‘It is true, of course, the Pope is unique. 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 1987, p. 26).
‘It was during those years [the 1950s], filled with rebuffs and reversals of fortune, but also with extraordinary invention and daring, that Bacon began to explore in depth all his great themes while trying out a number of others that he eventually discarded. It was, in my view, the most fertile single decade of his career. Never again would the Baconian world be so rich and diverse’ (M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon in the 1950s, exh. cat., Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, 2006, p. 14).
‘No other living painter has set forth with such pitiless clarity the tensions and paradoxes that surround all efforts to see, let alone to paint, the human figure in an age of photography’ (R. Hughes, ‘Singing with the Bloody Wood: A Second Celebration of Francis Bacon’, in Time, 1 July 1985, p. 54).
‘I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them … leaving a trail of the human presence and memory trace of past events’ (F. Bacon, 1955, quoted in Francis Bacon and the Tradition of Art, exh. cat., Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Vienna, 2004, p. 233).
Shrouded in silence amidst a deep black void, Study for a Head, 1955, occupies an outstanding position within Francis Bacon’s celebrated series of Papal portraits. A deeply human portrayal of Bacon’s most enduring subject, it stands as one of only a handful of works depicting Pope Pius XII: the current, living incumbent at the time of the painting, who reigned from 1939 until 1958. Where Bacon’s previous Papal portraits had given birth to screaming, agonised phantoms, bordering on caricature in their formal contortions, Study for a Head presents a figure submerged in existential contemplation, riddled with the same quiet dignity and introspective tension that was to define Bacon’s first self-portrait the following year. Mute and alone, animated only by the rapid brushstrokes that chart his worn visage, the figure is isolated upon a vacant ground, engulfed within the dark, cavernous depths of his own psyche. Subsumed by the weight of his grand station, his only anchor within the empty black chasm is a lone corner of gold framing – a stark reduction of the opulent Papal throne upon which he is eternally bound. At a time when the efforts of the Church and the vastly-expanding media cast the Pope as deified patriarch and noble celebrity, upheld before the public on an infallible pedestal, Study for a Head erases the trappings of Papal grandeur, presenting a pale, illuminated face, whose lines, shadows and tensions betray a deep-seated humanity. Bacon was fascinated by processional photographs of Pius being carried through St. Peter’s upon the shoulders of other cardinals, and his rare depictions of this contemporary figurehead include Pope II, 1951 (Kunsthalle Mannheim, Mannheim), Figure Sitting, 1955 (Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst, Ghent) and Study (Imaginary Portrait of Pope Pius XII), 1955 (Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich). By 1955, here was a man whose reign had witnessed the atrocities of the Second World War, and whose service would come to an end with his death just three years later. Solemnity and grace, terror and resignation, flicker in and out of focus behind his pale glasses, premeditating the mute, incarcerated Papal portraits of the 1960s. Exhibited at Tate, London, in 1962, Study for a Head remained unseen by the public for over 40 years, resurfacing in major retrospectives at the Institut Valencià d’Art Modern, Valencia, in 2003 and at the Fondation Beyeler, Basel, the following year.
Within the pantheon of Bacon’s oeuvre, the Papal portraits of the 1950s are widely regarded as the paragon of his artistic enquiries, and stand today among the foremost images of the whole of twentieth-century art. The Pope – a man tormented by his position as God’s messenger on Earth – was Bacon’s first and most significant subject, pursued over the course of 53 portraits during a period spanning almost twenty years. ‘It is 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’ (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1975, p. 26). The photograph of Pius sat in the artist’s studio alongside images of dictators and henchmen, as well as a reproduction of Diego Velázquez’s immortal Portrait of Pope Innocent X, whose own profoundly human tensions were an important source of inspiration to the series. Fascinated by men of power and authority, Bacon was attracted to the fundamentally tragic combination of violence and vulnerability latent in their status, and sought to capture this paradox in his Papal portraits. His earliest manifestations took the form of screaming ghouls, tortured figures in cages wracked with pain and anxiety. From the inaugural Head VI of 1949, through the first major trio of Popes (I, II and III) in 1951, to the seminal Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X of 1953 and the ensuing series of eight Studies for a Portrait, Bacon’s figures actively sought to escape their condition, depicted as writhing beings whose cries detonated the very structural integrity of the picture plane. By the early 1960s, these ethereal figures had denatured into deformed, demented creatures, incapacitated and silenced by their own paranoia: the Studies for a Pope of 1961 present tensile, muted figures, rooted to their chairs with fear and insanity.
Between these two extremes of hysteria, rarely was the Pope presented with the human compassion of Study for a Head. The work presents a masterful navigation between the twin poles of terror and madness: internalizing the tension of the tormented screaming Popes, the figure radiates a taciturn stillness that anticipates the later, silent half-beings. This is achieved through a subtle distillation of Bacon’s painterly technique. The artist allows liquefied swathes of black paint to soak into the very fibre of the canvas, creating an infinite, impenetrable abyss. On top of this, Bacon crafts his subject’s face with visceral immediacy, in such a way that the face appears to loom outwards like a spectre within the darkness. The rapid articulation of the Pope’s glasses, as well as his mouth, creates microcosmic arenas of tension that amplify the figure’s silence. Vertical striations of paint ram his lips shut, faintly echoing Bacon’s so-called ‘shuttering’ effect: the frenetic linear streaks that screech down the canvas in the earlier screaming portraits. The figure is bracketed by a simple fragment of gold framing. Unlike the gilded thrones represented in the earlier Papal works, the simple, reductive lines that enthrone the present work anticipate the clinical, diagrammatic chairs that subsume Bacon’s later, silent Popes. Bacon’s use of linear framing devices was a constant throughout his oeuvre: often compared to the Chinagraph marks used in photography to delineate areas for enlargement, Bacon construed these lines as formal, perceptual tools. ‘I cut down the scale of the canvas by drawing in these rectangles’, he said, in order to ‘concentrate the image down. Just to see it better’ (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London 2000, p. 40). Whilst Bacon’s earlier Popes had used these lines as compositional devices for imprisoning his screaming protagonists, Study for a Head transfers this aesthetic to the Papal throne itself: abstracted and devoid of all ornament, its presence is reduced to a simple geometric fragment. By the Papal works of the 1960s, the slippage between cage and throne was complete: the Pope’s grand seat of power was transformed into an inescapable prison - a straitjacket in which he silently descended into madness.
The use of secondary source imagery was to become definitive of Bacon’s practice, and the Papal portraits were among the first works in which the artist fully embraced this strategy. Working from photographs and reproductions allowed Bacon to access his unconscious, intuitive impulses - to paint from his nervous system, as he put it. ‘I think it’s the slight remove from the fact, which returns me onto the fact more violently’, he told David Sylvester. ‘Through the photographic image I find myself beginning to wander into the image and unlock what I think of its reality more than I can by looking at it’ (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interview with Francis Bacon, London 1987, p. 30). In Study for a Head, this strategy allows the artist to transcend the objective, physical facts of his subject, creating a portrait not simply of a man, but rather of his existential condition. Though Pius is ostensibly the work’s subject, the figure’s appearance is heavily mediated by the visual properties of Velázquez’s portrait: the side-on angle, framed by the Papal throne, as well as the white collar and opulent purple robes – Bacon’s transmutation of Velázquez’s deep crimson. Across the breadth of the Papal works, individual features of Pius and Innocent oscillate and collide, shifting in and out of focus to produce a kind of hybrid archetype: a powerful Papal specimen filtered through the depths of Bacon’s own visual memory. Other visual sources enter the fray: indeed, the glasses that feature here and elsewhere are themselves a composite concoction, inspired as much by Pius himself as by the iconic film still of the screaming nurse in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Bacon’s archive of source material, ranging from Poussin to contemporary newspaper clippings, provided a visual reservoir that allowed him to move beyond the simple act of representation, creating prototypes and paradigms of human emotion through multiple, serialised iterations. In 1955, the year of the present work, the artist described how ‘I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them … leaving a trail of the human presence and memory trace of past events’ (F. Bacon, 1955, quoted in Francis Bacon and the Tradition of Art, exh. cat., Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Vienna, 2004, p. 233).
Bacon’s desire to depict the Pope’s humanity in Study for a Head is coterminous with his expanding exploration of the human condition in its broadest sense, exemplified by the corpus of non-Papal portraits from the late 1940s and 1950s. Indeed, the Papal works themselves have their roots in Bacon’s earliest Head series, with Head VI standing as the first surviving example. Throughout the 1950s, the production of Papal works was matched by an equally prolific output of portraits that, like the present work, were isolated within thick black voids, brooding with existentialist tension. Portraits of friends and early patrons, including the collectors Robert and Lisa Sainsbury whom Bacon first met during this period, were set within the same deep, dark chasms, silently pensive and imbued with contemplative dignity. It was also at this time that Bacon began his seminal Man in Blue series: arguably the secular, capitalist counterpart to the Popes, these works cast their protagonist as a museum-like relic, framed and spotlit within the metaphorical display cabinets of Bacon’s own psyche. This vernacular, with its subtle overtones of memento mori, also lay at the heart of Bacon’s Studies after the Life Mask of William Blake which are contemporary with the present work. The series presents eerie incarcerations of the visionary poet’s once-living head, preserved for eternity as a sculptural mould and illuminated within the dark abyss of time. Study for a Head, with its compositional austerity and aura of clinical examination, must undoubtedly be seen within the context of Bacon’s 1950s portraiture. Stripped of his divinity, the Pope is reduced to a specimen of humanity, placed on trial before his public as an object of scrutiny and marvel.
Significantly, it was within this compositional mode that Bacon undertook to represent himself in paint for the first time, the year after the present work. It has often been posited that the Papal portraits masquerade as self-portraits of sorts, much in the same way that Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele painted themselves in the guises of prophets, priests and martyrs in order to interrogate the psychological anxieties of their time. The post-War era was marked by a fundamental questioning of humanity: its representations and systems of belief. The Existentialist philosophies of Jean-Paul Sartre, which rose to prominence during the 1940s, found their visual complement in ethereal figural sculptures of Giacometti: stark, elongated visions of the human form, reduced to their bare linear essentials. Imprisoned in the Cage works of 1950, in a manner similar to Bacon’s own graphic framing devices, Giacometti’s sculptures contemplated the very substance of being precariously balanced on the brink of eclipse. For Bacon, the turmoil of the post-War era was matched by his own emotional turbulence. It was during the 1950s that his tempestuous relationship with Peter Lacy ran its course, reaching its denouement shortly after the present work. A former Spitfire pilot, Lacy’s persona embodied the same combination of brutality and vulnerability that drove Bacon’s fascination with figures of authority during this period. The artist’s troubled memories of his domineering father also loomed large in his memory at this time, and his portraits of the Pope – the ultimate Papa – were frequently strewn with the likeness of his own patriarch. In Study for a Head, Bacon presents a man whose identity is on the brink of dissolution. His tense lips strain to voice his predicament, yet silence prevails; trapped within the dark recesses of Bacon’s canvas, he stands as an illusory vestige of the artist’s own imagination.