Francis Bacon’s ‘Screaming Pope’ Embodies Post-War Anxiety: Here Are 3 Surprising Facts About This Influential Painting
The facts of Francis Bacon’s life are those that tend to envelop interpretations of his work: he was an alcoholic, an atheist, a gambler and a homosexual in an intolerant era.
This heavy customization is not so surprising given its subject matter. Bacon’s paintings are full of personal torment, depicting solitary figures with their faces and bodies twisting or contorting beyond familiarity, seemingly trapped in the empty, airless spaces that define his work.
The exhibition which has just opened at the Royal Academy of Art, “Francis Bacon: Many and Beast», aims to present the work of the 20th century artist through another prism: his fascination for the animal world.
While Bacon was truly a metropolitan sleazy as an adult, his childhood was immersed in nature. Born in Ireland to English parents, Bacon was raised on a horse farm (his father, a retired officer, trained racehorses). The impressive exhibition brings together all of Bacon’s bullfighting paintings for the first time, as well as images of owls, a chimpanzee and horse-like creatures.
Several works in the show, rather than directly depicting animals, allude to the most primitive nature of humanity. Among these is the seminal VI head (1949), the first of Bacon’s paintings to reference Diego Velázquez Portrait of Innocent X. (He would complete nearly 50 “screaming pope” paintings in his career.) The oil on canvas painting was the last in his 1949 “Head” series and marked an important new chapter in the artist’s career.
On the occasion of the exhibition, we unearthed three fascinating facts that could make you see the work of the artist in a new way.
Pope Innocent X had personal and historical significance
While Francis Bacon was a devout atheist and outspoken critic of the Catholic Church, his work is grounded in the iconography of Catholicism. This was the case from the start of his career: the painting that defined Bacon as a enfant terrible of the art world was Three studies of figures at the foot of a crucifixion (1945). (A secondary version of this triptych, made in the 1980s, is presented in the RA exhibition.)
Why did he return so often to the image of the pope, and of Pope Innocent X? The word pope shares its etymological root with the word “papa”, and many have interpreted Bacon’s fixation with the pope through the Oedipal lens of Bacon’s tumultuous relationship with his father, who despised both the homosexuality of his son and his desire to be an artist. In this vein, some have said that the “screaming popes” were a response to Church teachings against homosexuality.
Others believe Bacon’s fixation is rooted in his childhood and life experiences as a successful member of the English Protestant minority in Ireland.
“Bacon was brought up during the Sinn Féin movement and once the Irish Republican Army was formed in 1919 guerrilla warfare broke out. During his childhood, Bacon’s understanding of religion was marked by social and religious tension and isolation,” writes art historian Rina Arya.
“These formative experiences led to a confusion between violence and religion, and by extension the Pope, as the embodiment of the Catholic Church, would have been viewed in this context of opposition and conflict.”
Pope Innocent X, in particular, played a role in these historic tensions. During the English Civil War (1642-1649), the pontiff acted as an important political player, offering arms and significant finances to support the Irish struggle for independence in the hope that it might establish itself as a Catholic ruling nation. In this way, the image so powerfully portrayed by Velasquez integrates Bacon’s own experiences into a larger historical narrative.
It’s about our animal instincts
One might wonder why a depiction of the pope is featured in an exhibit dedicated to Bacon’s fascination with animals. A careful examination of VI head offers clues.
A clear box appears to surround the pope; these pictorial enclosures were a device Bacon adopted in 1949 and would reappear in his works for decades. Many art historians have interpreted these enclosures as enclosures or cage-like structures, perhaps symbolic of societal norms.
“His monkeys are usually caged, his dogs helplessly creep and cower from their broken leashes, and his humans are often segregated in small rooms or otherwise protected from the unrecognized enemies of contemporary civilization,” writes the historian of art James Thrall Soby.
“Whatever its psychological implications VI head announces with all its vigor a permanent obsession of the artist: the enclosures in which animals and humans live their lives”, he added.
The Royal Academy alludes to this synthesis of man and animal in an expository text: “Whether chimpanzees, bulls, dogs or birds of prey, Bacon felt that ‘he could get closer to the true nature of humanity by observing the uninhibited behavior of animals.
Additionally, Bacon believed that the mouth was the most primitive part of the human body. “You know how the mouth changes shape. I have always been very moved by the movements of the mouth and the shape of the mouth and teeth. People say it has all kinds of sexual implications, and I’ve always been very obsessed with what the mouth and teeth actually look like,” the artist wrote.
If the pope is traditionally believed to be called by the divine, here Bacon depicts him as being called by nature.
A post-war cry
“‘God is dead. God remains dead. And we killed him, cried the madman.
When Frederick Nietzsche wrote these words on the death of Christian civilization, the experience of the Second World War had reinforced the belief in the proverbial death of God. It is here, in the aftermath of the war, that Head VII’the cry of s is better understood. “Bacon’s interpretation is diametrically opposed to…sanctifications: it’s more in the context of death,” Arya said of VI head.
Bacon was a self-taught art historian and avid film buff, and his “cry” is one that exists on a continuum of cultural history. Bacon himself admitted that his image alluded to a scene from Sergei Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin (1925), in which a nurse silently screams after being shot through her glasses. (Bacon’s Pope also cannot be heard). While Bacon often tried to push back the affinities between his work and that of Edvard Munch, The Scream is an obvious influence.
“Bacon takes Munch’s kitsch Nordic universal cry, criticizes and refines it. He gives her teeth… They express pain, agony of orgasm, pity and terror, rage, appetite, fear, pleasure,” wrote Craig Raine in a 2016 article. In the context of the war, we also think of Picasso Guernica of 1937, which had a profound influence on a young Bacon.)
It is important to note that Bacon’s interest in the Pope came shortly after he completed his 1946 Painting, a work loaded with allusions to Nazism. A pompom (like on a curtain) that appears in Painting comes back in To manage VII, creating a strange conversation between the two.
“The pope’s head is bisected by Hitler’s tassel…his mouth is opened in a cry…as in one of Goebbels’ most frenzied exultations,” notes Thrall Soby.
As the “screaming popes” continued, Bacon inserted increasingly direct references to the contemporary pope pontiff Pius XII, who some say appeased the Nazis and did not speak out against the Nazis. Holocaust.
Considering Bacon VI head in this context, Thrall Soby wrote: “In his paintings an inexplicable sense of opulence prevails, and [curator] David Sylvester is correct that Bacon “prefers settings which are luxurious, simple velvet curtains and a gilded armchair like prison cells for high-born traitors”.
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