Tracing Interpretations of Francis Bacon’s Papal Portraits Over Time by Alix Greenberg

At the end of World War II, Francis Bacon, the British painter, painted figures that were seemingly transformed by the imagery of the unconscious. Bacon’s direct revelation of the unconscious evokes the chaotic forces that civilization has repressed in humanity and also captures a loss of control, a sense of helplessness and horror. This notion is most directly represented in his papal series, which includes the renowned Study After Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953. In these works the vertical lines, which form a caged in claustrophobic space close in uncomfortably, while the figure blurs into anonymity. Bacon’s signature papal themed work has generated extensive interpretation since arriving to the art world in the 1950’s. In this paper, the published material focused on Bacon’s this body of work will be discussed chronologically, characterized from a methodological and critical perspective.

In “Francis Bacon: The Anatomy of Horror,” (1952) Sam Hunter attempts to identify the source of the scream expressed by the Pope figures. Using Head VI, 1949 as one example, the author finds that there is nothing to provoke such a frightening reaction. Rather, the Pope is experiencing an existential crisis - the anguish is one of mental entrapment and not a response to some horrific scene occurring outside the canvas. Furthermore, Hunter claims that Bacon had repeatedly defended himself against being a painter of literal, physical violence. Although admitting his images are violent, Bacon sought to portray a psychological violence and self-destruction incurred through the social and cultural structures imposed and created by humanity, like the Catholic Church. The papal series is a visual manifestation of, in Bacon’s mind, the most confining system with the most destructive results. Hunter has employed both a psychoanalytic methodology and a biographical methodology in his assessment of Bacon’s work, as he explains Bacon’s obsession with the papal system, and specifically his portraits of Pius as a fascination with the dictators and perpetrators of Nazi Germany. [1]

Hunter’s interpretation of Bacon’s paintings as psychologically violent and existentialist, and his referencing of the artist’s obsession with the papal system would be challenged by Laurence Alloway, who in 1960 wrote a stinging attack on critical approaches to Bacon’s papal paintings that interpreted them as images of horror and terror.  In the author’s “Dr. No’s Bacon,” he specifically dismisses Robert Melville’s approach to the artist’s work, a classic 1950’s read, which maintains that Bacon’s papal imagery stems from the psychological anguish associated with the current Pope as well as the one painted by Velázquez in 1650.[2] Alloway claims that Bacon did not gain inspiration from Innocent X as depicted by Velázquez, nor did he gain inspiration from the position of the Pope during WWII. Instead, Alloway asserts that Bacon’s references to popular culture and fine art can be related to his reliance on the format and tonality of Grand Manner painting, as Bacon’s technique is, in some respects, an abbreviated version of “Venetian” painterliness. Alloway asserts that to look at the papal portraits, as images of terror and pain are to make them something they are not. However, the methodological approach issued by the author omits any analytical read, reducing it to a purely formal art historical investigation.[3]

As Alloway avows that the works have no narrative or social historical content, so too does the artist.  In 1975 David Sylvester interviewed Bacon and discovered that the artist wanted to minimize the role of narrative in his work because, to the artist, narrative involves implicit explanation or structured meaning, which causes the destruction of self-identity. According to Sylvester, Bacon claimed that his Pope imagery did not come from anything associated with religion; rather, it was inspired only by the aesthetic quality of Velázquez’s Pope Innocent X, 1650, which the artist felt was the greatest portrait ever created due to the magnificent color. However, the artist admitted that that his interest in the Pope lies in the uniqueness and “silliness” of the position. Bacon allegedly said, “like in certain great tragedies, the Pope is as though raised on to a Dias on which the grandeur of this image can be displayed to the world.” Sylvester also inquired about Bacon’s paintings of Pope Pius XII. Bacon denied any reference to the specific position of the Popes during World War II; he also denied gaining inspiration from the Eichmann trial. According to Bacon, the cages or spatial frames depicted in the works were simply a means of focusing the attention on the image, not as a historical reference.[4] Although Sylvester’s interview was direct and candid, Bacon’s purely formal understanding of his depicted cages, his apparent evasiveness, and his misunderstanding of the strength of his own imagery led to further contemplation and interpretation.

In 1986, Donald Kuspit author of “Hysterical Painting” aims to demonstrate Bacon’s misunderstanding of his own work. Kuspit argues that Bacon appropriated such authoritative historical figures as Pope Innocent X and reduced them to globs of paint, so that the Popes “sink as if in quicksand.” Kuspit claims that Bacon repeatedly “misinterprets” the strength of the character he seems to find in Velázquez’s Pope Innocent X as sheer monstrousness, brutality. The author argues that Bacon destroys what he creates in the very act of recreating. In that, this destruction has “world-historical import”: as the sadistic character of the Pope is only realized by the sadistic application of paint. Consequently, paint triumphs over human reality and becomes the dominant expression of being. Kuspit claims that Bacon’s papal portraits are not expressive illusions of a figure, but the illusion of being in the presence of a certain self. According to Kuspit, the Pope is locked in a hypoid state as he intensely responds to being cut-off from communication. Bacon utilizes this painterliness to strip the Pope naked bodily and emotionally. Kuspit believes the only element rooting the body of work in reality is the miter that appears in every papal image.[5]

Whereas Kuspit’s argument is rooted in an investigation that aims to expose some hidden truth within the works, Linda Nochlin’s argument rejects any psychoanalytic read. In her article “Francis Bacon, Centre Georges Pompidou,” written in 1996, she abandons the “grandiose” over-readings and philosophical generalizations that Bacon’s papal series had attracted in past interpretations, including Sartre’s existentialism and references to Nazism. She writes, “Despite the usual reading of the pope’s open mouth as a sign of existential nausea – a universal scream on the order of Edvard Munch’s famous image – I always read it as a sneeze, which reduced the papal being, or rather, Velázquez’s famous image of Innocent X, to a modern photo-op, the pope’s partially covered mouth agape in a vigorous and non-existential kerchoo.” According to Nochlin, in Bacon’s series of papal portraits, “temporal immediacy and mere physical reflex” undermine the pictorial effects of hierarchy and permanence. She claims that this does not solely occur in the apparent captured gesture, but in the “very transparency of the physical substance of the image itself,” which is enhanced by the lines of gold that encase the papal form. Nochlin has thus determined that through this series, Bacon is both belittling human condition and ironizing references to High Art. This is a direct counter to Alloway’s argument that Bacon’s work should only be viewed as referencing and aspiring to the Grand Manner of traditional High Art.[6]

It is evident that these historians and critics are constantly in debate over Bacon’s papal series. John Hatch, author of “Fatum as Theme and Method in the Work of Francis Bacon,” (1998) adds to the breadth of interpretation. Hatch believes the source of the violence Bacon portrays through the scream is mental, although can ultimately manifest in physical violence. Relying on Bacon’s alleged atheism, Hatch constructs his argument based on the artist’s nihilistic views on the system of the Church. Apparently, it was known that Bacon believed that the tragedy of the situation of the Pope is that he has relinquished himself to a stifling system of beliefs that is an illusion veiled as an ultimate truth. Hatch, consequently, understands Study After Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953, as a literal portrayal of “the veil of illusions that mentally traps the Pope and elicits his cry of horror.” Here, the author employs a biographical methodology, which is semi-reductive. However, this methodology is replaced by a formal and semi-psychoanalytical methodology with Hatch’s discussion of Bacon’s use of spatial frames as a metaphor for mental entrapment.  He writes, “On a formal level, these frames act to isolate the image and minimize any potential narrative. However, this formal device does equally serve as a metaphor for psychological entrapment, highlighted by the fact that the skeletal outline of the frame could never function as a physical barrier.” To Hatch, the papal figures are only psychologically trapped; he wonders why they don’t simply walk out of their prison.[7] The author’s conclusion is aligned with Hunter’s interpretation of Bacon’s papal series. In that, both authors rely on Bacon’s own feelings toward the Catholic Church, to find that the source of the scream is internal.

Thus far, the relationship between Bacon’s papal series and Velázquez’s portrait has been minimally discussed, and when discussed it has only been in terms of either the artist’s distain for the church or his love for Velázquez’s painting. Rina Arya, however, author of "Painting the Pope: an Analysis of Francis Bacon’s Study After Velázquez’s Portrait of Innocent X," (2009) focuses her argument entirely on the relationship between Velázquez’s Pope Innocent X and Bacon’s Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Innocent X to unravel Bacon’s true obsession with the Pope. In claiming that Bacon’s depiction of the Pope in camera (in chamber) contradicts Velázquez’s depiction of the Pope ex cathedra, Arya assesses that Bacon’s painting functions as a photographic negative or mirror image of Velázquez’s. Bacon’s decisive Study After in the title means that Bacon aimed to deconstruct the Velázquez painting and reappropriate it for his own ends. Here, a correlation between Arya and Kuspit’s argument is evident, as both discuss Bacon’s recreation through destruction of an already existing image. Unlike Velázquez whose portrayal of the Pope is a representation of all popes, Bacon portrays the Pope as a single man in a state of mental collapse as his public persona crumbles. Clearly Bacon is critiquing the institution of the Church, however, Arya states that he is dependent upon theological sources for his imagery regardless of his denial of it.[8]

Although many historians aim to uncover the reasons behind Bacon’s use of the papal figures, there are others who have interpreted the series only in terms of Bacon’s own explanation.  In 1952, Bacon said, “Real imagination is technical imagination. It is the ways you think up to bring an event to life again. It is in the search for the technique to trap the object at a given moment. Then the technique and the object become inseparable. The object is the technique and the technique is the object. Art lies in the continual struggle to come near the sensory side of the objects.” The authors of “Francis Bacon,” published in 2009, implement this statement to explain how distorted photographic images inspired Bacon’s papal series. The authors assert that Bacon valued distorted photographic images – like those of Ozenfant and Moholy-Nagy – to develop a technique for animating the perception of the papal figure. The authors claim that this is demonstrated by the range of papal images that Bacon produced in the early 1950s, which depicted various forms of distortion such as the extended and stretched seated figure of Head VI, 1949, the striated form of Study After Velázquez, 1950, and Study After Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953.[9] Bacon’s figures are then realized through a specific technique, making the subject and the paint inseparable. Here, a direct correlation to Kuspit’s argument exists; Kuspit believes that the sadistic character of the Pope is only realized by the sadistic application of paint. Although, there is a twenty-year gap between arguments, it is evident that a formalist read is always significant throughout the extensive interpretation of these works.

In surveying the published material on Bacon’s papal themed body of work, it is clear that the majority of the scholars share a similar perspective, although each slightly nuanced. Initially, during the 1950s and early 60s Bacon’s work received an existentialist, philosophical read, which also viewed the works as referencing the Pope’s particular situation and the general horror during World War II. However, with Laurence Alloway and his stinging attack on this type of interpretation, a new generation of scholarly interpretation was spawned, running the gamut from the formal to the iconographical to the biographical. Bacon denied any specific source material for his works, always valuing the formal and material aspects over the socio-historical or political references. Despite the artist’s rejection of any religious references specifically to the cage, his feelings toward the stifling tragic position of the Pope have inspired scholars to continually see the cages as a metaphor for psychological imprisonment. Although the arguments discussed are slightly nuanced, there is a common thread in all of the literature: a continued reliance on the artist’s biography. With this papal series, it is impossible not to reference Bacon’s feelings toward the Church. Therefore, biography is important when understanding this body of work; however, it necessitates other methodologies to formulate an interpretation that goes beyond the artist’s personal statement. Thus, the most successful arguments are those that contain a range of methodological approaches and do not necessarily rest upon the notion that Bacon was merely obsessed with Velázquez’s painting for its beauty alone or for his interest in Grand Manner painting. 

Works Cited

Alloway, Lawrence. "Dr. No’s Bacon." Art News and Review 12.6 (April 1960).

Arya, Rina. "Painting the Pope: an Analysis of Francis Bacon’s Study After Velázquez’s Portrait of Innocent X." Literature & Theology 23.1 (2009): 33-50.

Bacon, Francis, Matthew Gale, Chris Stephens, and Martin Harrison. Francis Bacon. (New York, NY: Skira Rizzoli, 2009).

Hatch, John G. “Fatum as Theme and Method in the Work of Francis Bacon.” Artibus et Historiae, 19. 37 (1998): 163-175

Hunter, Sam. “Francis Bacon: The Anatomy of Horror,” Magazine of Art 95.1 (January 1952).

Kuspit, Donald. “Hysterical Painting.” Artforum XXL (5/January 1986): 55-60.

Melville, Robert. “Francis Bacon,” Horizon 20.120-1 (Dec. 1949 – Jan. 1950)

Nochlin, Linda. “Francis Bacon, Centre Georges Pompidou.” Artforum 35 (October 1996): 108-110

Sylvester, David. Interviews with Francis Bacon, 3rd ed. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1993).

[1] Sam Hunter. “Francis Bacon: The Anatomy of Horror,” Magazine of Art 95.1 (January 1952).

[2] Robert Melville. “Francis Bacon,” Horizon 20.120-1 (Dec. 1949 – Jan. 1950).

[3] Lawrence Alloway. “Dr. No’s Bacon,” Art News and Review 12. 6 (April 1960).

[4] David Sylvester. Interviews with Francis Bacon, 3rd ed. (London: Thames and Hudson: 1993).

[5] Donald Kuspit. “Hysterical Painting.” Artforum XXL (January 1986): 55-60.

[6] Linda Nochlin. “Francis Bacon, Centre Georges Pompidou.” Artforum 35 (October 1996): 108-110.

[7] John G. Hatch. “Fatum as Theme and Method in the Work of Francis Bacon.” Artibus et Historiae 19.37 (1998): 163-175.

[8] Rina Arya. "Painting the Pope: an Analysis of Francis Bacon’s Study After Velázquez’s Portrait of Innocent X." Literature & Theology 23.1 (2009): 33-50.

[9] Francis Bacon, Matthew Gale, Chris Stephens, and Martin Harrison. Francis Bacon. (New York, NY: Skira Rizzoli, 2009).

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