Study of a Head from 1952 broadcasts Francis Bacon’s most celebrated and recognizable iconography, which today remains one of the most pertinent, universal, and affecting 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 – and the indomitable articulation of both Bacon’s love affair with Diego 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. The present work sits alongside significant masterpieces that announced the arrival of the artist’s genius and primary subject: the human-animal as unadorned, despairing and alone. Having remained in the Seattle-based collection of Jane Lang Davis for over forty years, Study for a Head is of seminal importance to Bacon’s history with the American audience, as it was originally purchased from Beaux Arts Gallery by American author, art critic and Jackson Pollock biographer B. H. Friedman, making the present work one of the first Bacon paintings to enter a private American collection.
Erica Brausen was instrumental in establishing Bacon as one of the foremost contemporary British painters in the United Kingdom and abroad after she signed the artist for her newly created Hanover Gallery in 1947, which was established with the financial support of Arthur Jeffress, the American-born son of Albert Jeffress, Deputy Chairman of British American Tobacco. American interest for Bacon’s work undoubtedly began in the most spectacular of fashions, with his Painting 1946 – a work Brausen had purchased upon her first studio visit with the artist in the year of its execution – being acquired by Alfred H. Barr, Jr. for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This acquisition in 1948 was not only the first occasion of a Bacon painting to enter an American institution, but also the first Bacon painting to enter any museum globally. The early 1950s proved to be a key period for Bacon’s international standing, and the establishing of his presence in New York with critics and collectors alike. His inclusion in both Knoedler Gallery’s The Last Fifty Years in British Art, 1900-1950 in October 1950 and The Pittsburgh International at the Carnegie Institute in 1950 precipitated his first solo exhibition at the prominent Durlacher Brothers Gallery in 1953, sending eight Studies for Portrait (after Velázquez’s Portrait of Innocent X, circa 1650) to his American debut in October of that year. To American audiences, the dramaturgy of his portraits that brazenly refashioned the iconography of Velázquez through the artist’s interest in the compositional dynamism of cinematography was in stark figurative polarity to the Abstract Expressionism of the New York School. The present work is hugely significant in demonstrating the confluence of enthusiasm for American and British painters of the period. As art historian and Bacon biographer Michael Peppiatt has commented: “…this impressive venting of emotion was taken by the critics to signify the oppressed as much as the oppressors; and from there it was only a short step, in the angst-ridden years of the Cold War, to seeing Bacon’s figures unequivocally as dramatic expressions of the guilt, unease, and solitude of modern man.” (Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London, 2008, p. 171) The timeliness of Bacon’s portraits would not be lost on American audiences for whom the specter of war and dictatorial evocations of the artist’s depictions of the papal subject undeniably elicit. Such was his notability in New York, his work garnered interest from major institutions in the country throughout the 1950s, with MoMA notably acquiring Dog (1952) and Study for Portrait VII (1953) in 1953 and 1956, respectively, and the Art Institute of Chicago adding Figure with Meat (1954) to its collection in 1956.
In 1952, Bacon embarked on what would be an increasingly significant category in his output, the head-and-shoulders portrait. That summer, he painted – in the studio of Rodrigo Moynihan at the Royal College of Arts – six small paintings of heads that demonstrate the advancement of his suited businessmen and the 1949 seminal painting Head VI. Although the title of the present work is unspecific, this forceful painting presents the iconic and tortured scream of Bacon’s best known Popes. The six small portrait heads represent either Popes or businessmen, and each displays the full panoply of Bacon’s techniques: “The variety of the color schemes and brushwork that [Bacon] employed betokens a determined effort to explore new ways of painting the head and to expand the range of techniques at his disposal by which these representations might be achieved.” (Martin Harrison, ed., Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné, Volume II 1929-1957, London, 2016, p. 264) The subject in this ‘series’ morphs between a Pope, his variations of the subject, and a non-specific secular figure, as in Study for a Portrait (Tate Britain, London).
In the present work, Bacon retains the iconic motif of the shattered pince-nez, the distinctly papal purple mozzetta, and is thus most aligned to Study for a Head (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven). Painted with supreme bravura and energy, the visceral physiognomic intensity of the contorted features and flashing teeth of the gaping mouth in the canvas, so deftly fashioned by the artist’s daubs of writhing paint and the incorporation of sand on the left cheek, achieves a heightened psychological import – shooting the desperate papal cry straight into the realm of the viewer. 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) Into the present work, Bacon poured his fixation with corporeal mutilation and glistening mouths, his obsession with Sergei Eisenstein, his indistinguishable preoccupation with terrible patriarchy and the history of twentieth-century conflict. Mediated by the vicissitudes of biography, Study for a Head is an incredibly pioneering and unique work that marks the very formation of Bacon’s painterly genius. Signaling the terrible and silent metamorphosis from inchoate bestiality towards the realization of nightmarish patriarchy, with these works, Bacon shifted from mythological creatures and theatrical ornament to portraits probing the depths of humanity.
Very much aligned with the experiential enthusiasm no doubt inspired by his stays in South Africa in 1950 and 1952, Bacon here displays his evolution from his earlier series of monkey paintings; snarling, writhing, and contorted, these encaged beasts bear a more immediate affinity with the artist’s treatment of human subject. Dramatically fixed around the open mouthed bestial scream, the quintessential leitmotif Study for a Head represents a unique and pioneering articulation of the dialectical “zone of indiscernibility” between man and animal vitally intrinsic to Bacon’s astounding legacy. (Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, London, 2003, p. 16) Bacon outlined his interest in monkeys as stemming “from the fact that like humans they are fascinated with their own image, and that their interest in themselves is displayed with an abandon and relish rarely equaled by men.” (The artist cited in Martin Harrison, In Camera Francis Bacon: Photography, Film, and the Practice of Painting, London, 2005, p. 200) This ‘abandon’ is expertly deployed in the present work as Bacon depicts a moment of volatile release; frightening, spontaneous, and primal, the scream is the epicenter of drama and the point at which animal and man converge.
Perhaps more than any other theme associated with his canon, the threat of mortality inhabits every facet 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.” (The artist in conversation with Hugh M. Davies in 1973, in Martin Harrison, ed., Francis Bacon: New Studies, Göttingen, 2009, p. 96) Many of Bacon’s 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 and artistic practice from its most formative stage. 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. Similarly, in painting the ultimate figure of patriarchy, the Pope, Bacon can be seen to confront the tyrannical father as epitomized by his own disciplinarian father. A retired army captain and racehorse trainer with a militant puritanical streak, Bacon’s father tyrannized the entire 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 reached artistic maturity, is perhaps in part owing to his coming to terms with his own trauma. (The artist 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 1952 – the year of the present work’s execution – 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 in the obsessively painted pantheon of 1950s Popes.
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.” (The artist in conversation with Hugh Davies, June 1973, in Hugh Davies and Sally Yard, Francis Bacon, New York, 1986, p. 23) 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. While Bacon’s extensive enlistment of and reference to photographic sources is beyond question, however, it also seems more than likely that the artist 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 Velázquez was gifted to the Duke of Wellington by the King of Spain in 1816, together with over 150 other paintings 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 opened to the public in 1952, the centenary of the first Duke’s death and shortly before Bacon initiated a grand cycle of papal portraits, including the present work. That Apsley House sits at Hyde Park Corner, roughly fifteen minutes’ walk from the Royal College of Art where Bacon had his studio between 1951 and 1953, readily invites the hypothesis that he was able to study this highly accomplished work in person.
The Velázquez painting, however, is merely a template that becomes a delivery system for Bacon’s radical and unrelenting reinvention. 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; it was this specific still that was reproduced in Roger Manvell’s 1944 paperback Film, though Bacon also kept additional reproductions of the startling image. 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. The image 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 simultaneously witnessing a baby in a pram being brutalized by the sword of a Czarist soldier, which embodies the conception of absolute, crippling 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 that together embody the trauma and anguish of the post-war years.
The drama of 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’s overlapping linear schema here act as cage-like space frames that enclose this papal figure 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 greater concentration.” (The artist in conversation with Hugh Davies in 1973, in Martin Harrison, ed., Francis Bacon: New Studies, Göttingen, 2009, p. 111)
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. Colored 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. The aggressive animalism of Study for a Head formatively underscores an obsessive preoccupation with the mouth as bestial center and agent of the primal scream. 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. As Michael Peppiatt notes: “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.” (Michael Peppiatt in Exh. Cat., Norwich, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts (and travelling), Francis Bacon in the 1950s, 2006, p. 28)
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