The horror safari: why was Francis Bacon so triggered by dead elephants?

The horror safari: why was Francis Bacon so triggered by dead elephants?

When the great painter died, 200 macabre photographs of elephant carcasses were found in his studio. They were by Peter Beard – and they propelled the artist into the heart of darkness

If you look into the eyes of a portrait, especially a self-portrait, by Rembrandt, you seem to see a “soul”. Such religious ideas and readings have shaped the story of art from its very beginnings and continue to seduce us today. But Francis Bacon was the first artist to paint people as animals. His subjects are rendered without souls, as flesh and bone, as blood and brain – in short, as animated meat. This ruthless Darwinian vision of the struggle of life makes him one of the most unnerving of artists. And his radical eye for humankind’s natural history gives a certain resonance to his friendship with one of the most brilliant wildlife photographers of the 20th century.

After the Irish-born British painter died in 1992, more than 200 photographs of dead elephants were found in his London studio. They were given to him by Peter Beard, who took many of them from an aeroplane flying low over the grasslands of Kenya. The two would converse avidly about Beard’s images of these great, grey giants slowly rotting into monuments of white bone and ivory in the African sun. They inspired some of Bacon’s most pungent thoughts about art and life. “I would say the photographs of elephants,” he said, “are naturally suggestive.” What he saw was “a trigger – a release”.

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