The Animalism of Francis Bacon's "Figure With Monkey"

The Animalism of Francis Bacon's "Figure With Monkey"

Sotheby's upcoming Contemporary Art Evening auction features an important early work by Francis Bacon.
Sotheby's upcoming Contemporary Art Evening auction features an important early work by Francis Bacon.

T hroughout the extraordinary oeuvre of Francis Bacon, the human figure is incessantly undone and brutally laid bare: reformed and transposed into primeval animalism, man and beast habitually appear as indistinguishable, if not entirely interchangeable.

This impetus to confront the bestial reality of the human form lies at the very centre of the remarkable early painting, Figure with Monkey. Executed in 1951, this work heralds an incipient moment in Bacon's career. Following a stay in Zimbabwe, then Southern Rhodesia, during 1951 alongside numerous visits to South Africa throughout the 1950s, Bacon produced a cycle of wildlife landscapes and animal paintings, including a small series of caged screaming monkeys.

Comprising four paintings in total, three of which prestigiously reside in the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice; and the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Figure with Monkey stands as the very first from this extraordinary corpus, and the only one left in private hands. The sheer force of Bacon's painterly invention here commands a magnificent coalition of the artist's unbridled fascination with wild animals and his inimitable impulse to expose the primal nature of man.

Dramatically fixed around the open-mouthed bestial scream – the quintessential Baconian leitmotif – Figure with Monkey represents a unique and pioneering articulation of the dialectical "zone of indiscernibility" between man and animal vitally intrinsic to Bacon's astounding artistic legacy (Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, London 2003, p. 16).

"This key notion in Bacon's art, that man is an animal, was explored in numerous paintings throughout the 1950s in which humans and monkeys are depicted as interchangeable, if not almost indistinguishable: both imprisoned in dark cages with their mouths opened in screams."
Michael Peppiatt in: Exh. Cat., Norwich, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, and travelling, Francis Bacon in the 1950s, 2006, p. 24.

Despite fiercely avoiding contact with domestic pets owing to severe asthma, Bacon remained captivated by wild animals. Littering the floor of his infamously chaotic studio, a vast and disparate matrix of visual and photographic resources provided an instant well-spring of creative inspiration. Among the various books, magazines and photographs at his disposal, Eadweard Muybridge's paradigmatic Animal Locomotion, 1877-78, and Marius Maxwell's Stalking Big Game with a Camera in Equatorial Africa published in 1925 have been cited as distinctly influential, while smudged, paint smeared and oil-stained depictions of monkeys on torn pages from Life History of Orang-Outan.

Hutchinson's Animals of All Countries also contributed to the broad array of visual stimuli called forth and transmogrified into Bacon's inimitable canon. Nonetheless the desire to see for himself and photograph such wildlife in situ, most notably at Kruger National Park, was a major driving force behind the several trips Bacon made to see his mother, who had moved to South Africa in the early 1950s.

Francis Bacon, ‘Pope and Chimpanzee’, circa 1960, Image / Artwork: © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2019. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd Francis Bacon

Remembering these trips Bacon declared: "I felt mesmerised by the excitement of seeing animals move through the long grass"; an enthusiasm that translated to a memorable body of work including the magnificent Elephant Fording a River from 1952 (Francis Bacon cited in: Michael Peppiatt, Exh. Cat., Norwich, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Francis Bacon in the 1950s, 2006, p. 26). Although undeniably related, Bacon's series of monkey paintings are starkly differentiated from the safari styled telephoto-reportage of Elephant Fording a River. Snarling, writhing and contorted, these encaged beasts bear a more immediate affinity with Bacon's treatment of the human subject.

Bacon outlined his interest in monkeys as stemming "from the fact that like humans they are fascinated with their own image, and that their interest in themselves is displayed with an abandon and relish rarely equalled by men" (Francis Bacon cited in: Martin Harrison, In Camera Francis Bacon: Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, London 2005, p. 200). This 'abandon' is expertly deployed in Figure with Monkey via the focal lure of the monkey's glinting-jawed shriek. Bacon depicts a moment of volatile release; frightening, spontaneous and primal, the scream is the epicentre of drama and the point at which both animal and man converge; "...everything is in flux, unstable, as Bacon weaves another mystery" (Martin Harrison, Ed., Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné, Volume II. 1929-57, London 2016, p. 233).

Portrait of Francis Bacon in 1951 by Cecil Beaton, Image: © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

The formidable dark silhouette of the encaged screaming beast is tentatively reached for by a faceless suited man. Here, Bacon imparts a projection of the elemental nature residing behind Man's veil of appearance. Nominally segregated by the field of criss-cross fencing, the visual connection between man and monkey nonetheless incites a reading of Bacon's assertion that "we nearly always live through screens – a screened existence. And I sometimes think, when people say my work looks violent, that perhaps I have from time to time been able to clear away one or two of the veils or screens" (Francis Bacon cited in: Exh. Cat., Norwich, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, op. cit., p. 26).

In this regard, Figure with Monkey beautifully illustrates Gilles Deleuze's crucially groundbreaking philosophical elaboration on Francis Bacon. As propounded by Deleuze, "Sometimes an animal [in Bacon's work] is treated as the shadow of its master, or conversely, the man's shadow itself assumes an autonomous and indeterminate animal existence. The shadow escapes from the body like an animal we have been sheltering. In place of formal correspondences, what Bacon's painting constitutes is a zone of indiscernibility or undecideability between man and animal" (Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, London 2003, p. 16).

Distended and intimidating, the incomprehensible monkey appears as a shadow out of which the dramatic locus of the painting emerges: the monkey's terrifying scream. Simultaneously shrinking away, the figure of the suited man tentatively extends his grasp towards the unnaturally contorted gape of looming razor-sharp teeth; here the monkey gives violent expression to the faceless and mute primal shadow of Man. In other works of the later 1950s, rather than depict the bipartite relationship between man and monkey, ape-like forms are carried over to many of the hulking male nudes, choosing to favour the prehensile crouch of the primate for an evocation of primordial physicality.

The aggressive and contained animality of Figure with Monkey underlines an obsessive preoccupation with the mouth as bestial centre and agent of the primal scream – a motif that would later find its ultimate manifestation in the career defining series of Popes after Velazquez's 1650 masterpiece Portrait of Pope Innocent X. Immediately presaging the very first Pope paintings produced that same year, this work emerged at the outset of a pivotal period which was to define Bacon as a major artist.

To quote Michael Peppiatt, "by focussing on what was most animal in man – the primal scream – Bacon had found the single image which was to define his vision" (Michael Peppiatt, op. cit., p. 24).

FRANCIS BACON, Study for a head, 1952 ARTWORK: © THE ESTATE OF FRANCIS BACON. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, DACS 2019

Indeed, the 1950s denote a period of experimentation in Bacon's career through which thematic aspects would later filter into the Man in Blue series, which featured foreshortened spatial interiors contained within a delineated scaffold. Figure with Monkey represents an innovative disclosure of Bacon's interest in such framing devices: engulfed by the encompassing field of mesh fencing, this work delivers an early intimation of Bacon's employment of 'space-frames' – the term coined by David Sylvester to denote the structural and psychological framing device used to convey the haunting spectacle of man's alienation and defamation.

Today, Figure with Monkey represents one of the earliest and fully realised examples of Bacon's explicit and nightmarish interchangeability of man and primate. Bacon famously apprehended the human race as inherently savage and nowhere is this more apparent than in the present work.

Contemporary Art

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