It is a rare enough occasion for a major painting from Francis Bacon's famous Papal series to be offered for sale. How much more exceptional then when the work in question has virtually never been seen publicly since it was painted 36 years ago. Seated Figure is such a case in point. Known to experts only from the large black and white reproduction in the artist's Catalogue Raisonné, its whereabouts was until now generally undisclosed due to the very private nature of the European collectors on whose walls it has hung pride of place.
As with all his Pope pictures, Seated Figure stems from Bacon's total obsession with Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X. Over a fifteen year period, Bacon subjected this church potentate to a seemingly endless sequence of torture, mental and physical abuse, reducing the celebrated 17th century image of Papal omnipotence to a horrific vision of hysteria and narcotised impotence. While obviously the result of a very personal response by the artist to one picture, Bacon's violently distorted versions became for many icons of the alienation and disorientation, the loss of spiritual and moral certitude, experienced by post-war European society.
Bacon always declined to say what it was that had haunted him about Velazquez's portrait, simply stating that he considered it to be "one of the greatest paintings in the world." He claimed that he had never actually seen the original picture in the Doria Pamphili in Rome. Instead he based his interpretations on numerous reproductions he found in books and catalogues and a small image of the portrait which he tellingly pinned on the wall of his Kensington studio beside photographs of Nazi leaders and grisly newspaper images of death and brutality.
The very authority of Velazquez's portrait in art history increases the iconoclastic potency of Bacon's own corrupted versions, while elevating the latter as a successor 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 Velazquez. "In Bacon's view, Velazquez 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 Velazquez's portrait of Innocent X." (in: Francis Bacon, Wieland Schmied, Munich 1996, p.19)
Bacon began his series of hysteric Popes in 1949 with a painting anonymously entitled Head VI, which transformed Velazquez'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. 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 the true screaming scarlet hue of the Velazquez original and to enclose him enthroned within a wine-red chamber. Combined with the sheer physical mastery of the paint on the face, hands and drapery, this rich coloration brings to mind the Venetian paintings of Tintoretto and late Titian and proclaim Bacon as an artist working within the Grand Manner of the Mannerist tradition.
Bacon denied that his seemingly blasphemous treatment of the Pope had any untoward religious significance. He claimed that he was only interested in the emotional impact that his pictures had on the viewer. "What I think man wants from generation to generation is to reinvent ways that appearance can be made and be brought back onto his nervous system more violently, more immediately than what has been made before, because what's been made before has always been an absorbed solution." (Interview with Michael Peppiatt, 1973).
Velazquez's Pope Innocent X shows a cruel and suspicious 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-honoured portrait of the ultimate establishment figure and saddled it with the neuroses and paranoia of late 20th century society. His Pope becomes a paragon of existentialist nihilism, a shell-shocked and sedated basket case fit only for the psychiatrist's couch.
Calling into question the sanctity of the church's supreme potentate, in Seated Figure Bacon substitutes Velazquez's official portrait with a candid glimpse of the man behind the aggrandising guise of his station. The imposing throne now imprisons its incumbent as though he was strapped to an electric chair, an allusion made even more gruesome by the way his leprous hands, clenched and arthritic, grip the armrests in a spasm of excruciating pain. It is almost as if this Borges-like character, his tortured soul laid bare with the cold actuality and intrusiveness of freeze-frame photography (another major influence on Bacon), is clutching on for dear life in an effort to maintain some semblance of his false dignity.
Just as Dorian Gray's corruption and depravity corroded his painted likeness, so Bacon depicts in Seated Figure a portrait physically disfigured by the villiany of its sitter. The Pope's acid-burned and purple-bruised face has the texture of rotting flesh, smeared into the grimace of insanity. Frustration, impotence, agony and boredom tear way at his countenance. He is a mad-house Napoleon whose robes are little more than fancy-dress, a ludicrous drag-queen with a delusion of divinity.
This demented creature belongs in an institution and Bacon duly accords him his own isolation chamber. The artist transforms the enclosed pictorial space created by Velazquez's baroque curtain into a suffocatingly anonymous and sound-proof cage. Here the piercing cries of Popes are forever muted.
Never was anyone portrayed so totally alone than in Seated Figure. Trapped in his claustrophobic cage of garish emptiness, enveloped by his chair, the Pope seems to have literally caved in under the pressure of his intolerable predicament. He is past screaming. Exhausted, his anger dissipated, he is filled with extreme ennui. Further distanced by the glass that Bacon always insisted should cover his paintings, he does not meet the viewer's intrusive gaze - his only possible contact with the outside world. He is distracted in his dementia. Isolation is complete.
Compositionally Bacon's void is used to give grandeur to the figure and ironically thereby to monumentalise his suffering. It has also been taken to represent the absurd futility and inherent loneliness of the human condition. In this, Bacon's paintings mirror the nihilistic philosophies of his friends Jean Paul Sartre and Samuel Beckett. The American critic Donald Kuspit has commented that Bacon's figures are "sick with death - not literal death, but rather the feeling of being nothing." Bacon himself maintained, "We are born and we die, but in between we give this purposeless existence a meaning by our drives."
Certainly Bacon's Popes show little control of themselves, let alone of their own destinies. What better icon of existentialist thinking therefore than a Pope without hope, bereft of belief and resource of a God to deliver him from his perpetual suffering.