Björn David Herzig
Critics usually agree that seeing a painting by Francis Bacon (1909 - 1992) is, to a greater or lesser degree, an aesthetically painful experience. While this might be said of many works of art created in the 20th century, in Bacon’s case, this painfulness can surely be understood in a very specific sense. In the course of this essay, I want to focus on one of Bacon’s earlier works, his 1953 painting “Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X.” I will try to analyze in which way the picture achieves its disturbing effect and in how far this effect lies at the very center of the ‘meaning’ of Bacon’s painting.
In order to achieve a deeper understanding of the portrait in question, one has to become aware of Bacon’s complex and somewhat obsessive relationship with the Spanish baroque painter Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599 - 1660). Bacon’s admiration for Velázquez, especially for his “Portrait of Pope Innocent X.” (1650) had already been eminent in his “Painting 1946” (1946)1 and became ultimately evident in 1951, when his first series of papal images (“Pope I - III”) appeared.2 Altogether, from 1950 to 1965, Bacon produced no less than 25 reworkings of Velázquez’s painting; and even though his interest in the subject decreased after 1953, he nevertheless accomplished a series of six ‘later popes’ in 1961 – a fact which, after all, reflects the intense struggle and artistic argument Bacon had with his predecessor during more than a decade of his lifetime.
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Apart from Bacon’s admiration for Velázquez’s outstanding technical abilities as a painter, he seems to value him above all as the archetypal painter of “the dressed-up human being”.3 This is important in so far, as Bacon, on several occasions, affirmed the prime interest of his own painting to be ‘the human figure as such’4 – a fact which becomes evident if we consider the somehow puzzling continuity of his effort in illustrating bodies, gestures, movements, mimics etc. in order to grasp a certain feeling, mood or mental state of the human condition. This specific motivation had already been apparent in his earlier series of “Heads” (1947 - 49), which in a certain way anticipates the later series of papal images.
Since Francis Bacon’s “Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X.” might surely be described as a “reinvention”5 of the Velázquez picture, any interpretation is also forced to draw the connection between the two paintings. As I will now try to analyze some of the basic features of Bacon’s “Study”, I will also try to point out in how far the two pictures ‘stimulate’ each other, and in which way a proper interpretation of the Baconian painting can only be derived from a sound understanding of its role model.
Certainly, one of the most striking features of Velázquez’s “Portrait of Pope Innocent X.” is the way he portrays the pope as a powerful, dominant and important human being. Every aspect of his figure – mimic, gesture, attributes and the overall posture – assures us of his unquestionable authority as well as of his unique and elevated position. As Bacon himself explains, in Velázquez’s painting, the pope appears “as though raised onto a dais on which the grandeur of his image can be displayed to the world.”6 Velázquez’s task, as a court painter, had obviously been to accomplish an ex cathedra image of the pope as a public person.7 – If I to extract a philosophical quintessence from these observations, I would probably say that this painting, as such, achieves an affirmation (and maybe, justification) of the human being in general – that is: in every aspect of his existence. Velázquez’s portrait, as is evident, does not question the religious, political, psychic or social condition of its ‘subject’ (the pope), instead, through its open display of might and authority, it positively illustrates the status quo of human existence.
1 For this interpretation see Russell, John: Francis Bacon (London: 1979), p. 41
2 Russell (Bacon , p. 91) describes the images of this earlier series as being rather unambiguous and realistic: “The figure is pushed towards us like the rings and bracelets and necklaces in a jeweller’s window, and it is held by a tubular construction, half single-bed, half unpadded throne.”
3 Russell, Bacon , p. 42
4 See, for example, Sylvester, David: Interviews with Francis Bacon / The Brutality of Fact (London: 1995), p. 63
5 Davies, Hughes: Francis Bacon (New York: 1986), p. 26
6 Sylvester, Interviews , p. 26
7 Cf. Davies, Bacon , p. 23
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- Francis Bacon Velázquez negative aesthetics expressionism surrealism 20th century painting figurative painting existentialism in painting