At the Royal Academy

Published: 16/02/2022

I recently visited two very different exhibitions at the Royal Academy: Late Constable and Francis Bacon: Man and Beast. Both were absorbing and thought provoking. 

The later works on show by Constable showed how his focus changed in terms of technique and location as he got older. Prints, water colours, and freer and more expressive paintings and drawings illustrate the scope of his later work. The Royal Academy note that his work in his final twelve years was "characterised by expressive brushwork, first developed in his plein air oil sketches from nature, as well as his full-size preparatory sketches. He also turned to watercolour with an enthusiasm missing since the early 1800s, and some of his late drawings show the same freedom of expression as his paintings from the same period".

Some of the work showed how he aimed to capture rainbows and skies affected by different weather conditions. One painiting in particular appeared to be created using the artist's palette knife and had an impressionistic quality. While Constable is perhaps best known for his Suffolk paintings, here were paintings of Hampstead Heath, Brighton, Arundel and Stonehenge. 

By contrast, the Bacon exhibition centred on two themes, the animal aspects of humanity and a concern with movement. The Royal Academy invites us to "explore Francis Bacon’s profound and moving paintings, where the line between human and animal is constantly blurred, reminding us that our primal instincts lie just below the surface".The paintings span 50 years of Bacon's life. There is a raw energy in this exhibition as human and animal features get blended and blurred. The paintings are often haunting and stay in the mind. Some were influenced by Bacon's extensive collection of photos, others by his observation of animals in the wild, some were of the people he knew and loved. The final painting of both the exhibition and of his life, is of a bull. As well as the oil paint, there is a handful of dust thrown across the canvas. The painting reflects Bacon's longstanding fascination with bull fighting and the dust reflects the fact he knew he was approaching the end of his life. As he himself said "dust is eternal, after all we all return to dust."