Francis Bacon: Study after Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X
FRANCIS BACON (1909-1992)
'Study after Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X'
1953 (oil on canvas)
In 1953, Bacon painted ‘Study after Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X’. This painting, commonly referred to as 'The Screaming Pope', was based on Velazquez's 'Portrait of Pope Innocent X' of 1650 and is considered to be Francis Bacon’s masterpiece.
DIEGO VELÁZQUEZ (1599-1660)
'Portrait of Innocent X', c.1650
(oil on canvas)
Velazquez's portrait is a very skilful work as it conveys the dignity and authority of the Pope, the most powerful figure in the world at that time, while subtly revealing the suspicions and doubts of the inner man.
Bacon was obsessed by this image and between 1951 and 1965 he painted around forty five variations of the subject.
The idea of producing variations on a work from the past was probably inspired by Picasso who reinterpreted works by Grünewald, Delacroix, Manet, Gauguin and Velazquez himself. Bacon said, ‘Picasso is the reason why I paint. He is the father figure, who gave me the wish to paint………. Picasso was the first person to produce figurative paintings which overturned the rules of appearance; he suggested appearance without using the usual codes, without respecting the representational truth of form, but using a breath of irrationality instead, to make representation stronger and more direct; so that form could pass directly from the eye to the stomach without going through the brain.’
TITIAN - Tiziano Vecellio (1508-1576)
'Portrait of Cardinal Filippo Archinto' 1558
(oil on canvas)
Bacon said that he never saw Velazquez's original painting and worked from reproductions. He also used other photographic sources to conjure up the final image of the his 1953 version. Titian’s portrait of Filippo Archinto, where the cardinal archbishop of Milan is partially obscured by a transparent curtain, was probably the inspiration for the ghostly veil of paint that screens Bacon’s Pope.
SERGEI EISENSTEIN (1898-1948)
‘The Battleship Potemkin’, 1925
(still photograph from the film)
The inspiration for Bacon’s head of Innocent X comes from a still photograph from ‘The Battleship Potemkin’ (1925), a silent black and white film by Sergei Eisenstein. The image depicts the panic of a wounded nurse whose smashed pince-nez spectacles are splayed across her blood stained face. This fearful image held a fascination for Bacon who always kept a copy of it in his studio. It encapsulates his philosophy, ‘Painting is the pattern of one's own nervous system being projected on canvas’.
If Velazquez's 'Portrait of Pope Innocent X' portrays the public face of power while hinting at the private flaws of the man behind it, then Bacon’s ‘Study after Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X’ broadcasts his inner psychoses.
Bacon’s Pope inhabits an ethereal world of perpetual torment – a living hell from which there is no escape. He is paralysed with pain and fear, and jolted with shocks from his golden throne which has been transformed from a symbol of authority into an instrument of torture. The composition reaches its focal point as a primal scream shrieks from the pope's mouth. This is a scream that we have heard before: it echoes back to birth of modern expressionist art - ‘The Scream’ of Edvard Munch at the end of the 19th century.
Francis Bacon's art is full of paradox - he both repulses and seduces his audience simultaneously. He repulses them with his shocking subject matter and his dispassionate gaze which has the detached curiosity of a scientist watching a lab rat. However, he also seduces them by the rich sensual qualities of his beautiful paint surface with its electrifying brushwork and rich expressive color.
The same kind of contradiction confounds his subject matter. While ‘Study after Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X’ attacks the authority of the Catholic Church, the social and religious establishment of his Irish childhood, it is also part of an obsessive fascination with its iconography (45 variations on the 'Innocent X' theme is certainly obsessive). Bacon, himself, revelled in such ambiguities, 'The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.........If you can talk about it, why paint it?'