Francis Bacon - The beast in man

  • Francis Bacon, Paralytic Child Walking on All Fours (from Muybridge) [Verlamd kind, lopend op handen en voeten (naar Muybridge)], 1961
Laura Stamps

Is it human or is it an animal? Paralytic Child Walking On All Fours (After Muybridge), a 1961 painting by Francis Bacon (1909-1992), shows a naked figure making its way through a bare landscape on all fours. As the title suggests, it is a portrait of a disabled child. A child that will never be able to stand on two feet, yet still finds a way to move around as quickly as possible by instinct. But where will he end up? His dark surroundings provide no perspective. The only thing we can distinguish is part of the stretcher not covered by the canvas. Is this a way of saying that he will have to shape his own world, subject to the limitations of his condition? And what about the cord hanging by the ladder? Did Bacon mean to say that the only direction we’re moving in is towards death? One tug of the cord and the light will go out forever?

It wouldn’t surprise me.

Zaal met werken van Francis Bacon in Gemeentemuseum Den Haag

Potential carcasses

Bacon never made any secret of his view of humanity: ‘Well, of course, we are meat, we are potential carcasses. If I go into a butcher's shop I always think it's surprising that I wasn't there instead of the animal.’ He saw man as an animal that lives by instinct. In his world, there is no difference between heaven and earth. He saw the world as a godless place, where each of us stands quite alone. This does not mean that Bacon saw life as meaningless. It is just that humans must give their own life meaning. Not an easy task, for it is different for everyone. You cannot copy from another, only learn by trial and error.

Thin layer of civilisation

Photographs – in books, newspapers and magazines – were an important point of departure for Bacon’s paintings. He once said that he wanted to paint the emotions behind the photographic image, scrape the thin layer of civilisation off the image we project to the outside world. Paralytic Child Walking on All Fours is based on a photograph by the English photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), one of a series in which he recorded the movements of humans and animals. However, the influence of Muybridge’s photographs on Bacon’s work extended much further than this one painting.

Subjective reality

Having studied Muybridge’s series in great detail, Bacon had ‘mastered’ the movements of the human body, as it were. When he spread paint on the canvas using brushes or rags, he also managed to distort his figures into lifelike forms, giving his portraits the effect of an ‘animated’ photograph encapsulating  a succession of moments in a single image. Bacon’s work thus shows us that it is impossible to capture ‘life’ from a single perspective. In a world where we have to make our own rules, reality becomes an entirely subjective matter. Become entangled in it, or use it to your advantage – the choice is yours.

Parts of this text are based on a passage from an essay entitled (in translation) ‘What in ‘De anatomische les – van Rembrandt tot Damien Hirst’ (in Dutch only; published by Thoth, paperback € 19.95, hardback € 24.95) published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name. Available from the museum shop at Gemeentemuseum Den Haag