According to writer, art historian and curator Michael Peppiatt, ‘Bacon’s Popes are not only the centrepiece of all his paintings in the 1950s, but a centrepiece of the whole of 20th-century art.’
Last exhibited in 1962 at the Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna, Turin, Head with Raised Arm (1955) was acquired by the present owners in the following year, and has remained hidden from public view ever since. The work’s location was listed as ‘unknown’ in the most recent version of Francis Bacon’s catalogue raisonné, edited by Martin Harrison and published last year.
‘This is a landmark moment,’ states Francis Outred, Chairman and Head of Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s, ‘marking the reappearance of a major Bacon portrait after more than 50 years.’
Filled with tension and quiet introspection, the work belongs to a group of nine surviving paintings depicting the then-incumbent pope, Pius XII, who would reign for a further three years until his death in 1958. Four are held in museum collections, and an additional work is on permanent loan.
‘Bacon’s Head with Raised Arm poses the question that would haunt Bacon for the duration of his career: how to paint the human figure in the age of photography,’ continues Outred. ‘The camera’s ability to cast fiction as truth resonated with the fundamental tension that Bacon identified in religious and political figureheads: a conflict between public image and innate animal instinct.’
Evoking the works of Eadwaerd Muybridge, as well as anticipating Gerhard Richter’s blurred photo-paintings of the following decade, Head with Raised Arm speaks directly to this theme. Pius was the only living Pope that Bacon would ever try to capture, and by hinting at the transience of a figure immortalised through the camera lens, Bacon lifts the veil on his humanity.
The Pope’s face and arm flicker like moving images caught on camera, animated by a veil of rapid hairline striations. With its vertical combing with a fine brush over layers of colour, the work demonstrates Bacon’s dialogue with photography in his bid to capture what he termed ‘the trail of the human presence’.
Rare for its closely-cropped depiction of the pontiff’s head and shoulders, the present work confronts its subject on a piercing, intimate scale. It is one of only two Popes executed in Bacon’s jewel-like 24-by-20-inch format, aligning it with his first small portrait triptych of 1953.
Pius had been elected to the papacy in 1939 and his reign spanned the Second World War, famously drawing accusations of silence in the face of atrocity. As the Church and media sought to uphold his infallibility, the artist cast him as a fragile, flawed being, tortured by the weight of his grand station.
‘The Pope is put in a unique position by being the Pope, like in certain great tragedies’ — Francis Bacon
Pursued over nearly two decades, and numbering more than 50 canvases, Bacon’s Papal portraits are widely regarded as his finest achievements. These works were his first and most significant existential enquiries, and stand today among the foremost images of the 20th century.
‘It’s true, of course, the Pope is unique’, Bacon explained. ‘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.’
During the 1950s, Head with Raised Arm was owned by the pioneering Bacon collectors James and Brenda Bomford, who acquired the work from the dealer Kenneth John Hewett. The Bomfords purchased a number of significant works by Bacon during this period, many of which are now held in important museum collections. As well as the landmark painting Head VI, 1949 (Arts Council Collection, Southbank), they owned five portraits of Pius, including Pope II, 1951 (Kunsthalle Mannheim), Figure Sitting, 1955 (Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst, Ghent), Study for a Head, 1955, and Study for Portrait II, as well as the present work.
Head with Raised Arm will be on view from 8 September at Christie’s Rockefeller Center, New York; from 18 September at Christie’s Hong Kong; and from 30 September 2017 at Christie’s King Street.