. Formerly a Detective Inspector, Carson, we quickly learn, has been embroiled in a scandal that resulted in his demotion to Constable. But the core of his affliction is psychological rather than professional. The scenes of Chris’s desperate dialogues with his therapist are almost unbearably painful. Having grown up with an abusive father, he fears becoming something similar: “I know the damage it does. Living with a monster.” The corollary of which is that he dares not confide in his own family. “I can’t show them this [he points at his head]. I love them too much.” What chance of redemption, though, when he is, for reasons not immediately clear, beholden to vicious drug dealer Carl Sweeney (Ian Hart)? In its physical and verbal brutality, The Responder echoes the work of the late Alan Clarke; and Chris’s flailing efforts to save the young addict (or “baghead”) Casey (Emily Fairn) pay homage to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. But it is Freeman’s yearning for a simpler way of life away from the darkness that lingers in the mind: “I can’t remember the last time I did something good.”
Billions, season six (Sky Atlantic)
It appears to be a curious law of modern prestige television that Damian Lewis can stamp his authority upon a series, define it by his charismatic presence – but not kill it off by his departure. For three seasons, he made Showtime’s Homeland unmissable, as Nicholas Brody, a congressman and retired Marine who has been held hostage by Islamist terrorists and turned by them during his captivity. The show ought not to have survived his exit, but did so for five further seasons, with the spotlight shifting decisively to CIA officer Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes). Now, after five seasons, Lewis has also left Billions, a show that became frankly impossible to imagine without his character: the hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod, hoodie-wearing incarnation of 21st-century, free market ruthlessness. Yet – once again – the show is defying gravity by continuing to prosper without him. Into Axelrod’s trainers has stepped the rival who bested him, Mike Prince (Corey Stoll), supplanting raw aggression with a menacing sleekness and deceptive eccentricity. The new season begins with Axe’s longtime legal antagonist Chuck Rhoades Jr (Paul Giamatti) driving a tractor through a field to the strains of Buffalo Springfield’s ‘For What It’s Worth’, apparently on some form of bucolic sabbatical from his role as US Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Back at what used to be the headquarters of Axe Capital, Prince is struggling to impose his will upon a team used only to their former boss’s blue-collar aggression.
What becomes quickly clear is that, in spite of Lewis’s excellence, Billions was an ensemble show all along. Stoll is a fine replacement for the lead actor, engaged in quickfire screwball patter with his right-hand man Scooter (Daniel Breaker). Axelrod’s consigliere, Wags (David Constable), is initially bereft but – surviving a minor heart attack (“I’m not going out like Mr Big!” he declares in a reference to the recent loss of a major character in And Just Like That…) – he bounces back with refreshed brio. Axe’s protégé-turned-antagonist Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon) and the firm’s in-house coach Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff) weigh their options. What gives the new version of Billions a real chance of prospering is Prince’s ingenious decision to turn the show’s entire ethos on its head. “We’re flipping the paradigm!” he announces – ditching all investors other than the New York firefighters and launching “Prince’s List”, which only morally stainless backers will be invited to join. The play, of course, is that this is just another form of exclusivity, a club that the super-rich will be desperate to be part of. Thus a drama that investigated insatiable greed has become, on a dime, a satire on the vacuity and narcissism of contemporary “ethical capitalism”. Very promising.
Well established as one of Britain’s most compelling designers and multidisciplinary artists, Osman Yousefzada has created clothes for Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift and made headlines last year with his pink and black Infinity Pattern 1 installation at Selfridges in Birmingham. Now, he has written a rich, extremely readable memoir of his upbringing during the Eighties and Nineties in the same city – or, more precisely, on the boundary between Balsall Heath and Moseley, just down the road from where UB40’s Ali Campbell lived. The Go-Between explores Yousefzada’s formative years in a tightly-knit Pashtun community of immigrant families from the Swabi district of Pakistan, which lies between the Indus and Kabul rivers. In the most obvious sense, he was an intermediary between this first-generation migrant culture – “they didn’t possess the codes of privilege to decipher, enter and embrace what was around them” – and the emancipated metropolitan world of London into which he plunged as a student at Soas and then Central Saint Martins. In a more subtle sense, he was, as a child, the “go-between to those two worlds, the world of women and the world of men’’– the former captivating him as “a full-blown epic, of tragedy, pathos, colour, jewellery and clothes, compared to the drab, smoky posturing of the men, who all seemed the same, who all dressed the same.” To be culturally amphibious is, of course, both thrilling and demanding, and the book recounts well the struggles that the young Yousefzada faced – and leaves one hoping that there will be successor volumes of autobiography.
Hot Damn! – Chloe Sells (GOST Books)
The photographer Chloe Sells was Hunter S. Thompson’s PA at Owl Farm, his compound in Woody Creek, Colorado, towards the end of his life (he shot himself in 2005). For aficionados of the master of Gonzo journalism, this book of photographs is a precious visual memoir of a unique writing life that was, in itself, a form of performance art. Even the notes that Thompson left around the house – “Rage Rage Against the Coming of the Light”, “Never Call 911. Never. This means You. HST” – were deftly choreographed. And nothing pleased him more than to hear his own words read out: “You could see his excitement building as he listened, reaching the point when he would exclaim, ‘Hot Damn!’ just as the line delivered the moment of truth.” In addition to the domestic details that she captures (Thompson’s cat, his campaign memorabilia, his stuffed animals, the dried flowers to be given to people he hated), Sells’s own artistry – especially her love of psychedelic wash over landscape photographs – ensures that this is much more than a visual catalogue. Raoul Duke himself would surely have approved.
Otherlands: A World in the Making – Thomas Halliday (Allen Lane, 1 February)
“It is by looking at the past that palaeontologists, ecologists and climate scientists can address the uncertainty about the near-and long-term future of our planet, casting backwards to predict possible futures.” So writes the palaeobiologist Thomas Halliday in this riveting exploration of the last 500 million years; which is, more specifically, an intense and imaginative reading of fossils as runes that tell us about our own times, and possible future. Halliday is a Time Lord at heart, eager to lead us back to, say, the Permian or Oligocene epochs and unpack their lessons for 21st Century humanity. For all its scholarship, this is a very readable book, full of literary reference and accessible metaphor. Otherlands is also a wise manual for adaptive change rather than a prophecy of inevitable doom. We are, writes Halliday, “ecosystem engineers”. It is for us to decide whether or not we make use of this talent – and whether we understand that the pandemic has been but a drill for much greater challenges ahead. “The spire may have fallen,” he writes, “but the cathedral yet stands, and we must choose whether to douse the flames.” (Full disclosure: the author’s sister, Ellen Halliday, is a reporter at Tortoise.)
“Knobheads Morris dancing to Sham 69”: has there been a better satirical image capturing the grim realities of rightwing Brexit Britain than this line from Yard Act’s ‘Dead Horse’? The band’s debut album – already storming the charts – draws on a different sort of Britishness: the spoken sarcasm of the Streets, the infectious bop of early Blur and a dash of the late Mark E. Smith’s anger to add spice to the mix. Clocking in at 37 minutes, The Overload is a disciplined and extremely entertaining LP, showcasing not only the talent of frontman James Smith but the tight musicianship of Ryan Needham (bass), Sam Shipstone (guitar) and drummer Jay Russell. There’s no attempt to disguise their ambition (they feature on the soundtrack for Fifa 22) or their cocky certainty that it will be realised. But the hype is matched by wit, brio and irony (“If you don’t challenge me on anything, you’ll find that I’m actually very nice. Are you listening? I’m actually very fucking nice!”). I have a hunch that this lot will be around for a while.
In this, her third album recorded in lockdown, the Brooklyn-based pianist offers her interpretations of a finely curated selection of compositions ranging from Schumann’s Arabesque in C Major, Op. 18 and Kreisleriana Op. 16 to Philip Glass’s Mad Rush and Couperin’s Les Barricades Mystérieuses and Tic-Toc-Choc. The binding theme is Dinnerstein’s preoccupation with the concept of “undersong”: in her own words: “an archaic term for a song with a refrain [which] to me… also suggests a hidden text.” Since her emergence in 2007 as a star performer, with her self-financed recording of the Goldberg Variations, she has been celebrated both for her bold idiosyncrasy and (a rare combination) capacity for restraint. Both are evident in this captivating collection.
“Truth be told/ I ain’t lost nobody I needed/ The real ones still around/ Y’all be safe though.” Thus, in forthright style, does the second full-length mixtape by Young T & Bugsey – AKA Ra’chard Tucker and Doyin Julius – begin, in the first of 15 infectious tracks. In common with many artists today, the hip-hop duo from Nottingham have benefited mightily from TikTok popularity – most notably with their 2019 hit, ‘Don’t Rush’ (which was driven onto the Billboard charts, implausibly enough, by a makeup brush challenge set by a Hull University student). The music reflects the respective inspirations of Young T’s Jamaican roots and Bugsey’s Nigerian heritage, fused in their very own brand of Afroswing and trap; and, though they have been criticised for taking themselves too seriously, there is plenty of humour in their lyrics (“Real Gs move in silence like it’s bolognese”). A fine, musically kinetic corrective to the winter cold.
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner
Francis Bacon paintings courtesy The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2021
Photographs Getty Images, Sony Pictures, Netflix, BBC, Sky