Marlborough-Gerson Gallery Inc, New York
Gunter Sachs Collection (acquired from the above in 1966)
Sale: Christie’s, New York, Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 8 November 2005, Lot 42
Private Collection, Europe
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner
Berlin, Schloss Charlottenburg, Grosse Orangerie, Zeichen des Glaubens, Geist der Avantgarde: Religiöse Tendenzen in der Kunst des 20 Jahrhunderts, 1980
Mannheim, Kunsthalle Mannheim, Francis Bacon: Schreiender Papst, 1951, 1980, pp. 42-43, illustrated
Lugano, Museo d'Arte Moderna, Francis Bacon, 1993, pp. 63 and 146, no. 29, illustrated; and p. 64, illustrated in colour
Paris, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Passions Privées: Collections Particulières d'Art Moderne et Contemporain en France, 1995-96, p. 447, no. 1, illustrated in colour; and p. 441, installation view
Basel, Fondation Beyeler, Francis Bacon und die Bildtradition, 2004, p. 345, no. 8b, illustrated in colour
Anon., Kunstwerk, XVII, August-September 1963, pp. 20-21
Ronald Alley, Francis Bacon, London 1964, n.p., no. 186-I, illustrated
Exhibition Catalogue, Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou, Francis Bacon, 1996, p. 259, installation view
Exhibition Catalogue, Valencia, IVAM Institut Valenciá d’Art Modern, (and travelling), Francis Bacon, Lo Sagrado y lo Profano, 2003-04, pp. 25 and 147, illustrated in colour
Exhibition Catalogue, Munich, Museum Villa Stuck; and Schweinfurt, Kunsthalle Schweinfurt, Die Sammlung Gunter Sachs, 2012-13, p. 25, illustrated in colour
Francis Bacon in conversation with David Sylvester, 1962, in: David Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, New York 1981, p. 25.
Heretical successor to a lineage inaugurated by Raphael, defined by Titian and epitomised by Diego Velázquez, Francis Bacon stands alongside art history’s consummate painters of the Catholic Church’s supreme Head and representative of God on earth: the Pope. Last in line to an ancestry of artistic one-upmanship that since the Renaissance has explored the earthly embodiment of divine power in paint, Francis Bacon took on the mantel of tradition and demolished it. Although they are presented within the gilt frames and monumental scale of the ‘Grand Manner’, Bacon’s popes are far from noble perpetuations of spiritual power: the calm magnanimity so apparent in Raphael’s Julius II is replaced for cowardice and fear; the honourable majesty of Titian’s Paul III is exchanged for ignoble carnality; while the imperious Innocent X by Velázquez is metamorphosed into wraiths that writhe with violent hysteria. Imprisoned in a windowless interior and manacled to the throne or Sedia Gestatoria, they are the last vestiges of an old order, they cower or shriek in isolation, and above all, they are godless and utterly alone. Bacon’s decisive un-doing of Papal infallibility delivers the ultimate expression of the Twentieth Century’s existential fall from grace; in the aftermath of two catastrophic World Wars they enact an irreversible sacking of spirituality. As notorious as Picasso’s Guernica, this is the very subject that announced Bacon’s genius at the beginning of the 1950s and would continue to obsess him for 20 years.
Arriving just over ten years after the very first Papal incarnation – Head VI of 1949 (The Arts Council, London) – and eight years after his magnum opus, Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X of 1953 (Des Moines Art Center), Study for a Pope I is an opulent masterwork of the highest order. This exquisite painting belongs to the series of six monumental works executed between the months of April and May 1961, specifically in preparation for the artist’s forthcoming retrospective at the Tate Gallery. Indeed, the series did not make its debut until the much-anticipated exhibition finally opened to rave reviews on 24th May 1962. As first in the series of six, Study for a Pope I exhibits painterly resolve, élan and dexterity, it depicts a moment of contemplative unease before the enthroned Holy Father is beset by the pain and hysteria redolent as the sequence progresses. In both regards, the present work bears a filial bond with the second version in the series, a painting that, somewhat ironically, now resides in the Musei Vaticani. Having itself once belonged to the renowned collector, Gunter Sachs, for almost 40 years, Study for a Pope I boasts an exceptional history that, besides the seminal Tate show of 1962 and its subsequent European tour, also entails the complete reunion of the series, a year after Bacon’s death, as part of the 1993 retrospective at the Museo d'Arte Moderna in Lugano. Above all however, it is Bacon’s faithfulness to the cardinal red of Velázquez’s original that distinguishes the present work and its counterparts within the artist’s oeuvre; these are the works in which Bacon’s dialogue with the tradition of art and his obsession with Velázquez’s canonical Portrait of Pope Innocent X are most fully brought to life.
Following the early success of the first two masterworks, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944 (Tate Collection, London), and Painting 1946 (The Museum of Modern Art, New York), the emergence of Head VI as part of Bacon’s first solo show in 1949 indefatigably announced the arrival of Bacon’s genius and primary subject – the human-animal as unadorned, despairing, and alone. Within this secular universe and imparting the ultimate visual manifestation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s figure of the ‘last pope’ in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883), Bacon identified the figure of the Pope as the supreme vehicle for an expression of Modern Man’s godlessness. The following years thus witnessed an obsessive programme of systematic reiteration in which the implicit malevolence of Velázquez’s Innocent X was laid bare. Melded with borrowings from Eisenstein and Poussin, depicted behind the striated shuttering of diaphanous curtains (itself a quotation of Titian’s Portrait of Cardinal Fillippo Archinto of 1558) and even channelled through photographs of Pope Pius XII raised on this throne above the heads of his subjects or a grimacing image of Teddy Roosevelt, the works that ensued shook the very foundations of contemporary art in Britain. Presiding over these early paintings, Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X is the quintessential image of Bacon’s career. In this painting, Velázquez’s Innocent appears as though clamped to an electric chair; his blood bespattered vestments and ghostly countenance reverberates with the silent cry that pierces every inch of the canvas. Created in 1953, this painting gave rise, during the very same year, to an eight-part sequence of popes that would become the single largest defined series of Bacon’s career: Study for a Portrait I-VIII. Executed in the same scale as the previous masterwork but in a progression of mutating poses in varying states of ‘unfinish’, these eight canvases were rapidly painted in preparation for the artist’s first show outside of England which was to be held at the Durlacher Brothers Gallery in New York. As the largest series in Bacon’s oeuvre, these works laid the precedent for the second, and last, series of Popes; following a reprieve of eight years Study for a Pope I-VI arrived in the full-bloom of Bacon’s genius. Similarly created in preparation for an exhibition, although this time the exhibition was his seminal 1962 Tate retrospective, these works demonstrate the maturity of an artist entering into his finest decade. The transition from purple to the cardinal red of Velázquez’s original is fully articulated in this series, and with it comes a heightened portrayal of the human form. Colour and the physicality of paint are brandished with a virtuosic flourish, indeed, it is not solely red that invigorates these canvases, but also the deployment of green which accents their white collars and articulates the monumental pared-back thrones. Above all however, it is the sensation of human presence that is here more tangible than ever before in Bacon’s work. In Study for a Pope I, Innocent X is enlivened by haptic swipes of white that are punctuated and grazed with smeared flesh tonalities and blood red; the pursed lips of his mouth are masterfully twisted underneath a large set of suspicious eyes that belie the piercing gaze of Velázquez’s original. Dwarfed by the thrones in which they are seated, Bacon’s 1961 popes are remarkably human; unlike the paper-thin wraiths of 1953, these figures are flesh and bone. More so than any of his numerous papal incarnations, it is these works that most authoritatively upturn the privileged status afforded to the Pope. Reigniting a painterly ambition that had meandered during the late 1950s, the present work and its counterparts narrate the very core of Bacon’s renewed powers of invention in the lead up to the most important event of his career thus far.
In 1958 Bacon moved from Erica Brausen’s Hanover Gallery to the larger and more enterprising Marlborough Fine Art. Led by Frank Lloyd and Harry Fischer, Marlborough opened Bacon’s work up to a whole new circle of collectors; indeed Bacon’s shrewd decision to join this gallery helped secure his preeminent international status by the end of the following decade. His first show there in 1960 was a great success, and not long after Fischer began working in earnest on the next major event in Bacon’s career: a full-scale retrospective at the Tate. Established as a world-class centre for British art at the end of the Nineteenth Century, the Tate, Bacon proclaimed, was the only location at which he would consider holding a large museum exhibition. With the full support of the Tate’s director, Sir John Rothenstein – the gallery’s longest serving director (1938-1964) who pioneered efforts to modernise the collection – the retrospective began to take shape. Bacon cooperated and contributed a great deal to the exhibition, working in collaboration with Rothenstein to select and track down works for inclusion. In his memoirs, Rothenstein recalled: “He was zealous in helping us to trace paintings lost sight of… and more surprisingly he imparted a considerable volume of information hitherto unpublished, speaking freely about his painting and his life in a series of conversations arranged to enable me to prepare my introduction to the catalogue… But Francis did even more than afford us his utmost help: he painted pictures especially for the exhibition” (John Rothenstein quoted in: Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London 2008, p. 232). Alongside the suite of six popes to which the present work belongs, Bacon also painted the first monumental triptych of his career only two months before the opening of the exhibition: Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962). Alongside the new red Popes, this carmine red, blood orange and ebony black triptych delivered the magnificent crescendo at the end of Bacon’s hugely successful show. On view from 24th May until 1st July 1962 and including a total of 90 paintings split into 5 rooms, the Tate retrospective comprised almost half of Bacon’s output to date, from his first masterpiece Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion – which had already been gifted to the Tate by Bacon’s former lover Eric Hall – through to his most recent and daring work.
The contemporary press lauded the exhibition with abundant glowing reviews. “It would be both unwise and unjust to write briefly about the retrospective exhibition of work by Francis Bacon at the Tate Gallery” wrote Eric Newton of The Guardian, “beauty is there throughout. A casual glance into any of the five rooms in which these pictures hang, reveals shapes that are noble in themselves, and colour schemes that are enchanting. It is only when we begin to examine them for subject matter that one begins to experience the frisson that is Bacon's special gift” (Eric Newton, ‘Mortal Conflict’, The Guardian, 24 May 1962). Printed below reproductions of Study for a Pope III, V and VI, The Times’ art critic heralded Bacon’s retrospective as “the most stunning exhibition by a living British artist there has been since the war”, stating that “one can think of no experience quite comparable… except possibly one’s first encounter with the late paintings of Goya in the Prado” (Anon. ‘The Horrific Vision of Mr. Francis Bacon’, The Times, May 24 1962, p. 7). The high praise continued with written pieces in the Observer: the paper published an in-depth profile on Bacon which celebrated the painterly virtuosity on view at the Tate: “few people will visit the Tate without being stunned by Bacon’s really tremendous power to convey the underworld of tension and suffering – humanity with the lid off” (Anon. ‘The Observer Profile’ in: The Observer Weekend Review, 27 May 1962, p. 23); while Nigel Gosling’s review declared Bacon as “the most interesting” of “all the living painters I know” (Nigel Gosling, ‘Report from the Underworld’, ibid., p. 27). This exhibition – and its subsequent European tour to Mannheim, Turin, Zurich and Amsterdam – marked a true watershed moment; it was the catalyst that put into motion a newfound confidence for the artist and prompted a growth in his international standing. Bolstered by the promising new direction of Bacon’s work, the post-Tate years witnessed the ascension of his reputation into another sphere altogether. Already by the autumn of 1963 America had paid tribute to Bacon with a fully-fledged retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and less than a decade later Bacon would be honoured with the only retrospective of a living painter, besides Picasso, to be held at the Grand Palais in Paris.
Significantly, Gosling’s review accorded special recognition to Bacon’s new work by referring to “the exciting new paintings which crown this splendidly chosen and displayed exhibition” (Ibid.). As part of the retrospective’s dramatic climax, Study for a Pope I-VI signalled the beginnings of a painterly approach that foreshadows his groundbreaking approach to the human body in the portrait studies that would ensue. Presented in a series, like a sequence of exuberant ‘Technicolor’ film stills, Study for a Pope I through to VI dominated their corner of the lauded retrospective. As though witnessing, scene by scene, the supreme Pontiff’s denigration from one frame to the next, we watch the Pope metamorphose from a tentative and edgy repose in the first painting as he becomes relentlessly transformed by frailty, cowardice, malevolence, hysteria and finally inertia. The mastery of this series, and the present work in particular, is Bacon’s physical use of paint. Gone are the diaphanous curtains and ghostly veils of white, instead these portraits celebrate the muscularity of oil paint and its fleshy portent. Boasting geometric simplicity, sumptuous use of colour, a heightened sense of spontaneity, and a painterly voluptuousness, the innovation of these works would directly renew his approach to the human form as a site of exuberant excess, pain, and brutal release. By adopting a warmer colour palette and focussing his energy on the body, Bacon exposed the terrible humanity at the heart of Velázquez’s Pope. Indeed, the faces in these paintings visualise Norman Bryson’s analysis: “Bacon’s own operation on Velázquez’s portrait is to peel back the picture’s neutrality of surface as a surgeon might remove skin from a face” (Norman Bryson, ‘Bacon’s Dialogue with the Past’ in: Exhibition Catalogue, Vienna, Kunsthistoriches Museum Wien, Francis Bacon and the Tradition of Art, 2003-04, p. 46). Sculptural, fleshy, and exhibiting supreme technical mastery it is this very series that deliver most powerfully Bacon’s debasement of the Pope, his reverence for Velázquez and his ambitious painterly ekphrasis.
Above all else perhaps, Bacon was driven by his admiration for Diego Velázquez and his concomitant ambition to rival the greatest portrait study that he knew. In the countless interviews between the artist and David Sylvester – considered the most important recorded dialogues of Bacon’s career – Velázquez’s Innocent X is spoken about in awe: “…I think it is one of the greatest portraits that have been made, and I became obsessed by it. I buy book after book with this illustration in it of the Velázquez Pope, because it just haunts me, and it opens up all sorts of feelings and areas of – I was going to say – imagination, even, in me… I think it’s the magnificent colour of it” (Francis Bacon in conversation with David Sylvester, 1962, in: David Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, New York 1981, p. 25). Today installed as the jewel in the collection of the Museo Doria Pamphilj, Rome, this painting was executed in the Jubilee year of 1650 and depicts the Bishop of Rome as the most powerful man in the world. Having travelled to Rome from the Spanish court of Philip IV in 1649, Velázquez was afforded the great honour of depicting the Pope, Giambattista Pamphilj, known as Innocent X, whom he had met as papal nuncio in Madrid in 1626-30. Exuding majesty and encased by the trappings of his office, the spectacular achievement of this portrait lies within the painter’s translation of the God’s divine representative as, to quote Nietzsche, ‘all too human’. 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 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 and update it for the Twentieth Century.
At the time of his 1950s series of portraits after Velázquez it is widely known that Bacon had not seen the original painting first-hand, or perhaps even in colour, working as he did from reproductions that at the time would have been entirely black and white. It is also known that Bacon spurned the opportunity to see the original when in Rome in 1954 owing to a troubled mood over his fractious relationship with Peter Lacy. This has been suggested as the cause for the purple colour of the garments in these early paintings differing from the original cardinal red. However, as the present work attests, a transition from violet to the crimson of the original Velázquez was starting to occur in Bacon’s Papal output following the 1953 series, as is apparent in Study for a Portrait (1956) in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. Indeed, although Bacon perhaps never saw the Palazzo Pamphilj Velázquez, it is likely that he would have been familiar, first-hand, with another version of this 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 Velázquez, 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, together with over 150 other pictures from the Spanish Royal Collection, in recognition of his defeat of Napoleonic forces and liberation of Spain in the Peninsular War. The British commander had recovered these works from the fleeing carriage of Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon, after the Battle of Vitoria in 1813. 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. Thus bolstering his use of black and white reproductions and in tune with Bacon’s familiarity with the art collections on his doorstep in London, it is very possible that he studied this highly accomplished version at close quarters. In comparison to the present work for example, Velázquez’s wonderfully loose brushwork finds a formal echo in the lashings of crimson laid down in confident strokes with swift dexterity in Bacon’s portrait. The striking economy of Velázquez’s smaller portrait in tandem with an even more closely cropped study by Velázquez in the collection of the National Gallery Washington, confers a great parity with Bacon’s 1961 series owing to their increasingly pared back look. Gone are the gold finials ornamenting the Pope’s Sedia Gestatoria, instead the spiritual father is entrapped within the most secular of Bacon’s interiors to date. Geometric, functional and modern, Bacon has stripped away the aura that sets the Pope apart from other men.
A modern day Zarathustra, Bacon was staunchly atheistic. As fanatical as a religious zealot, he possessed an unquestionable belief in the finality of flesh and a militant conviction that life was without purpose or meaning: “We come from nothing… and we go to nothing” (Francis Bacon quoted in: Michael Peppiatt, ‘Francis Bacon: The Sacred and the Profane’ in: Exhibition Catalogue, Valencia, Institut Valencia d’Art Modern, Francis Bacon: The Sacred and The Profane, 2003-04, p. 32). Though seemingly dichotomous for a man as godless as Bacon, the fervour and frequency with which highly charged symbols of the Christian faith were painted can be allied with his project of conveying the secularity of our time. For Bacon, the Crucifixion and the figure of the Pope were the most powerful armatures upon which he could hang his savage interpretation of being. Where his fascination with the Pope was inspired by the remarkable invention of Velázquez’s Innocent X, Bacon’s obsession with the Crucifix can be traced back to Matthias Grunewald and the unforgettable violence on view in The Isenheim Altarpiece (circa 1515). Regardless of faith, Bacon was finely attuned to the fact that these extreme subjects acted as a vessel for extraordinary ingenuity and great intensity of feeling. In an age dispossessed of the piety that sparked the genius of Grunewald or Velázquez, Bacon nonetheless used the Christian myth as the foundation upon which he built his brutal and impassioned response to contemporary existence.
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” (Francis Bacon in conversation with Hugh M. Davies in 1973, in: Martin Harrison, Ed., Francis Bacon: New Studies, Göttingen 2009, 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. Raised by English parents living in Ireland’s County Kildare during the violent era surrounding the Easter Uprising, Bacon’s upbringing was intensely fraught and immersed in the threat of harm: “My father warned us that at any time, not that we would be shot, but at night someone might break in or whatever. My grandmother married three times, at that time her husband was the Head of Police in Kildare and in their house all the windows were sandbagged. I lived with my grandmother a lot. I grew up in an atmosphere of threat for a long time…And then I was in Berlin at the beginning of the Nazi thing, my whole life had been lived through a time of stress” (Ibid., pp. 104-05). Aged no more than sixteen, in 1926 he was abruptly driven from the Bacon family home by his father and embarked for London. At the beginning of 1927 he was in Berlin and by the Spring he had arrived in Paris, staying that summer with a family in Chantilly before moving in the Autumn to the Hôtel Delambre in Montparnasse; here he endured an impoverished subsistence for almost a year.
Michael Peppiatt has suggested that the trauma of Bacon’s early life and his exile from home had a part to play in the sadomasochistic reiteration of violent persecution redolent in his various crucifixion themed works, as well as informing his undoing of dominant masculinity through the image of the Pope. As previously mentioned, alongside Study for a Pope I - VI, Bacon also painted his first monumental triptych to conclude his seminal Tate retrospective: Three Studies for a Crucifixion (March 1962). Executed with an efficacy of paint handling this triptych is replete with the spontaneity that characterises Study for a Pope I – a rapidity undoubtedly brought on by the artist’s will to include these paintings in his exhibition. Although Bacon claimed not to know what the painting was about, stating that it was painted whilst under the influence of “a bad mood of drinking”, the pictorial drama of this painting does indeed suggest a biographical narrative. Stating that this painting is a likely elucidation of Bacon’s expulsion from home, Peppiatt elucidates: “Arms akimbo and wearing a jacket, the figure on the left is clearly the older of the two. His fleshy, full-jowled, sardonic features seem familiar; recalling other Bacon heads, notably several of the early Popes… The younger figure is turned away from him and is grasping what looks like the handle of a door, as if he is about to leave – and be propelled into the scenes of bloodshed and suffering that fill the central and right-hand panels…This would have been the event that set [Bacon’s] own ‘crucifixion’, possibly on a bed in the middle panel” (Michael Peppiatt, ‘Francis Bacon: The Sacred and the Profane’ in: op. cit., p. 44). Similarly, in painting the ultimate figure of patriarchy – the Pope – Bacon can be seen to confront the tyrannical father as epitomised by his own disciplinarian father. A retired army captain and racehorse trainer with a militant puritanical streak, Eddy Bacon tyrannised the family household, and in particular a son with whom he was at odds. Allergic to his father’s horses, asthmatic and unashamedly effeminate, Bacon was expelled from the family home after being caught admiring himself in the mirror wearing his mother’s underwear. That the Pope – the Holy Father – was to be Bacon’s “first subject” when he has reached artistic maturity, is perhaps in part owing to a working-through of personal trauma (Francis Bacon in conversation with David Sylvester, 1971-73, in: David Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, New York 1981, p. 71). Significantly it was around this time – the late 1940s – that Bacon first met Peter Lacy, the violent, tortured lover whom Bacon purportedly loved most because he made him suffer the most. Intriguingly, Lacy’s bold features can be distinguished upon the obsessively painted pantheon of 1950s Popes. Ostensibly devoid of his lover’s likeness however – a lover whose death Bacon would tragically learn of on the very day his Tate retrospective opened to the public – Study for Portrait I is no less symptomatic of the trauma he felt, and masochistically relished in, at the hands of the tyrannical father figure.
Into his pantheon of popes Bacon poured his fixation with corporeal mutilation, militant atheism, his deep knowledge of artistic tradition, and above all his reverence for Diego Velázquez. Coloured by his sadomasochistic delight in terrible patriarchy and grounded in the disasters of Twentieth Century conflict, the Papal portraits rank among the most inventive and searing images in the history of art. Representing the zenith of his “first subject” – a subject that spanned over twenty years finally ending in 1971 with Study for a Red Pope, Second Version – the present work is an indomitable articulation of both Bacon’s love affair with Velázquez and his will to expose the fallacy of such images for a world living in the dim light of Nietzsche’s declaration of God’s death.
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