Poetry after Auschwitz

"Great art is always a way of concentrating, reinventing what is called fact, what we know of our existence […], tearing away the veils that fact acquires through time." Francis Bacon, interview by Hugh Davies, June 26, 1973 (Hugh Davies and Sally Yard, Francis Bacon, New York, 1986, p. 110).

Francis Bacon : Untitled, detail, c. 1954-55
It is perhaps the most singularly devastating personification in figural art of the post-war period. It is a vision so universal and immediate that it threatens to traverse the threshold between viewer and object, simultaneously leaping into our domain and sucking us into its own. It is an unrepeatable image, borne specifically of its time and of the unique experiences of its creator, yet stands as an allegory for perpetuity. Emerging from the desolate shadows of the Second World War and its abject annihilation of over fifty million souls, a Pope looms forth from the depths of Francis Bacon’s formidable genius and draws near, into our focus. The Vicar of Christ, Successor of Saint Peter and God’s temporal representative on earth; this Supreme Pontiff has transmogrified into a chimera of awesome terror. It has become the anguished epitome of humanity’s excruciating scream: deafening to our collective interior, yet silent in the existential void. Encaged within insufferable isolation, this Pope - totem of enlightened perception, of authoritative faith, of order against chaos - is violently racked by the brutal fact of the human condition. It is the proposition of a world turned upside down, of established systems shattered, and, as such, is the perfect response to Theodor Adorno’s legendary 1951 axiom "There can be no poetry after Auschwitz." Having remained in the same private collection for over thirty years and hidden from public view, this painting embodies, of course, Bacon’s most celebrated and recognizable iconography. Even more than this, as a Pope it crystallizes a thunderous climax in the long arc of that elusive and indefinable engine of innovation known as artistic genius. Within the Twentieth Century, perhaps only Picasso’s Guernica, with its monumental, monochrome nightmare apparition of a Nativity scene being torn apart by massacre, parallels the impossible figurative potency of Bacon’s Screaming Popes.

Francis Bacon, Untitled (Pope), c. 1954-55
Oil on canvas, 152 x 94 cm.
New York, Sotheby's, auction, 13.12.2012
Sold U$D 29,762,500.-

The phenomenal specter of papal imagery and its inspiration had seeped into Bacon’s work since the end of the 1940s, but the present painting is more precisely allied to his most revered cycle of Popes; the eight Study for Portraits that were executed in the summer of 1953 for his first exhibition outside England, at Durlacher Brothers Gallery in New York in October to November of that year. Constituents of this corpus today reside in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Hirshhorn Museum, the Minneapolis Institute and the Lehman Loeb Art Center. However, it is to the seminal masterpiece Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X of 1953, housed in the Des Moines Art Center, that the present work bears especially close parity. In terms of the composition of space, the bodily expression and the figure’s portrait, the two paintings harbor close formal correspondence. Indeed, the visceral physiognomic intensity of the contorted features and flashing teeth of the gaping mouth in the present canvas, so deftly fashioned by the artist’s daubs of writhing paint, achieves a heightened psychological import – shooting the desperate papal cry straight into the realm of the viewer – that surpasses any of the eight Studies and is matched only by the Des Moines work. Bacon’s painting here is unleashed and urgent, unencumbered by any stodgy deliberation or revision, and his unbridled protagonist delivers a primal clarion call that summons Georges Bataille’s potent proclamation: “Terror and atrocious suffering make the mouth an organ of searing screams.” (Georges Bataille, ‘Dictionnaire – Bouche’, Documents, No. 5, 1930, pp. 298-99)

Bacon’s typically eloquent declaration that he wanted to “unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently” aptly explains how the genesis of this most ambitious body of work was seeded by an inspirational touchstone of resounding familiarity. The archetype Bacon appropriated as starting point for his Pope series was Diego Velázquez’s extraordinary Portrait of Pope Innocent X of 1650, held in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome; a painting for which Bacon was "haunted and obsessed," given "its perfection” (Francis Bacon interviewed by Hugh Davies, June 26, 1973, in Davies and Yard, Bacon, p. 23). Having travelled to Rome from the Spanish court of Philip IV in 1649, Velázquez was afforded the great honor of depicting the Pope, Giambattista Pamphilj, known as Innocent X, whom he had met as papal nuncio in Madrid in 1626-30. The painting was executed in a Jubilee year when 700,000 pilgrims descended on Rome, and Velázquez dutifully portrayed the Bishop of Rome as the most powerful man in the world, encased by the trappings of his office. Yet the spectacular achievement of this portrait is that within the gold, silk and lace vestiges of papal supremacy resides a mortal human being beset by flaw and fallibility. While Pope Innocent X resides literally ex cathedra in the papal throne, official document clutched in hand and glinting ring proffered for all to pay homage; the man Pamphilj wears a pained and suspicious countenance that betrays the unscrupulous and duplicitous pitfalls of his tenure as Pontiff. The brilliance of Velázquez’s embedded juxtaposition, pitting the Papacy’s supposed omnipotence against Man’s inevitable frailty, while also delivering a likeness that was so highly received that he was awarded a golden medallion for his services, ignited an ambition within Bacon to equal this achievement, albeit in a godless world that had been literally torn to shreds by chaos and destruction. Moreover, beyond the substrate of canvas and layers of oil paint, Bacon perceived the voice of the artist speaking across the centuries: “If you look at a Velázquez, what do you think about? ... I don’t think about his sitters, I think about him… I think about Velázquez, I think people believe that they’re painting other people, but they paint out their own instincts.” (Francis Bacon interviewed by Hugh Davies, August 13, 1973, in San Diego, Museum of Contemporary Art, Francis Bacon: The Papal Portraits of 1953, 1999, p. 34).

It has previously been noted that Bacon had not at this stage in his career seen the Velázquez painting in Rome firsthand, and for this initial series of papal portraits he worked from a black and white illustration of the work. This in turn has been suggested as the cause for the purple color of the garments in these paintings differing from the original cardinal red. However, while Bacon’s extensive enlistment of and reference to photographic sources is beyond question, it also seems more than likely that he was familiar with another version of Velázquez’s painting; one that has resided in Apsley House, the seat of the Duke of Wellington in London, since the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. This smaller painting by Veláquez, either a study made before or copy made after the larger work, was gifted to the Duke of Wellington by the King of Spain in 1816. Under the Duke of Wellington’s great-grandson, Apsley House and its art collection was opened to the public in 1952, the centenary of the first Duke’s death and, conveniently, shortly before Francis Bacon initiated a grand cycle of papal portraits including the present painting. That Apsley House sits at Hyde Park Corner, about fifteen minutes’ walk from the Royal College of Art where Bacon was using a studio between 1951 and 1953, readily invites the hypothesis that he was able to study this highly accomplished version at close quarters.

However, the Velázquez painting is merely a template that becomes a delivery system for Bacon’s radical and unrelenting reinvention. Indeed, the present work is Bacon’s concrete realization that "Great art is always a way of concentrating, reinventing what is called fact […], tearing away the veils that fact acquires through time." (Davies and Yard, Bacon, p. 110). Thus Bacon replaces the subjective idiosyncrasies of the grand state portrait with an intimate visage of pain and suffering that stands as proxy for the torment of the human race. His source for this all-encompassing cipher was provided by a film still of a screaming female character in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 movie The Battleship Potemkin. Bacon had first seen the movie in 1935 and viewed it frequently thereafter, and this specific still was reproduced in Roger Manvell’s 1944 paperback Film, though Bacon also kept other reproductions of the startling image. The frame shows a pince-nez wearing elderly woman, commonly referred to as a nurse, shot through the eye and caught at the instant of death. It belongs to the movie’s massacre sequence on the Odessa Steps which, though it veers wildly from historical accuracy, remains one of the most iconic pieces of propagandist film ever made. Within its remorseless tragedy it is this character, part blinded and dying while also witnessing a baby in a pram being brutalized by the sword of a tsarist soldier, that embodies the conception of absolute horror and the abandonment of all hope. By supplanting Velázquez’s portrait of Innocent X with this twentieth-century essence of ultimate despair and its tortured last gasping breath, Bacon unites two extremes of enduringly vehement imagery.

Bacon’s papal figure is caught in a symphony of movement; its representation comprised all of shadows and flashing motion and evolving in constant flux. This also recalls the photography of Edweard Muybridge, which used multiple cameras and an elaborate trigger device to capture successive stages of motion. Bacon possessed many illustrations of Muybridge's images and this Pope’s right hand, veering towards us out of the darkness, recalls something of Muybridge's photograph series 'Striking a Blow with the Right Hand', a fragment of which was found in the artist's studio after his death. While the right hand of Velázquez’s Innocent X hangs limply from the support of his gilded throne, Bacon’s papal fury lashes out at the viewer with a clenched fist, once again destabilizing the barrier between viewer and subject.

The drama of all this corporeal expression is greatly intensified by the artist’s complex framing of the composition and the many facets that define an uneasy sense of flux and unknowable dimensions within the canvas. Bacon’soverlapping linear schema here act as cage-like space frames that enclose this Pope inside its solitary nightmare. Indeed, the present work proves to act as prototype for Bacon’s consequent declaration: “I like the anonymous compartment, like a room concentrated in a small space. I would like to paint landscapes in a box […]. If you could enclose their infinity in a box they would have a greater concentration.” (Bacon, interview by Davies in 1973, in Francis Bacon: New Studies, ed. Martin Harrison, Göttingen, 2009, p. 111). This compositional organization echoes Picasso’s strategy of reducing three-dimensions to a scored network of diagrammatic black lines, such as in the groundbreaking Painter and Model of 1928. It is also strongly redolent of the frantic inscribed urgency of Giacometti’s autograph portraiture style and architectonic construction, so harshly graphic in his visceral drawings, and evident in Portrait of Peter Watson of 1953, which was a work that Bacon probably knew. It is also reminiscent of Bacon’s work as a furniture designer in the late 1920s, where he defined the parameters of actual space with folding screens and curved metal tubes inspired by the Bauhaus, Le Corbusier and Ozenfant, and which are well-evidenced in a 1930 article in The Studio magazine and the documentary paintings of his fellow painter and friend Roy de Maistre. The space frames of the papal portraits mark the mature inception of these translucent compartments of literal, psychological and somatic space that would also trap anonymous businessmen within midnight blue voids and imprison countless actors in triptychs throughout Bacon’s oeuvres of the subsequent three decades.

Perhaps more than any other theme associated with his canon, the threat of mortality inhabits every pore of Bacon’s art. Danger, violence and death constantly linger in the recesses of his canvases, acting like a continual incantation of his deft maxim: “Consciousness of mortality sharpens one’s sense of existing.” (Ibid., p. 96). Of course, many of his greatest later works became directly associated with the sudden and brutal deaths of his respective lovers Peter Lacy and George Dyer, but in fact the risk of impending fatality imbued his existence from its most formative stage. Alongside the actual events of his life, Bacon became a devourer of the canon of western Art History, and he purposely sought out those most powerful narrators of the tragedy of the human drama, from Michelangelo to Velázquez to Poussin to Picasso, to provide an analytical framework for his own experience. The dramatic shadow of this illustrious precedent is readily evident in the present work.

Bacon’s coming of age was thus forged in a crucible of uncertainty and risk, and this heritage violently coursed through his subsequent life and art. Fifteen years after Paris, in 1944, he delivered the searing cry of his masterpiece Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion; shrieking into existence to announce that figurative art could never be the same again. A decade after that, the Popes declared that everything we thought we knew - the history that was meant to bind us, the psychological and emotional journeys we supposedly shared, the promise of futures entwined together - were all merely veils to mask the thunderous yet silent solitary scream that lies within us all. It remains one of the most pertinent, universal and affecting visions in the History of Art, and the full force of its power is trapped forever on the surface of this sensational painting.

Painter of a Double-Edged Sword

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