Study for a Portrait II is one of Francis Bacon's famous papal portraits. Painted in 1956 it is a unique and important work in which many of the elements of Bacon's ongoing series of Pope paintings from the 1950s are brought together within one powerful image of paralysis and subjugation. Unlike the dramatic and tempestuous 'screaming Popes' which Bacon had painted in the early 1950s, Study for a Portrait II presents, not a terrified and tormented figure, but a humbled and silent one. Isolated and introspective, this melancholic figure is seemingly imprisoned and brought low by the weight of his exalted and elevated position at the centre of an infinite and mysterious black void.
Study for a Portrait II was painted in the autumn of 1956 shortly after Bacon's return from the first of several visits he made in the mid-1950s to Tangiers. Bacon's visit to Morocco in 1956 marked the beginning of an important turning point in both his art and his life and it is one that can perhaps be seen to some degree reflected in this unique papal portrait. Bacon began going to Tangiers primarily to visit his long-term lover Peter Lacy - a man whom, despite frequent attempts, Bacon seemed unable to rid himself of and whose face haunts a whole range of his paintings of the 1950s. Lacy was a troubled man, an ex-Spitfire pilot, given to bouts of sadistic violence and by turns prolonged periods of self-hatred. He was also the first man with whom Francis Bacon, by his own account, fell 'head-over-heals' in love with. Emerging from his secure and loving relationship with Eric Hall during the 1940s, Bacon was drawn irresistibly to the peculiar mixture of toughness, brutality and fragility that Lacy embodied in much the same way as he had been sexually attracted in his youth to his own domineering father.
After a long and volatile relationship with Bacon who had often willingly submitted to the most appalling physical abuse from him, Lacy had moved to Tangiers seeking some kind of escape from his own devils. Thereafter he soon found himself caught in an interminable position recalling the fate of Tony Last in Evelyn Waugh's Handful of Dust. An ex-pat, largely lost and alone in the homosexual bohemia of Tangiers, Lacy, an excellent pianist, had by 1956, tied himself down to an inescapable job, playing piano in a small-time bar known as 'Dean's'. As an alcoholic, heavily in debt to the bar's owner, Lacy was obliged to 'tinkle the ivories' on a near permanent basis in order to pay off a sum that never seemed to decrease. Despite often playing eighteen-hour stints, Lacy's drink consumption while he played the piano would often match or exceed any reduction in his debt that his playing produced. It was there that Bacon found his ex-lover in the summer of 1956 and, after a brief reconciliation, the violence and abuse between them continued, with Lacy even, on one night reportedly destroying almost the entire stock of paintings that Bacon had made during his stay.
Bacon's visit to Lacy in Tangiers in 1956 awoke in him the sad realisation that his demonic lover was doomed and, even though he would visit again regularly throughout the rest of the decade, that there would and could be no future in their relationship. After this summer, Bacon had finally recognised that he would never be able to save his lover from himself. Lacy died in the city in 1962 and Bacon, who by this time had ceased to visit, commemorated this sad and lost man with the bitter and disturbing painting Landscape near Malabata in 1963.
Study for a Portrait II was one of the first paintings that Bacon made on his return to London from Morocco and reflects the beginnings of change in Bacon's art. Lacy had been a dominant and tyrannical figure in both Bacon's life and his art - a real-life echo of the father-figures, fascists, bullies and popes that he had painted in the late 1940s and early 1950s. After seeing Lacy in Morocco Bacon had now come to recognise his lover as also being a small and broken man. While Study for a Portrait II is in no way a portrait of Lacy, not even bearing any physical resemblance to him, as several of Bacon's papal portraits in fact do, it is, interestingly, a portrait of a man imprisoned by himself, trapped by the apparatus of a life that has been thrust upon him.
In this respect, in the sympathetic way in which these almost 'tragic' qualities of the Pope are rendered, the painting is almost unique among Bacon's famous series of Popes. Most distinguishing of all however, 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 Ceiling which Bacon had studied on his visit to Rome in 1954, presents the Pope 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 Velasquez's Portrait of Innocent X, this pontiff looks as though he is in the dock. The overt frontality of this work contrasts not only with the angled tension of Velasquez's portrait - the prime inspiration behind all of Bacon's Pope series - but also heightens the sense of the Pope as a fundamentally human, rather than divine, figure - a man surrounded and encumbered, by his ceremonial trappings. Seated on a raised platform and almost enclosed by his papal throne, which in places curves around him like and imprisoning bracket, this Pope seems a small and humbled figure, not the tormented tormentor of Bacon's 'screaming popes' nor the bully of Velasquez's Innocent X. He is a wholly more pathetic figure invoking pity rather than the fear or horror that so many of Bacon's screaming dictators, Popes or pin-striped businessmen had invoked.
The image of a Pope in such a humbled and pathetic condition, seemingly oppressed by his almost Nietzschean position in the work adds a powerful existential weight to the painting. It is not just a man that appears crushed in this work but a symbol of religious grandeur and, perhaps, the illusion of belief as well. 'I think that now man realises that he is an accident,' Bacon told David Sylvester in 1962, 'that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without reason. I think that even when Velasquez was painting, even when Rembrandt was painting, in a peculiar way they were still, whatever their attitude to life, slightly conditioned by certain types of religious possibilities, which man now, you could say, has had completely cancelled out for him. Now, of course, man can only attempt to make something very, very positive by trying to beguile himself for a time by the way he behaves, by prolonging possibly his life by buying a kind of immortality through the doctors.' (Francis Bacon quoted in David Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1990. p. 29.) Much of this sentiment is also invested in Study for a Portrait II.
As its title suggests, Study for a Portrait II is presumably the second of two paintings of popes that Bacon painted in the autumn of 1956 - the first being the very different and clearly 'after Velasquez' painting Study for a Portrait II now in the National Gallery of Canada. Unlike this similarly coloured but rather lame echo of the Velasquez, this 'second' painting presents the Pope in a highly existential way. Far from being God's divine messenger on earth, the Pope of Study for a Portrait II is presented as a fleeting temporal figure 'existing for a second', as Bacon once talked of life, 'brushed off like flies on the wall' the next. (Ibid, p.133) Part of the way by which Bacon achieves this effect in this painting is in the seemingly transient way in which he has rendered the figure with its smeared shadowy forms and in particular, the face. Shimmering like a spectral apparition, Bacon has rendered the downcast face of the pope in this work using striations or 'shuttered' strips of paint that give it the sense that, in some way, it is a flickering, non-material image, a shadow or projection, anything but flesh and bone.
This aspect of Bacon's work derives from many sources. The vertical striations of paint stem from Titian's Portrait of Filippo Archinto seated in front of a curtain, a photograph of a Cinerama screen and, what Bacon himself described as, the 'shuttering' effect he had seen in Degas' pastels of nudes in London's National Gallery. Bacon had employed such striations as an exterior device in his early 'screaming popes' as well as some of the faces of his 1953 sequence of eight papal portraits and in his more recent portraits of a thuggish businessman in the 'Man in Blue' paintings. 'I wanted to paint a head as if folded in on itself, like the folds of a curtain' he explained. (Francis Bacon quoted in Francis Bacon: the Papal Portraits of 1953 exh. cat. San Diego, 2002, p. 13). The hunched and seemingly spectral figure of the pope with his downcast face may also derive something of its form from a photograph by Albert von Schrenk-Notzing of a medium that Bacon kept in his studio. The Pope in Study for a Portrait II shares a similar mysterious quality to the woman in this photograph, though it is much more likely that Bacon derived this figure directly from the photographs he had of Pope Pius XII seated in his sedia gestaria - images that had long captivated his imagination.
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'. (Francis Bacon, 1962, quoted in David Sylvester, op. cit, p. 26) It was this primitive elevation of the Pope 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. In Study for a Portrait II Bacon, for perhaps the first time, presents a sympathetic image of the Pope as a tragic hero brought low by the external forces around him. His Papal throne positioned on its raised platform and indeed the cage within which he seems confined, do indeed serve in this work, as Bacon always said they were intended to work, not as symbols but as purely visual devices that throw the viewer's concentration back onto the figure itself.
The artifice of these 'props' is reflected in the magnificent way in which Bacon has rendered them using simple dry lines of paint brushed in a single action over the raw unprimed canvas that he preferred to paint on for just this reason. On raw canvas a mark, once made, was indelible, and therefore painting on raw canvas encouraged him to keep the spontaneity, surprise and freshness that all first marks have. Like a stage-set in this work, the dry-brushed yellow lines criss-crossing over the black void of the painting to articulate an ambiguous and confined space around the central figure in a way that both supports and enhances the material presence of the figure.
In his rendering of the papal figure itself Bacon employed a variety of techniques in addition to the 'shuttering' style he used on the face. The purple robe is here heightened with a red that for the first time more closely reflects the colour of Velasquez's Innocent X as well as a variety of other vivid colours. This may reflect Bacon's visit to Morocco, for it was following his visit there, where he later claimed the light had been too bright for him to paint, that Bacon began to experiment with a vivid and more colourful palette. This was a tendency that increased throughout the remainder of 1956 and which culminated in 1957 with his series of paintings 'after Van Gogh'.
Smeared and brushed in downward directional lines in this robe, Bacon has blended reds, yellows, oranges and rich blues into the more usual purple that distinguishes almost all of his earlier popes. This, for Bacon, rare, experiment with colour is made most bold however, by the strange vermilion armature at the right of the picture that enfolds the hunched figure of the pope, lending his form a sense of volume, while also seeming to anchor and imprison him. The lynchpin of the whole composition, this extraordinary and no doubt intuitive addition to the work, seems to anticipate Bacon's similar use of such armatures in his great portraits of the 1960s, where figures become completely enclosed in such painterly architecture. Most vigorous of all is the way in which the white robes of the papal dress have been rendered in violent 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.
Combining all these elements - the rich colour, heavy, smeared, scraped, lumped and brushed paint with the delicate gossamer-like yellow lines and the shadowy photographic 'shuttering' of the pope's face - 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, recognisable and surprisingly animate whole. 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 Pope presented as merely a tired, and perhaps, disillusioned, old man. In this Bacon was continuing a tradition that extends from Raphael and Titian to Velasquez and which, through technique, he has reinvented and reinvigorated into an image fitting of the secular twentieth century.
'Great art' Bacon said, 'is always a way of concentrating, reinventing what is called fact, what we know of our existence - a reconcentration... tearing away at the veils that fact acquires through time. Ideas always acquire appearance veils, the attitudes people acquire of their time and earlier time. Really good artists tear down those veils.' (Francis Bacon cited in Hugh M Davis and Sally Yard, Francis Bacon, New York, 1986, p. 23)