WHEN I hear the words “Cultural Centre”, I reach for my gun. A good friend invited me to explore the modern and contemporary art collection assembled by the Madeiran merchant José Berardo. It is still on loan to the Cultural Centre of Belém in Lisbon, despite the uncertainty surrounding the allegedly unpaid debts of the Portuguese billionaire.
The monstrous building (140,000 square metres; Vittorio Gregotti and Manuel Salgado) was completed in record time for the year in which Portugal presided over the Council of Europe (1992). It looks more like a bunker or, to be generous, the painted visions of John Martin (1789-1854) of ancient Babylon and Nineveh. It scars the Tagus riverside of the World Heritage Centre and the early-16th-century Jéronimos monastery across the street.
Solid blocks of towers, narrow ramp ways, and hidden squares contain conference halls, theatres, a reading room, a library, and the like. The Coleção Berardo alone fills some 9000 square metres in an art gallery.
It houses one work by Francis Bacon (1909-92) which I had come to see on the day that I was missing the press view of the current Royal Academy exhibition in London. Instead, I was able to spend time with the artist’s 1983 Oedipus and the Sphinx after Ingres.
If we think of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres at all (1780-1867), we might think of a lush, post-revolutionary French neo-classical academic artist; but his use of pure colour and his distortion of forms found echoes later in Matisse and Picasso, as Bacon well knew.
In his interpretation, Bacon includes an injured athlete, awkwardly lifting his bloodied and bandaged foot, in place of the mythical king of Thebes, with a sculpted sphinx. In an outer darkness hangs one of the Furies, the Eumenides.
Bacon not only distorts, but one might also say perverts, the original work (1808). He offers a profound reflection on flesh, raw, bony, and, if we are honest, unattractive, quite at odds with the handsome, almost homoerotic, male beauty captured by Ingres. Sexuality has become animalistic for the Dublin-born painter.
From early on (to judge by his surviving work), Bacon was obsessed with the Furies. In the second room of the London exhibition, in the first of several illusionistic coups of the design, three paintings are brought together to form a triptych, the earliest being one of the Eumenides.
Placed centrally in this hang is Figure Study II (1945-46), loaned from the Bagshaw Museum in Batley to the National Galleries of Scotland, in which a half-naked figure yells out from beneath an incongruous open umbrella, face down in the rich leaves of a succulent. The man’s herringbone coat is draped over his rump much like a cast-off matador’s jacket. The tweed coat, this time with a trilby hat, reappears in a parallel work, Figure Study I (1945-46). Blue and deep pink blossoms complete the composition; are they the discarded bouquet of a disappointed lover, or flowers gathered at a graveside?
© The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2021. Photo Prudence Cuming Associates LtdFrancis Bacon, Study for Bullfight No. 1, 1969, oil on canvas, private collection
Alongside these two canvases, which can usually be viewed side by side in Edinburgh, the curators have chosen to add an earlier (1944) painting of a Fury (private collection), devouring a bunch of flowers. It is unlikely that Bacon intended these paintings as a conventional triptych, but they work well as a group. It would be a Fury that featured on his last commission: a wine label for Baroness de Rothschild in December 1991.
With rather more reticence, three paintings of a corrida (1969) surround the octagonal central gallery, two of them clearly intended as a pair with numbered doors for the spectators to crowd into the arena. Savage emotion has overtaken the crazed onlookers, who throng the terraces beneath what appears to be the Nazi flag of the Party Eagle. In contrast, the bull is ennobled with oncoming death, its head and horns outlined against the still unstained white capote de brega.
Few of Bacon’s sitters emerge as beautiful people. His is not a technique beloved by celluloid and by family albums. Isabel Rawsthorne and Bacon’s first long-term lover, Peter Lacy, have simian faces, and perhaps only in Triptych August 1972 (Tate) did a figure regain some dignity in human form; but, by then, his lover George Dyer, the subject of this and several of the “Black Triptychs”, had committed suicide.
Rather, Bacon’s own bestial nature and his incisive and all too deep human understanding allow him to paint in ways that are rarely encountered in Western art except in the figment of imagination, such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, perhaps, the flaying of Marsyas, or some of the horrific scenes from the biblical accounts of genocide and mutilation: Cain and Abel, the rape of Tamar, the death of Jephthah’s daughter, and the sadistic beheading of John the Baptiser all came to mind.
Bacon, of course, was not a religious painter; that was never his intention. But the profound experience of walking through the Royal Academy galleries left me with a deeper understanding of human nature than many more romantic or romanticised versions of humanity can offer. It is perhaps fitting that this latest exhibition closes on Easter Day.
“Francis Bacon: Man and Beast” is at the Royal Academy, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1, until 17 April. Phone 020 7300 8090. www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/francis-bacon