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.

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
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.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor