Great works: Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953, 153cm x 118.1cm by Francis Bacon

Des Moines Art Center, Iowa

By the early 1950s, Bacon, a sometime painter and decorator from Dublin who lacked any formal education in art, had made a dramatic shift of gear. No longer entirely in thrall to the feral vision of the Picasso of the early 1930s, a vision which had led him to paint various fantastical, creeping creatures with over-extended necks that might have been of some interest to William Blake, he began to consider the possibilities of portraiture of a particularly unorthodox kind.

Portraiture? Well, you could convincingly argue that Bacon did not in fact paint people. He painted images of people mediated through a great and often blurry mashing of other images. That word mashing is quite deliberate – these images were often trodden down on the floor of his own studio, by his own boots. (Yes, it was a hellish war zone of an environment, that place.) These images were snatched from anywhere and everywhere. A new book reminds us of how indebted he was to the iconography of National Socialism.

The painting illustrated on this page is based on an image of Velázquez's great portrait of Pope Innocent X, a subject that Bacon treated – or mistreated - again and again. But the scream was never in Velázquez. Velázquez did not deal in screaming popes. It would have been more than his job of most favoured court painter to Philip IV of Spain was worth. No, the scream is snatched from a famous moment in a film by Eisenstein. Many of Bacon's images are palimpsests. Embedded within any particular image, there is often another image out of which the later image has grown. To what extent then has Bacon rendered this near sacred image utterly unholy, in fact near blasphemous?

Bacon was an atheist lifelong. We could call such a vision negative, a denial, but that would be to shrink, needlessly, Bacon's achievements as an artist. The fact is that he found his atheism exhilarating. It helped to turn his life into a terrible, continuous hazarding. This, the here and now, was all that there was, and he lived it to the limit. His painting and his life as a sado-masochist, suffering the brutalities of his lovers, were all of a piece. Life was an experiment to be lived to its utmost extremities, of pain and rapture – or perhaps it was rapture mediated through pain.

In this painting we are witness to an avowed atheist squaring up to an heir to St Peter, founder of the Christian Church. The Pope has been utterly robbed of his imperious serenity. He now inhabits a terrible, streaked, shimmery void of unknowing. His papal throne, though still gilded, and boasting certain characteristic decorative features, is transmogrifying – it seems to be happening before our very eyes – into something else, a corral or cage-like shape. The strokes of paint, vertical and then fanning out, could be desperate clawings. The Pope is in the throes of becoming trapped inside that which once served to emphasise his hieratic eminence. The chair on which he sits, fiercely gripping its arms, almost seems to be in motion. It spreads, it weaves about, it encircles, it whip-lashes. It also lacks groundedness, solidity.

For all that, he grips it in order to re-find some stability. Even as we stare, we seem to be falling backwards into the painting's deep space. It is that scream which holds our eye. It is part a feral shriek, the wide-mouthed involuntary cry of the pure animal. It is also perhaps a breaking out, a denial of his role as leader of the church, which is given such definition by his gorgeous vestments. This scream is not Munch's over-familiar scream. Munch represented his scream as a form of infection, a spreading stain. It rippled outwards and outwards, giving shape, definition, form, to the entire dream landscape of which it was its centre. This scream is the Pope's darkness. It is all that he is. It is what he amounts to in the end, a small, black knot of humanness.

And yet this scream is not quite a denial. The entire enterprise of this painting seems to suggest otherwise. Its scale and pretensions are magnificent, monumental. To scream against the denial of the light is also a self-vaunting, heroic thing. It is all that man was ever born to.

About the artist: Francis Bacon (1909-1992)

Francis Bacon was born in Dublin of English parents. His early life was one of a drifter. His prodigious talents were not widely recognised until the beginning of his fifth decade. Aside from his achievements as a painter, he was known for the life of libidinous and alcoholic excess that he chose to live. In short, his sado-masochism fed his vision. His life as a no-holds-barred roisterer at Soho's Colony Club in the 1960s helped to give definition to that hedonistic decade.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'