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Francis Bacon: The Papal Portraits of 1953

Bacon's Popes: Ex Cathedra to In Camera

Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, San Diego. 17 January 1999-28 March 1999

Throughout his long career, Francis Bacon (1909‑1992) steadfastly focused on the human figure as the subject of his paintings. Unlike other major artists of his time who reveled in abstraction, such as Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman, Bacon never deviated from his commitment to making images of people. Yet while extending the timeless tradition of figuration, he invented profound and startling new ways of portraying people as he distorted the inhabitants of his painterly world in order to ‘unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently.’

Bacon’s most recognizable image, and hence most famous painting, is the screaming pope of Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953. The picture was inspired by Diego Velázquez’s extraordinarily lifelike portrait of a powerful and unscrupulous pope who duplicitously took the name Innocent. Painted in 1650 at the height of the Baroque period, shortly after his arrival in Rome from Spain, it was Velázquez’s eminently successful attempt to rival the portraiture of Titian and the great painters of Italy. The subject of the painting is arguably the most powerful man in the world. He sits confidently on the papal throne, fully at ease ex cathedra—literally, from the cathedral seat—as God’s representative on earth.

The true brilliance of Velázquez’s accomplishment in this painting is to have satisfied his demanding papal client with a flattering, beautifully rendered portrait while at the same time passing on for the ages the unmistakable hint of corrupt character and deep‑seated deceit behind that well‑ordered and stern façade.

‘Haunted and obsessed by the image…by its perfection,’ Bacon sought to reinvent Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X in the papal portraits that form the focus of this book. In the great painting from the Des Moines Art Center, the Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, Bacon updates the seventeenth‑century image by transforming the Spanish artist’s confident client and relaxed leader into a screaming victim. Trapped as if manacled to an electric chair, the ludicrously drag‑attired subject is jolted into involuntary motion by external forces or internal psychoses. The eternal quiet of Velázquez’s Innocent is replaced by the involuntary cry of Bacon’s anonymous, unwitting, tortured occupant of the hot seat. One could hardly conceive of a more devastating depiction of postwar, existential angst or a more convincing denial of faith in the era that exemplified Nietzsche’s declaration that God is dead.

In Bacon’s words: ‘Great art is always a way of concentrating, reinventing what is called fact, what we know of our existence—a reconcentration…tearing away the veils that fact acquires through time. Ideas always acquire appearance veils, the attitudes people acquire of their time and earlier time. Really good artists tear down those veils.’

In much the same spirit that Velázquez went to Rome, determined to vie with the state portraits of Titian and remake them in the image of his time, Bacon’s papal variations are his attempt to reinvent or reinterpret Velázquez’s image in a way that would be valid for the mid‑twentieth century. To accomplish this reinvention, Bacon essentially replaced the grand, official state portrait with an intimate, spontaneous, candid camera glimpse behind the well‑ordered exterior. While Velázquez portrayed the pope ex cathedra, Bacon might be said to have captured him in camera–as if behind a closed door or through a one‑way mirror. While Innocent directly confronts his audience with a confident, almost contemptuous gaze, Bacon’s pope, preoccupied by pain, seems oblivious to observation."