148 – We’re all human

Francis Bacon, Head VI, 1949. Arts Council Collection, South Bank Centre, London.

There is nothing quite so exciting in 20th Century painting as getting close to the surface of a work by Francis Bacon – there was no one who handled paint as well, with such power, and with such variety, who had worked so hard to achieve the right effects, knew precisely where the paint would go, how thick or thin it should be, how carefully or recklessly it should be applied to grab the viewer by the eyes and penetrate the sinews. So I was thrilled to see the Royal Academy’s new exhibition, Francis Bacon: Man and Beast on Tuesday, and then equally excited to be able to share my enthusiasm with a group of patrons of the RA two days later. And now I am looking forward to talking about him again on Monday 7 February, as the RA’s powerful exhibition is the subject of next week’s talk. It’s been a good week! On Thursday afternoon I also saw – on the opening day – the remarkable, focussed exhibition Van Gogh. Self Portraits at The Courtauld (the hiatus-inducing punctuation is theirs). Only 18 works, perhaps, but it says everything you need to know about Vincent himself – and I will talk about that on Monday 14 February. Today though, an old favourite, in which one of the best modern artists looks back to the one of the best of the Old Masters.

Throughout his career Francis Bacon painted around 50 screaming popes, but this painting, Head VI, is the first. Or at least, it is the first which survives. We don’t know that there were any others which preceded it, but it was painted in 1949, and already in 1946 he wrote to a couple of friends, including the artist Graham Sutherland, saying that he was working on three paintings inspired by the Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Diego Velázquez (c. 1650). However, Head VI would not have taken three years to paint. Either there were other discarded versions that preceded it, or the work progressed slowly, with much thought preceding the actual execution. Either is possible, both are likely, and the ‘three’ he mentioned are probably among those that surfaced later.

It would be easy to argue that Bacon’s work is not so terribly similar to the original. Quite apart from the way they are painted, there is just not so much of the Pope. I’m not talking about the absence of the top of the head in the modern version, but about the format – Bacon’s is only a bust length work. Indeed, some have suggested that he was actually inspired by the version which found its way into the collection of the Duke of Wellington, and can still be seen in Apsley House.

But this just makes me think that ‘some’ should retire from the History of Art, and start looking at paintings instead. The Apsley House version does not have a visible throne, nor does the pope reveal his white sleeves. Both features were clearly visible to Francis Bacon, as both are included in Head VI – so we can forget Apsley House’s minor masterpiece and concern ourselves with the main event. But why was Bacon so obsessed with it? Well, because he knew how good Velázquez was. In an interview with the art critic David Sylvester in 1962 he said that the portrait ‘just haunts me, it opens up all sorts of feelings and areas of – I was going to say – imagination, even, in me.’ He was in awe of the way the Spaniard handled paint, and how he used it to go beyond the surface and reveal the character of his subject – whether the ‘subject’ was a portrait or a narrative. At one point he said that he wanted ‘to paint like Velázquez, but with the texture of a hippopotamus skin’. It had to be as good, of course, but rougher, and tougher, as he 20th Century demanded. The one thing that Bacon feared most was to be merely illustrative. In the 1962 interview the modern master said that what he admired in his Spanish predecessor was the latter’s ability ‘to keep it so near to what we call illustration and at the same time so deeply unlock the greatest and deepest things that man can feel’. It was the communication of the greatest and deepest things which most interested Bacon.

Much of the detailing we see here was the artist’s way of holding on to what interested him most, of pinning it down, and stopping it from escaping our attention – or, in his words, his need ‘to trap the fact’. The framing elements are his way of focussing our attention on the subject matter – something he believed that other artists did as well:

I think that the very great artists were not trying to express themselves. They were trying to trap the fact, because after all, artists are obsessed by life and by certain things that obsess them that they want to record. And they’ve tried to find systems and construct the cages in which these things can be caught.

In Head VI, the ‘fact’ is presumably – in some way – the inner life of Innocent X, and so it is on him that we must concentrate. His being is not, in this case, related to his mobility – so the legs are of no value – and everything we need to know is contained within the thinly sketched white cage, a feature, common in Bacon’s ouevre, which is often referred to as a ‘space frame’. Innocent is defined by his status – enthroned, as a monarch – and so the vaguely sketched gilded structure of the throne is also important, and also functions as another way to ‘trap the fact’. Notice how the painted image of the face does not go higher than the gilded chair, and the eyes – absent or veiled – are on a level with the back of the throne. Let’s have another look at the Velázquez.

The throne contains the Pope in much the same way that the space frame contains his 20th Century descendant – the arms contain his arms, and the top of the chair – although above his eyes – helps frame him in much the same way that there is a gilt-wood frame around the painting. Both help to ‘trap the fact’. What is this? In part, I think, ‘the fact’ that Innocent’s attitude is not clear. Is he in control, or clasping the arms of the chair in fear? Comfortable with his power, or afraid of the fall?

In the lower half of the painting our interest is refocussed on the subject by the presence of so much raw canvas – this is the material of the work, but that is not what it is about. The diagonal closure of the space frame runs parallel to where the chair arm would be – although higher, as we cannot see the whole arm. But what we do see is an incredible painterly display, broad brushstrokes of ‘dry’ paint (i.e. a low amount of oil compared to the amount of pigment) dragged and smeared across the canvas, and across wet paint where it mixes, the strokes flowing or creeping down towards the join in the mozzetta, or papal cape. The colour, you might say, is not ‘right’. This is definitely purple. Velázquez painted a deep red, heightened to pink by the reflections. You could go on for a long time about the problems with colour reproduction, the transient nature of some paints, etc, etc, but you would be wrong. Velázquez painted red, Bacon painted purple it’s that simple. But why? Because that colour expressed Bacon’s feelings more profoundly? Probably not. The reason is probably one of the most surprising facts about his obsession with this painting: he never saw it. Even when he spent some months in Rome in 1954 – five years after this particular version – he didn’t go and see it. He didn’t paint from life, life was too distracting, it was bound up with time and place, with mood and with gut responses. He painted from photographs, as they got closer to ‘the fact’. Admittedly there is a suspicion that, when he was in Rome, he might not have wanted to see the real thing, just in case he realised he couldn’t live up to it. Or worse, that it would disappoint him after years of building it up. Nevertheless, in an interview with Sylvester just four years after the other, in 1966, he regretted that his versions of the masterpiece were ‘records of it, distorted records.’ But it wasn’t just this great work of art that he painted ‘second hand’. Even the portraits of his friends and lovers were painted from photographs, commissioned from another friend, John Deakin. He also hoarded a vast archive of source material, in books and magazines, or torn out from them: I’ll show you more of these on Monday. Here, though, is one of the images that influenced him most.

It is a film still – the nurse from the ‘Odessa Steps’ sequence of Eisenstein’s 1925 masterpiece Battleship Potemkin, a film that Bacon saw even before he started painting, and which influenced him greatly in a number of ways. In his 1962 interview he said, ‘I did hope one day to make the best painting of the human cry. I was not able to do it and it is much better in the Eisenstein and there it is.’

But why? Why the concern with suffering? There is, perhaps, a little hint of an answer in another odd detail here, a tassel which seems to dangle above the Pope’s nose. It occurs in other paintings, and is, in some ways, like the arrows which can be seen elsewhere in his work – it is another way of drawing your attention to what matters. It falls between the eyes, or where the eyes should be, or where the eyes were. It is almost as if they have been burnt away, or, like the nurse, as if the Pope’s glasses have been broken (not that Innocent X wears glasses). This blinding, the end of sight, is a sign of fragility, an intimation of mortality: one day, the lights will go out. This tassel could be a light pull. But actually it comes from another photographic source: a photograph of Hitler leaning out of a window. In that image, it appears to be part of a cord to pull down a blind, a way of shutting things out – the darkness, or the light – or, when lifted, of revealing, in that theatrical way which has cropped up more than once in my talks recently. That the tassel may have some relationship to Hitler hints at the levels of human suffering which are involved. Eisenstein’s nurse wasn’t Bacon’s only source material for the scream. He also had a collection of images of leading Nazis declaiming at rallies, their mouths wide open as they rabidly spewed out their venom.

Bacon lived through two world wars. Too young to serve in the first (he was only five when it started), he was too sick for the second. He was a lifelong sufferer from asthma, which was triggered particularly by dogs and horses – just one reason why his ex-military father, an unsuccessful race horse trainer, was disappointed in the second child of five. Father was also disappointed by his son’s effeminacy, and so horsewhipped him, as well as having him horsewhipped by the grooms. Bacon was all too aware of man’s inhumanity to man, and of the way in which we, with our supposed sophistication, can behave worse than animals. As the Second World War ended, the full extent of the Nazi horror became known. It did not help that the sense of triumph over evil was undermined by the means used to end another part of the conflict, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For many, God was dead. For Bacon, he had never existed. He described himself, though, as an optimist, because, if there is no God-given purpose to our existence, then life is what we make it, and Bacon was determined to make as much of it as possible. Nevertheless, that underlying fear of being left ‘on our own’ spawned Existentialism, with its fear of the Void, and even for those not philosophically inclined, there was the gnawing angst inspired by the possibility of nuclear Armageddon. Was this the source of ‘the human cry’? Was this the ‘fact’ that Bacon wanted to ‘trap’? He was, from his own experience, only too aware how thin the veil separating our sophistication from our animal instincts can be. We are all flesh and blood, we are all meat – and that applies to the Pope every bit as much as to – well – anyone else. It is, perhaps, also worth remembering that – with one medieval and one modern exception – there is only one way to stop being Pope. Basically, you’re there until God wants you back. Or, to put it another way, you’re trapped there till you die. I think I’d scream, under the circumstances.

Now, having said all of that, I really hope I haven’t put you off joining me on Monday! Francis Bacon is undoubtedly one of the greatest artists of the 20th Century, dealing with issues that must concern us all: the nature of being alive, the full scope and depth – and depths – of humanity. For Bacon, being human during the 20th Century – missing only some of the first and last decades living, as he did, from 1909-1992 – put him in the best position to see what was going on. And the exhibition Francis Bacon: Man and Beast lives up to that ambition.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

12 thoughts on “148 – We’re all human

  1. The more I look and the more I read, the more I like and begin to understand Bacon’s work. Having almost just finished reading Michael Peppiatt’s excellent memoir of his friend Francis Bacon, I have yet to relish James Birch’s ‘Bacon in Moscow’….set in 1988, the year before the regime collapsed, and Russians, queuing around the block to see the first ever Francis Bacon exhibition. Over 400, 000 people in Moscow attended in the space of a mere six weeks!! Some of the entries in the visitors book were a bit ironic (if not to the point) ‘we want bacon not Bacon’. For the most part there was a true ‘lifting of the veil’. I too enjoyed the exhibition at the RA. My single observation, which I would appreciate your comment on please Richard, is that for me, the brilliance of Francis Bacon, amongst other things, was his unique style of painting. Am I right in thinking no other artist could ever be confused with his painting? In terms of recognition and individuality he hits the spot.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely – there is no one else like him. The very earliest work is hugely indebted to Picasso – and others – but these works are among those that, had he been able to get his hands on them, he would have destroyed… Apart from minor echoes of Picasso, and a kinship with some Sutherland, after the earliest days his work is unmistakeably his, and no one else had the same vocabulary of brushstroke, texture and surface.


  2. What a great trailer for Monday, and for the exhibition. I’ve long needed a key to Bacon, and I think you’ve just made the first turn in the lock.


  3. Fascinating talk on Bacon tonight – thank you! Brief moment of panic at the end where you said the Van Gogh exhibition closes in Feburary since I have booked to see both on 1 March! But reassured to see that the latter is open until May… Looking forward to next week’s talk on the self portraits. Regards Deborah Bragg ________________________________

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Deborah – and BOTHER! I think I did the same the week before. Too much cutting and pasting, and I hadn’t edited the date. The Van Gogh ends on 8 May – there is PLENTY of time – as you have realised. The annoying thing is, I was aware of this problem – but it still crept through. And I saw the date and thought ‘but surely it’s on for longer than that’ – but after 70 minutes talking my brain was clearly frazzled. So thank you for flagging the mistake: I’ll correct it with this week’s blog! Enjoy the exhibition!


  4. And thanks for the talk and for helping me learn not to fear Bacon. I’m envious of the group you took round the show last week. How does one get to join you on a real tour, in London?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A pleasure – again! The group I took round were patrons of the RA, and the tour was organised by the RA itself – so it was by invitation only, I’m afraid. I am thinking of organising in-person tours myself, but at the moment I seem to be too busy… But rest assured – as soon as there are any you can book onto I will put them on the diary:
      All best,


  5. Thanks for the brilliant talk last night and ‘turning the key’ on Bacon – amazing both you and Bacon! We have now decided to book to see the exhibition followed by lunch at The Wolseley, it’s tough work being retired but someone has to do it! Looking forward to Van Gogh

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great stuff Mo – glad to hear you’re going! Get really close to the paintings and try and work out what he did to the paint. I didn’t have good enough images to talk about it in detail, but the canvas is often left raw, thinly or thickly painted, stained, has paint spattered and splashed onto it, and then dabbed and textured with different fabrics, including corduroy, creating the most fantastic textures. And then also look from the far side of the room to get the overall impact! And enjoy lunch. One of life’s great pleasures!


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