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With its forceful presentation of a regal figure shifting awkwardly on a papal throne and set against a sea of sumptuous ruby red, Seated Figure is a powerful example from Francis Bacon’s most celebrated series of works, Inaugurated by the so-called Screaming Popes of the 1950s, Bacon’s renowned series of Papal portraits were the works responsible for establishing the artist’s reputation. This silent figure painted in 1960 and cloaked in rich blood-red crimson is a work that stands as a striking example from this seminal series.
It is a rare occasion for a major Papal painting to be offered for auction, and Seated Figure represents an exceptional work from this iconic series, remaining virtually unseen by the public for 35 years before being acquired by its present owner in 1996. Painted in 1960, the muted figure stands as a significant exception in Bacon’s Papal paintings. Here, the terror, neuroticism and paralysis evident in the screaming paintings from the 1950s are brought to a dramatic, cathartic crescendo within this powerful, silent image. Its rarity and exceptional provenance, combined with the sheer physical mastery of the paint across the figure’s exquisitely rendered face, hands and drapery situates Seated Figure as an outstanding example of the artist’s painterly practice. Against a ground of splendid ruby red, luxuriant swathes of cream, violet, and aquamarine form the figure’s features, highlighted by delicate gossamer-like sweeps of pure, bright white that form the folds of his silk cloaks. Daring both in color and composition, Bacon has situated the figure at the center of the composition upon his ex-cathedra; the geometry of the walls dissolve around him, while his clear eyes remain fixed on the distance. The luxuriant robes appear swept in torsion echoing the movement of his body, hands clenched upon the arms of his chair. Transfixed and introspective, the enigmatic figure confronts the weight of his exalted position at the center of an infinite and mysterious scarlet void. Testament to Bacon’s innovative approach to painting, this work was exhibited in the cutting-edge exhibition Internationals at the celebrated Martha Jackson gallery the following year, heralding the artist’s greatest decade in paint: the 1960s.
With his prodigious use of rapid, impulsive brush marks, Bacon builds up the face of his subject, the encrusted surface wrought from a swirling rhythm of paint giving a sense of vitality and movement. His face is blurred in the alternating sweeps of gestured paint and sumptuously thick impasto, provoking a disquieting spectatorial effect as the figure’s gaze evades the viewer. Energetic sweeps of white and blue highlight the man’s cheek, while the physicality of his bulbous, ruddy nose is worked up from thickly rough impasto. Built upon the crimson ground, gestural sweeps of cream, aqua, and charcoal paint are layered to form his silhouette, paradoxically effacing the figurative aspects of the sitter and potently drawing out the metaphorical essence of his subject. Here, this unique and powerful formal device simultaneously obscures and heightens the concentrated intensity of the sitter’s features. Indeed it perfectly encompasses Bacon’s quest to “distort the thing far beyond the appearance, but in the distortion to bring it back to a recording of the appearance” (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, London, 1987, p. 40). This augments the distortion already at play through the alternating sweeps of color from right and left which convey a sense of the turning head and shadows cast below his brow, and the immediacy of the sweeping movements used to craft his robes. In contrast to the bold, intentional sweep of crisp white titanium which forms the collar, Bacon has employed a remarkable flurry of brushstrokes to establish his robes; the swirling contours created with impulsive, cascading marks of the artist’s brush. The opulent papal dress have been rendered in intuitive, frenetic, gestural sweeps of the brush in such a way that the materiality of the scraped and smeared paint seems to echo the shadowy essence of the portrait as a whole.
Standing as his most signature paintings, the Papal series was spurred by a consuming obsession with Diego Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650), and remained one of intense significance for the artist which would be religiously revisited throughout his career. Variants of this motif reappear in several major works between 1946 and 1971, such as Pope II (1951), Städtische Kunsthalle Mannheim, Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953), Des Moines Art Center, and Study for a Portrait II (1956), National Gallery of Canada. The Papal paintings were the subject of Bacon’s first post-war solo exhibition at Hanover Gallery, London, which ran the course of December 1951 – February 1952. It was to be these paintings of Popes that would cement this reputation in the 1950s, juxtaposed against the contemporary suited men which would become the artist’s icons of the alienation, disorientation and loss of spiritual and moral certitude experienced by post-war European society.
Over a fifteen year period Bacon returned unfailingly to this subject, with the earliest explorations dating from 1946 (subsequently destroyed) whilst visiting Monte Carlo. Bacon began his series of hysteric Popes in 1949 with a painting anonymously entitled Head VI, which transformed Velázquez’s Innocent X into a screaming phantom. This was quickly followed in 1951 by three full-length portraits, which as a sequence seemed to trace the successive stages of one man’s descent into insanity. Preferring to paint from still photographic images over painting from life, Bacon was inspired by printed reproductions of Velázquez’s work, allegedly even declining seeing the original when he visited Rome in late 1954 when his work was featured in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. This act served as a precedent for Bacon’s diverse deviations from his source throughout the 1950s, radically fusing elements from Poussin’s Massacre of the Innocents and Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin to produce the crying faces contorted in anguish. The resulting Screaming Popes from the 1950s are defined by a crushing sense of torture, mental and physical abuse, reducing the celebrated 17th century image of Papal omnipotence to a horrific vision of hysteria and narcotized impotence. These early renditions show the Pope dressed in muted purple against a vacuous blackness. When, however, Bacon returned compulsively to this most haunting subject in 1960 with Seated Figure, he chose now to paint the robes in the true screaming scarlet hue of the Velázquez original and to enclose him enthroned within a wine-red chamber.
Standing as the conceptual counterpoint to the tempestuous Screaming Popes of the decade prior, Seated Figure presents not a terrified and tormented figure, but a humbled and silent one. Reincarnated in paint, Bacon’s representation of the Papal figure was not one of direct reproduction, but rather an exercise in drawing out the inherent tension of Velázquez's portrait: power, reputation, presence, corruption. With each masterful sweep of the brush, Bacon transmitted the raw, visceral reality of the figure to canvas, what he called “the pulsations of a person” (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester (ed.), The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, London, 1987, p. 174). Spectacularly resolved and teaming with life in every brushstroke. Bacon has animated his figures with smooth gestures of the brush, while the face courses with energy and attitude lent by impulsive, staccato dashes of color.
The very authority of Velázquez’s portrait in art history increases the iconoclastic potency of Bacon’s own corrupted, tormented versions, while elevating the latter as successors to a distinguished tradition. After all, the subject of the enthroned Pope had first been explored by Raphael, inherited by Titian before being accorded its most sumptuous rendering by Velázquez. As Wieland Schmeid has written, “In Bacon’s view, Velázquez was definitive: conceiving their works in necessarily fragmentary terms, modern painters were fated to remain aware of a discrepancy that could never be resolved. However there were two sides to the coin: on the one hand, the realization that the masters were unsurpassable forced the modern artist to acknowledge and accept his own limitations, but on the other, it represented a continual challenge, spurring him to renew his efforts in the pursuit of an impossible goal. And what goal could be more impossible than that of emulating Velázquez’s portrait of Innocent X” (W. Schmied, Francis Bacon: Commitment and Conflict, Munich, 1996, p. 19).
Velázquez’s iteration of Pope Innocent X was one laced with irony, a commissioned portrait that showed the cruel and suspicious nature of the individual, smugly aware of his power and the brutality of its execution. In accordance with the convention of State portraiture, he is adorned with the attributes of his office - the silken robes, the regal throne, the papal ring and the state paper held so visibly: all there to convey his eminence as God’s primary representative on earth. Bacon took this time-honored portrait of the ultimate establishment figure and saddled it with the neuroses and paranoia of late 20th century society. His Papal figures become a paragon of existentialist nihilism, shell-shocked and sedated. This painting presents the papal figure in a highly existential way. Far from being God’s divine messenger on earth, the Pope is presented as a fleeting temporal figure “existing for a second,” as Bacon once talked of life, “brushed off like flies on the wall” (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London, 1990, p. 133). Bacon translates this notion in this painting through the seemingly transient way in which he has rendered the figure, with its smeared shadowy forms and in particular, the face.
In Seated Figure, Bacon presents the image of the Papal figure as a tragic hero brought low by the external forces around him. Calling into question the sanctity of the church’s supreme potentate, Bacon substitutes Velázquez’s official portrait with a candid glimpse of the man behind the aggrandising guise of his station. Destabilizing his power is the deliberate presence of a self-effacing papal chair devoid of ornate detail; the imposing throne now reduced to a minimalist expanse of color. As Bacon told Sylvester, along with Velasquez’s Portrait of Innocent X, the image of Pope Pius XII elevated above other men when carried in this throne held a strong resonance for him and reminded him of the Greek tragedies that he loved reading. This was because, Sylvester suggested and Bacon concurred, these images in some way presented the supreme pontiff as being paraded like a ‘tragic hero’. “The Pope is unique,” Bacon observed, “He’s put in a unique position by being the Pope, and therefore, like in certain great tragedies, he’s as though raised onto a dais on which the grandeur of this image can be displayed to the world” (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London, 1990, p. 26). It was this primitive elevation of the Papal figure that appealed to Bacon. In the same way as the figures of dictators standing exalted before fields of microphones had appealed to him in the 1940s - the figure of 'an isolated and lonely outsider held up as an idol to the scrutiny of the masses was one that held a magnetic appeal for him. Bacon himself knew of course, what it was like to be an outsider. He had been one all his life, not merely because of his homosexuality but also because of his aimlessly ‘drifting’ life and his work as an artist.
Echoing the geometrically perfected perspectives that Bacon achieved through gridded cage-like formations, here the use of pure, saturated color are used to define architectural space. The maroon rectangular chair framing the blurred figure, here Bacon’s use of internal architecture locks the figure to a certain time and space - the structure drawing the man into our immediate focus. With hovering rectangular blocks against a colored ground akin to Rothko’s abstracted explorations, Bacon provides formal order and a compositional anchor, whilst focusing the viewer’s attention on the central figure, bestowing the surface of the work with a dynamic sense of drama. In this way, the use of pure color serves as a purely visual device that throw the viewer’s concentration back onto the figure itself. With its vivid expressionist departure from reality, estranged from its original source, Bacon’s surreal, blood red palette introduces an existential dimension. As Wieland Schmied has described, “Bacon’s space subverts our habit of seeing, abandoning perspective and breaking up the familiar appearance of our everyday surroundings. All Bacon’s spaces are conceived with human life in mind. Every corner of the space is related to a person, whose presence charges it with extreme tension. It is only through the figure that we really see the space and, in turn, it is only through the space that we learn to see the individual human being. That is its function. The purpose of space is the revelation of the human” (W. Schmied, Francis Bacon: Commitment and Conflict, Munich, 2006, p. 31).
Most distinguishing of all is the completely frontal format of the painting whereby the papal figure is seated centrally and facing the viewer directly. This striking format, which recalls to some extent the positioning of Michelangelo’s Prophets in the Sistine Chapel which Bacon had studied on his visit to Rome in 1954, presents the Papal figure directly opposite the viewer, his eyes downcast as if he were enduring an inspection or interrogation. Far from being the all-powerful pontiff seated on his throne, like Velázquez’s Portrait of Innocent X, this is a figure seated as if on trial.. The overt frontality of this work contrasts not only with the angled tension of Velázquez’s portrait - the prime inspiration behind all of Bacon’s Papal series - but also heightens the sense of the figure as a fundamentally human, rather than divine, figure - a man surrounded and encumbered by his ceremonial trappings. Out of these abstract devices, Bacon has conjured a powerfully expressive and ultimately tragic image, the formerly grandiose figure dissolving into the backdrop. Not the tormented tormentor of Bacon’s Screaming Popes nor the bully of Velázquez’s Innocent X , he is a wholly more silent figure rebuking the fear or horror that so many of Bacon’s screaming dictators, Popes or pin-striped businessmen that his Man in Blue paintings had invoked. The artist transforms the enclosed pictorial space created by Velázquez’s baroque curtain into a mute cage. Here the piercing cries are forever muted. Never was anyone portrayed so totally alone than in Seated Figure.
Out of these abstract and intuitive painterly actions and devices, Bacon has conjured a powerfully expressive and ultimately tragic image - the formerly grandiose figure of the Papal figure presented as merely a solitary and silent old man. Combining the rich color, heavy, smeared, scraped, lumped and brushed paint with the delicate gossamer-like veiled color, Bacon has created an extraordinary world of substance and shadow. It is a world where each element seems to be constantly vying with the other, and yet in his hands, is magically held together into a cohesive, recognizable and surprisingly animate whole. In this Bacon was continuing a tradition that extends from Raphael and Titian to Velázquez and which, through technique, he has reinvented and reinvigorated into an image fitting of the secular twentieth century.