Bacon worked on his Pope paintings, variations on Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X, for over twenty years. He acquired endless reproductions of the Velázquez painting from books, but famously did not see the original when he visited Rome in late 1954. Bacon was already exploring the pope idea while in the South of France in late 1946. The first surviving version, Head VI, dates from late 1949, and he finally stopped the Pope series in the mid-1960s. Subsequently, Bacon declared he thought the works "silly" and wished he had never done them.

Francis Bacon
Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X
Oil on canvas, 153 x 118 cm.
Des Moines Art Center

Clearly Bacon was not just producing homages to a picture he loved. Artists have always made copies as creative exercises, and Bacon seems to have been inspired by the example of Vincent van Gogh (who made many transformations of pictures that he especially admired by Eugène Delacroix, Jean- François Millet, and others). However, Bacon’s popes depart even further from their source, often replacing the pontiff’s head with the equally recognisable screaming face of the wounded nurse mown down by the soldiers’ gunfire in the Odessa steps sequence of Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin.

The insertion subverts the encapsulation of power and self-assurance projected by Velázquez. The screaming mouth, isolated from other facial features and divorced from any narrative context, suggests existential agony. The pathos of human vulnerability and loss of faith or conviction are accentuated by the precisely rendered space frames in many Bacon images of popes, which make the figures register as "enclosed in the wretched glass capsule of the human individual," to cite the evocative phrase used by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy (1872), one of Bacon’s favourite books.

The papal theme may have had a more contemporary resonance for Bacon. He may have been attracted to the Velázquez picture as an iconic distillation of power. In later works in the series, Bacon inserted references to photographs of the then pontiff, Pope Pius XII, a controversial figure who was always conspicuously silent concerning the Nazis. A photograph of Pius on his throne, being carried from St Peter’s, appears in one of Sam Hunter’s 1950 studio montages, and was clearly the basis for some of the subsequent pope pictures.

Bacon’s obsessive reworking of the papal theme suggests that it may have possessed further significance and perhaps psychological charge for the artist in relation to his sexuality. It has been remarked that the Pope in official garb is in a sense the ultimate drag queen, or less literally that depictions of the Holy Father, known in Italy as "il Papa," may encapsulate Bacon’s traumatic feelings about his own father. The latter was a conventional, inflexible military man to whom the teenage Bacon had felt sexually attracted, as he recalled many years later, but who brutally admonished and rejected him when he discovered his son’s homosexual inclinations. Such speculations about the possible "subconscious" content of the pope pictures involve perhaps a rather crude application of the methods of Freudian psychoanalysis.

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