Study for a Pope I is the first of six major images of a disease-ridden and tortured pope that Bacon executed in April-May 1961, and which he exhibited for the first time together as a series at his seminal retrospective at the Tate Gallery in London in 1962. In this extraordinary group, Bacon seemed to show the slow progressive descent of a man of pomp and circumstance into dementia and inner hell.
Bacon's lasting obsession with portraying the Papal pontiff began with one of his first mature paintings in 1949, entitled Head VI. In much the same way as Andy Warhol's fascination with the legend of Marilyn Monroe prompted his best pictures, so Bacon relentlessly returned to his famously harrowing depiction of the most powerful figure in the church. The history of art is peppered with examples of enthroned Popes. From Raphael to Titian, the greatest masters had been commissioned to paint the likeness of successive Popes, but it was The Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Velasquez that had the most impact on Bacon. Haunted by what he called "the perfection" of this image, Bacon made it his own by recasting Velazquez's Pope as a victim of Twentieth century neuroses, living on the edge of sanity and existence. It is no surprise that Bacon stuck photographs of Goebbels and Himmler alongside a reproduction of Velasquez's Pope on his studio wall. His Pope is a monster of our times, perceived from an existentialist's standpoint; analyzed on the psychiatrist's couch and caught in blurred freeze-frame by the photo-journalist's camera.
Bacon always avoided giving a precise explanation as to what it was that had obsessed him about the Velasquez Pope, simply stating that he considered the portrait "one of the greatest paintings in the world." He never wanted to see the original painting in Rome, believing that it would have a negative impact on his understanding of the work. Instead he painted from reproductions, wishing to get behind the regal fagade and to expose the cruel, corrupted power and alienation that lies at its heart.
Bacon's paintings of Popes gained their historical status not only from the grandeur of the time-honored composition that they adhere to and the painterly richness of their execution, but from their ability to defy and scandalize tradition, and to vex and victimize the paternal aspect of the conventional Papal portrait. Bacon used the very authority of Velasquez's portrait to increase the iconoclastic potency of his own corrupted version, while elevating himself as a successor to a distinguished tradition.
Velasquez's Pope Innocent X shows a cruel and suspicious man of God, smugly aware of his position of supreme power and his capability for unmerciful brutality. In accordance with convention, he is dressed in the attributes of his office--the lavish silken robes, the regal throne, the papal ring and the state document held so visible to convey his eminence as God's chosen representative on earth.
Calling into question the sanity (and sanctity) of the church's supreme potentate, Bacon substitutes Velasquez's official state portrait with a candid glimpse of the pathetic man behind the aggrandized guise of his station. The imposing throne now dwarfs and imprisons its incumbent. This Borges-like Pope, shrunken and exposed in an unguarded second, has lost all efforts to maintain a sense of dignity.
Just as Dorian Gray's corruption and depravity corroded his painted likeness in Oscar Wilde's writings, so Bacon presents Innocent X physically disfigured by his villainy. The Pope's excruciatingly contorted and bruised face has the texture of flayed flesh, smeared into the grimace of insanity and loneliness. Frustration, impotence, agony, all tear at his countenance. He is a madhouse Napoleon whose robes are little more than fancy dress, a drag-queen with the delusion of divinity.
This demented creature belongs in an institution and Bacon duly gives him his own solitary isolation chamber. The artist transforms the enclosed pictorial space created by Velasquez's baroque curtain into a dark and claustrophobically vacuous cage. The piercing screams of Popes are sound-proofed.
Bacon's void has been seen to represent an existentialist's depiction of the alienation of the human condition. In this way, Bacon's paintings mirror the nihilistic viewpoint of his contemporaries Jean Paul Sartre and Samuel Beckett. American critic Donald Kuspit has commented that Bacon's figures are "sick with death--not literal death, but rather the feeling of being nothing." Bacon himself maintained, "We are born and we die, but in between we give this purposeless existence a meaning by our drives."
Certainly Bacon's Popes show little control of themselves, let alone their own destinies, and seem driven solely by their base urges. What better symbol for existentialist thinking in a world ravaged by war and death than a Pope without hope, bereft of belief and without the resource of a God to deliver him from his perpetual suffering.
In this version of his celebrated Pope, Bacon remains relatively faithful to Velasquez portrait. Having declared himself to be in awe of Velasquez's "magnificent color," Bacon matches the baroque hues of reds and violets of the Spanish master. Instead of the muted purple that Bacon used on earlier Popes, he now paints the robes their true scarlet. Similarly the inky gloom of 1950s Popes is replaced by a haunting green--a color which Bacon would use often as the background for much of his best work in the early 1960s.
Study for a Pope I
Oil on canvas
London, Tate Gallery, Mannheim Kunsthalle; Turin, Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna; Zürich Kunsthaus and Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Francis Bacon, May-July 1962, n.p., no. 84 (illustrated).
Berlin, Schloss Charlottenburg, Grosse Orangerie, Zeichen des Glaubens, Geist der Avantgarde: Religiöse Tendenzen in der Kunst des 20 Jahrhunderts, May-July 1980.
Mannheim Kunsthalle, Francis Bacon, Schreiender Papst, 1951, May 1980, pp. 7 and 42-43 (illustrated).
Lugano, Museo d'Arte Moderna, Francis Bacon, 1993, pp. 63-65 and 146 (illustrated in color).
Paris, Museé d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Passions Privées, Collections particulieres d' art moderne et contemporain en France, December-March 1996, p. 441 and 447, no. 1 (illustrated in color).
New Haven, The Yale Center for British Art; The Minneapolis Institute of Arts; The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Francis Bacon: A Retrospective Exhibition, 1999, p. 127, no. 38 (illustrated in color).
Basel, Foundation Beyeler, Francis Bacon und die Bildtradition, February-June 2004, p. 345, no. 8b (illustrated in color).
59 7/8 x 46 7/8 in. (152 x 119 cm.)
Studio, CLXIV, August 1962, p. 73 (illustrated).
Kunstwerk, XVII, August-September 1963, pp. 20-21.
J. Rothenstein and R. Alley, Francis Bacon, London 1964, pl. 186-I (illustrated).
Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1996, p. 259 (illustrated).
Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., London
Marlborough-Gerson Gallery Inc, New York
Acquired by the present owner in 1966