Francis Bacon

Pope

Bacon Personnage Brooklyn Museum 1500 - © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All Rights Reserved/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016
  • Francis Bacon
  • Pope
  • 1955-1956
  • Oil on canvas
  • 195.9 x 140 cm
  • Gift of Olga H. Knoepke, 81.306 - © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All Rights Reserved/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016

During the 1950s, Francis Bacon extended his use of religious motifs

‒ such as the crucifixion of Jesus—to such paintings as Pope (1955–56) that revisit historical portraits of the Catholic papacy. One inspiration is Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650) by the Spanish Renaissance painter Diego Velázquez (c. 1599–1660), from which Bacon painted several studies throughout the 1950s and early 60s. Capped, robed, and enthroned, in Bacon’s hands papal figures become grotesque, encaged, and violent—seemingly wracked with pain and horror while snarling in threat. An unfinished work that Bacon had cast off as a failure, Pope is nevertheless brutal and vibrant. Here, confident, angular, lines oppose painterly forms that seem to have been ground into the surface. Set against a dark blue-black ground, the seated half-figure seems trapped in a geometric framework, another motif in Bacon’s work. As the the subject looks out into the unknown, his arms are braced against the throne, as if anticipating sudden movement.

Like Bacon’s earlier paintings of the crucifixion, this abstracted religious portrait offers no prospect of redemption or hope. Emerging from Bacon’s profoundly atheist viewpoint, this portrait savages all religious caretakers, leaders, and profiteers. In the wake of World War II and the horrific violence that both fascists and revolutionaries had spread across the world, Bacon’s besotted, neurotic, and snarling religious figures suggest that those in power are capable of wreaking absolute social havoc. In Bacon’s hands, the pope epitomizes both the power of despots and the horror of the collective.

Gemma Sharpe

Biography of Francis Bacon

  • Born 1909 in Dublin, Ireland
  • Died 1992 in Madrid, Spain
Francis Bacon, a self-taught artist, became a leading figurative painter of the postwar era. In 1927 he visited Berlin and Paris, where he was inspired by the work of Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) and Pablo Picasso (1881–1973). He created his first artworks that year, attending the free European Academies in Paris. Late in 1928 or early in 1929 Bacon settled in London and started a short career as an interior decorator and furniture designer. Nearly a decade later he was included in the 1937 exhibition Young British Painters at Thomas Agnew & Sons, along with artists such as Graham Sutherland (1903–1980). His breakthrough came in 1944 with the triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, widely considered his first mature work. Bacon would go on to paint distorted human figures and scenes that evoke alienation, violence and suffering. Throughout his career Bacon worked in sequences and created variations on motifs. He drew on both Christian and mythological themes and found inspiration in the works of other artists, such as Diego Velázquez (1599–1660) and photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904). His first major retrospective was held at Tate Gallery, London, in 1962