S tudy for a Head from 1952 broadcasts Francis Bacon’s most celebrated and recognizable iconography, which today remains one of the most universal and visceral visions in the history of art, the full force of which is trapped forever on the surface of this sensational painting.
Here, we witness the zenith of Bacon’s first subject – a subject that spanned over twenty years until 1971 with Study for a Red Pope, Second Version. The present work sits alongside significant masterpieces that announced the arrival of the artist’s genius and primary subject matter: the human-animal as despairing and alone.
Bacon’s Popes are not only the centerpiece of all his paintings in the 1950s, but a centerpiece of the whole of twentieth-century art.
The archetype Bacon appropriated as a starting point for his Pope series was Diego Velázquez’s extraordinary Portrait of Pope Innocent X from 1650, held in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome, a painting about which Bacon felt:
Haunted and obsessed by the image…its perfection.
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.
The Velázquez painting, however, is merely a template that becomes a delivery system for Bacon’s radical reinvention. Bacon replaces 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; the frame shows an elderly woman wearing a pince-nez, commonly referred to as a nurse, shot through the eye and caught at the instant of death. Bacon had first seen the movie in 1935 and viewed it frequently thereafter.
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 that together embody the trauma and anguish of the post-war years. Into this pantheon of papal imagery, Bacon poured his fixation with corporeal mutilation, militant atheism, his deep knowledge of artistic tradition, and above all, his reverence for Diego Velázquez.
Belonging to the very earliest paintings centered on the locus of the existential scream, this extraordinary painting marks the inauguration of Bacon’s major subject matter. Immediately presaging his magnum opus Pope paintings produced the following year, this work occupies a critical position at a moment that would come to define Bacon as a major artist.