In 1952, having met Peter Lacy in Soho’s Colony Room, Bacon embarked on what was to become “the most exalted and most destructive love affair he was ever to know.” (Michael Peppiatt, Exh. Cat., Norwich, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Francis Bacon in the 1950s, 2006, pp. 57-58) The artist revealed the tumult of his relationship with the former Battle of Britain pilot, declaring that: “I couldn’t live with him, and I couldn’t live without him.” (Ibid., p. 42) Tough to the point of cruelty, Lacy held Bacon perpetually in an emotional and physical vice, and although Lacy was one of the most significant loves of the artist’s life, this tempestuous affair was ultimately calamitous. Bacon later lamented in conversation with Peppiatt that: “Being in love in that way, being absolutely physically obsessed by someone, is like an illness.” (Ibid., p. 40) Lacy moved to Tangier in the mid-1950s, where he lived on a meager income by playing the piano in a local bar. Although Bacon kept his studio in London, he made frequent and extended trips to Tangier during the summers. The lifestyle of Tangier was perceived as exotic and more tolerant of homosexuality, offering an escapism that was liberating for them both. During these stints in Morocco, Bacon was particularly prolific, writing to his dealer Erica Brausen: “I hope to come back with about 20 or 25 paintings early in October… I feel full of work and believe I may do a few really good paintings now.” (The artist quoted in Michael Peppiatt, Ibid., p. 211) Ultimately, however, the majority of paintings that Bacon created in Tangier were destroyed. Five of the remaining six paintings – including the present work – Bacon gave to his friend Nicolas Brusilowski, hoping that the canvases may be able to be reused by Brusilowski. Perhaps recognizing the significance of these canvases, however, Brusilowski did not paint over them, but instead preserved them. These paintings contribute to a grander legacy of Bacon’s life and work; that they are included and recognized in the artist’s catalogue raisonné further cements their significance at an important moment within the artist’s impressive career. The fortuitous circumstances under which the present work survived add to its illustrious and unique history.
Pope illuminates the artist’s famously tortured soul and reveals Bacon wrestling with his most iconic subject matter in a crucial stage of artistic development. Upon a spare geometric dais, vertical brushstrokes of deep green and pale lilac delineate the frame of a throne, whose presence anchors the more fluid and ethereal figure. The dark, velvety background of Pope glows with underlayers of dark teal and navy, bringing a richness and depth to this painting. Against the stark, architectonic structure of this cage, Bacon juxtaposes more rounded passages of paint to build up the main figure, bringing a more organic physicality to the Pope – the solitary figure upon which he casts a spectrum of psychological profundity. In the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, Bacon delved into the existentialist human condition, isolating the central figure in an anonymous dark void. As spare as the Pope’s surroundings seem, his face is clearly articulated with stunning specificity; Bacon pulls swaths of green and ivory across a taut jawline and hollowed eyes, one of which lands upon the viewer and affords an intimate glimpse into the sitter’s psychological state. Strokes of rosy pink and bright white delineate lips, chin, and teeth to form a mouth whose full lips hang loosely agape. The Pope’s torqued anatomy thrusts outward against the strict lines of the chair, and – in turn – pushes up against what Milan Kundera refers to as the “limits of the self”; “Bacon’s portraits are the interrogation on the limits of the self. Up to what degree of distortion does an individual still remain himself? To what degree of distortion does a beloved being still remain a beloved being? For how long does a cherished face growing remote through illness, through madness, through hatred, through death still remain recognizable? Where lies the border beyond which a self ceases to be a self?” (Milan Kundera in France Borel, Bacon: Portraits and Self-Portraits, London, 1996, p. 12) Bacon’s handling of paint is on brilliant display in the present work, with the most intense application of pigment reserved for the head of his subject. The sheer intensity, detail, and controlled violence of the Pope’s visage attest to the true mastery of the artist; akin to the greatest portraits the artist produced, the swipes and blows that delineate the Pope’s features are carved with an incredible combination of sensuous delicacy and fierce brutality.
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 both Lacy and later 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 most revered subject when he reached artistic maturity, is perhaps in part owing to his coming to terms with his own trauma.
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 instead more 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. That Apsley House sits at Hyde Park Corner, roughly fifteen minutes’ walk from the Royal College of Art where Bacon had his studio in the early 1950s, readily invites the hypothesis that he was able to view this highly accomplished work in person, the study of which informed the present work.
Within the grand theater of Bacon’s oeuvre, the Pope paintings occupy an enormous and highly significant position. Indeed, 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, Exh. Cat., Norwich, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts (and travelling), Francis Bacon in the 1950s, 2006, p. 28) The present work proffers an intimate profile loaded with physicality, the Pope’s presence emerging with each loaded stroke of paint, unraveling the sitter’s psychological and emotional essence, and capturing the post-war zeitgeist that forever shifted the history of art in the twentieth century.
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