‘[Head with Raised Arm] belongs to the small portrait category that Bacon established in 1952, and is indeed a portrait of Pope Pius XII. Particularly noteworthy are the vertical streaks of paint over the paler arm and mozzetta. Bacon amplified these marks in the diagonals that connect the hand to the Pope’s forehead, to signify motion; the white highlights in the interstices between the black diagonals were painted with a very fine brush, and indicate scrupulous technical attention’
‘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’
Unveiled for the first time in over half a century – its whereabouts hitherto unknown – Head with Raised Arm (1955) is a unique specimen within Francis Bacon’s celebrated series of Papal portraits. Last exhibited in 1962 at the Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna, Turin, the work was acquired by the present owners the following year, and has remained hidden from public view ever since. With a blurred hand lifted to his forehead – in anguish, prayer, benediction or surrender – Bacon’s spectral pontiff lies submerged in a silent black void, illuminated by the bars of his gilded throne and the gleaming white of his collar. Pushed to the brink of abstraction, his face and arm flicker like moving images caught on camera, subtly animated by a veil of vertical hairline striations. Pope Pius XII blessing the vast crowd gathered in St Peter's Square, 1955. Photo: Fox Photos/Getty Images. Riddled with photographic instability and deeply human tension, the work belongs to a select group of nine surviving paintings depicting the then-incumbent, Pope Pius XII. With four held in museum collections, and a further on permanent loan, Bacon’s portraits of the living Pope are among his most profound. Elected to the papacy in 1939, Pius’s reign had spanned the Second World War, famously inciting 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. 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. Combed vertically with a fine brush over layers of deep red, black, blue and purple, the work’s marbled palette and intricately-scored surface generate a powerful sense of repressed friction, recalling the so-called ‘shuttering’ effects of the artist’s early screaming pontiffs. The sacred hand, so often raised in blessing, is denatured in motion: its gesture of solemnity and grandeur becomes one of pain, violence, resignation and despair. Cloaked in ghostly pallor, the work is a poignant memento mori for a man whose reign had witnessed some of the greatest crimes against humanity, and would come to an end with his death three years later.
Pursued over nearly two decades, and numbering more than fifty 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 twentieth century. ‘It’s true, of course, the Pope is unique’, he 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, London 1990, p. 26). Whilst many of his portraits sprung from his acknowledged ‘schoolboy crush’ on Diego Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, the artist was particularly entranced by ‘those magnificent processional photographs’ of Pius being carried through St. Peter’s upon the shoulders of other cardinals. Pictures of this description sat in his studio alongside newspaper clippings of wartime dictators and henchmen: figures who similarly set themselves upon a pedestal. At the core of these investigations was a question that would haunt Bacon for the duration of his career: how to paint the human figure in the age of photography. In a world mediated by reproduced images, the raw pulsations of reality were increasingly held at bay. 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. It is an image of impermanence in the face of documentary reality; an image of ambiguity in the face of divine infallibility; an image of motion and turmoil in the face of statuesque poise. The controversial nature of Pius’s reign, combined with his increasingly ill health from 1955 onwards, only serves to magnify this dichotomy. We exist ‘for a second’, claimed Bacon, ‘brushed off like flies on the wall’ (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, London 1990, p. 133). By hinting at the transience of a figure immortalized through the camera lens, the artist ultimately lifts the veil on his humanity.
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 (Stedeljk Museum voor Actuele Kunst, Ghent), Study for a Head, 1955 and Study for Portrait II, as well as the present work. In addition to their extraordinary collection of Bacon Popes, they acquired the major early work Figure Study I, 1945-46 (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh), as well as Head I, 1951 (Cleveland Museum of Art), Bacon’s first small portrait triptych Three Studies of the Human Head, 1953, Chimpanzee, 1955 (Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart) and his first self-portrait of 1956 (The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth). Their collection also included Impressionist and Modern British paintings, as well as Persian bronzes and ancient glass, examples of which were later given to the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford and the Bristol Museum respectively.
PAINTING IL PAPA: BACON’S PAPAL PORTRAITS
To trace the evolution of Bacon’s Popes is to chart an obsession that began with a painting – or, more precisely, a photographic reproduction. It was during the 1940s, leafing through a book of images, that the artist encountered Velázquez’s masterpiece for the first time. His varied portrayals of the pontiff over the next twenty years – portraits of Pius included – would be riddled with elements this image. ‘I became obsessed by this painting and I bought photograph after photograph of it’, he later explained. ‘I think really that was my first subject’ (F. Bacon, quoted in M. Harrison, In Camera. Francis Bacon, London 2005, p. 14). Whilst Head VI is often hailed as Bacon’s inaugural Pope, the artist’s initial engagement with the subject was in 1946. ‘I am working on 3 sketches of the Velasquez portrait Pope Innocent II [sic]’, he wrote to Graham Sutherland on 19 October. ‘I have practically finished one.’ The painting referenced is thought to be Landscape with Pope/Dictator, completed that year. Situated against a classical colonnade, with his mouth open in a scream, the work captures the artist’s early response to Velázquez. Portrait of Pope Innocent X was, he believed, a fundamentally human image, with glimmers of vice lurking beneath the pontiff’s regal façade. ‘If you look at Velázquez, his greatness is his interest in people’, he explained; ‘… Velázquez came to the human situation and made it grand and heroic and wasn’t bombastic. He turned to a literal situation and made an image of it, both fact and image at the same time. The Pope [Pope Innocent X] is like Egyptian art; factual, powerfully formal and unlocks valves of sensation at all different level’ (F. Bacon, quoted in Hugh M. Davies, Francis Bacon: The Early and Middle Years, 1928-1958, New York 1978, p. 99). The connection between Pope, tyrant and ancient art would become a driving force in Bacon’s progressive analysis of the pontiff as a ‘tragic hero’.
Extending the theme of crucifixion that ran throughout his early work, Bacon’s first Popes were presented in the manner of torture victims. Where Velázquez’s protagonist harboured his secrets in stony silence, Bacon’s early figures erupted into primal screams of terror – a motif inspired in part by Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin. Often housed within cubic space frames resembling cages, their cries detonated the structural integrity of the picture plane. The so-called shuttering effect – vertical ribbons of paint that fractured the surface of the composition – invoked a kind of cinematic distortion that fed into Bacon’s fascination with the effects of the camera lens. After Head VI, these devices were brought together in a number of works during the early 1950s: notably the two Studies after Velázquez of 1950, and the 1953 masterpiece Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (Des Moines Art Center, Iowa). The landmark series of eight Studies for a Portrait, created shortly afterwards, marked a shift in his treatment of the subject: though many were still conceived as open-mouthed phantoms, Bacon’s shuttering gave way to silent black voids, in which the Pope’s writhing head and torso was suspended like a hologram. As the 1950s progressed, the patriarch became increasingly disfigured, culminating in the sequence of six Studies for a Pope in 1961. Here, God’s messenger on Earth is reduced to a series of silent, demented waifs, bound to their thrones as if by a straitjacket. Saddled with the neuroses of post-War society, the Pope is driven to a state of dementia, his features pummeled into abstraction in a manner that anticipates the artist’s portraits of George Dyer, Henrietta Moraes and Isabel Rawsthorne during the 1960s.
Despite the wide emotive range of the Velázquez-inspired Popes, however, it is ironically in his select portraits of Pius that Bacon came closest to matching the spirit of the Spanish master’s silent, brooding vision. Aside from Pope II of 1951 (Kunsthalle Mannheim), which aligns with the early screaming effigies, Bacon’s paintings of the living Pope are predominantly images of repressed turmoil. Pope I (Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum Collections), created the same year, looms within the darkness like an apparition, eyes wide and lips sealed. Small Study for Portrait (Lambrecht-Schadeberg Collection, on permanent loan to the Museum fur Gegenwartskunst Siegen) and Figure Sitting (Stedeljk Museum voor Actuele Kunst, Ghent), both executed in 1955, bare their teeth less in a cry than a haunting grimace. Bacon’s celebrated Study of the same year, now held in the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, reduces the Pope to a faceless spectre, shrouded in a veil reminiscent of Titian’s Portrait of Archbishop Filippo Archinto. In Study for Portrait II, completed in 1956, the pontiff hangs his head in despair, concealing his face altogether. Within this grouping, Head with Raised Arm occupies an intriguing position. On one hand, the Pope is bathed in reverential silence, cast in the image of the ancient monument. On the other hand, the noise of his internal struggle is writ large in the cascading vertical motion of the picture plane – a sotto voce reincarnation of his screeching shuttering technique. That images of Pius sat in Bacon’s studio alongside pictures of gesticulating orators and autocrats lends this gesture a disquieting overtone. If Velázquez’s portrait had hinted at the fine line between power and corruption, Head with Raised Arm may be seen as one of Bacon’s most bold extrapolations of the theme. The human, the divine and the monstrous conspire in the depths of its flickering abyss.
BACON’S PORTRAIT HEADS: THE ‘TRAIL OF THE HUMAN PRESENCE’
Described by Michael Peppiatt as ‘the most fertile single decade of his career’, the 1950s was a pivotal period in Bacon’s practice (M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon in the 1950s, exh. cat., Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, 2006, p. 14). By the time of the present work, he had put an end to his years of wandering and settled in a studio space at Overstrand Mansions in Battersea, where he would remain until 1961. Having represented Britain at the Venice Biennale the previous year, he had also been granted a small retrospective at the ICA in London – the first major solo presentation of his work at a UK institute. If the Popes were part of a broader study of the human condition, they found their counterpart in the artist’s burgeoning corpus of portraits that flourished during this period. Beginning with the 1952 works Study for a Head (Yale Center for British Art) and Study for a Portrait (Tate, London) – both imbued with Papal qualities – Bacon launched a piercing enquiry into the expressive properties of the human head. As the decade progressed, the 24-by-20-inch canvas would become the primary site of these investigations, encompassing anonymous figures, friends – notably Lisa Sainsbury and David Sylvester – as well as a series of studies after the life mask of William Blake. Along with Small Study for a Portrait, Head with Raised Arm is the only Papal portrait executed in these dimensions – a testament, perhaps, to its humanizing narrative. On this compact scale, the head was examined as a twitching nerve centre, animated by neuronal convulsion. The pulsations of the psyche were channelled through the pliable medium of paint, which coagulated in increasingly free-flowing formations across the surface of the canvas. In certain lights, the Pope’s features resonate with those of Peter Lacy – a former Spitfire pilot, whose tempestuous relationship with Bacon reached is denouement shortly after the present work. Bacon’s sojourn at the Imperial Hotel in Henley-on-Thames, and his subsequent move to Battersea, had provided him with an escape from Lacy’s volatile, frequently abusive character. Viewed in this light, the present work’s raised arm may be seen to quiver with the still painful memories of his lover’s violent tendencies.
Partly because of the intimate nature of his response to his subjects, Bacon preferred to work not from life, but from a wealth of secondary material. His studio was a veritable reservoir of photographs, books and newspaper clippings, splattered with paint and crumpled underfoot. So deep was his obsession with photographs of the Velázquez painting that he refused to encounter it in the flesh, believing that it would diminish his carnal response to the image as he knew it. By allowing the portrait to exist as a fiction – as a figment of his imagination – Bacon gave it freedom to merge with the countless other sources that were beginning to consolidate themselves within his mental archive. The motion photography of Muybridge was particularly noteworthy in this regard, and the present work’s blurred hand – captured as if in a moment of rapid elevation – is among the most significant examples of his influence during this period. Sculpture, too, was a fundamental point of reference: from the monuments of antiquity – as evidenced by Bacon’s comparison between Velázquez and Egyptian art – to the bronzes of Auguste Rodin. In Head with Raised Arm, the Pope’s face hovers in the darkness like a Renaissance bust, his cheekbones chiselled with the elegance of Michelangelo. ‘Actually, Michelangelo and Muybridge are mixed up in my mind together’, Bacon would later explain, ‘and so I perhaps could learn about positions from Muybridge and learn about the ampleness, the grandeur of form from Michelangelo’ (F. Bacon, 1975, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, London 1990, p. 114). Infused with statuesque composure yet flickering like a grainy snapshot, the present work is a fitting embodiment of this statement.
‘I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them’, wrote Bacon in 1955, ‘… leaving a trail of the human presence and memory trace of past events’ (F. Bacon, quoted in Francis Bacon and the Tradition of Art, exh. cat., Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Vienna, 2004, p. 233). In Head with Raised Arm, the Pope’s spectral form speaks directly to this ambition. Through his intimate zoom-lens, Bacon exposes the pontiff as a frail mortal, whose divinity was held in tension with his inescapable human nature. His drawn, angular features – both skull-like and sculptural – hint at his entombed fate. If wartime salutes and speeches had corrupted the raised arm, perhaps here it ultimately blurs into a gesture of farewell. As his body fades into oblivion, Bacon’s Pope becomes a signifier for the fleeting nature of existence.