Conversion of a Skeptic


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We are seated in the director’s office of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, looking out at the La Jolla ocean view. I am puzzled by an exhibition due to open, “The Papal Portraits of Francis Bacon.” I know it is dear to the heart of museum director Hugh Davies, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on this very subject and who has waited a long time to bring these eight portraits together.

“Why did Bacon paint the same portrait eight times? Why was he so fascinated with this subject?” I ask.

“Because if you were painting a portrait,” Davies explains, “wouldn’t you like to see it from all directions? And in all moods? And also because it was a series. Think of Warhol and his Marilyn Monroes. It was the influence at that time—the early ’50s—of films and photography.”

“But to do a portrait over and over again, with the same clothes, the same pose—but different heads. The heads are very different. Were they different models?” The heads are distorted—one, toward the end, with an agonized, shrieking mouth.

Bacon began with Diego Rodriguez da Silva Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X, done in 1650. “It was a perfect painting,” says Davies. “Enthroned in papal garb, the pope was the most powerful figure of his day. Yet look at his cruel eyes.

“Bacon knew the painting only in reproduction. He never wanted to see the original.” But haunted by the image, by its perfection, he sought to reinvent Velázquez’s painting.

During the summer of 1953 in London, while attempting to paint a portrait of his friend David Sylvester, the 43-year-old Bacon transformed the picture into an image of the pope. Over the next two weeks, working feverishly, he completed the seven variations comprised in the series. In the intervening 45 1/2 years, they have become landmarks in art history, symbols of the post-war age.

The papal figures appear to be set in a glass box in a dark ecclesiastical setting. Pope I is a static image; Pope II is a profile; the face of Pope III is blurred; Pope IV’s features are almost indistinguishable. Pope V has a kind of sneer; Pope VI’s mouth has dropped open; Pope VII is screaming; and Pope VIII throws his arms up in a defensive gesture. The image always changes. The hands become balled fists; the open mouth and mangled pince-nez come from Sergei Eisenstein’s screaming nurse (with one eyeball shot out—from the film Potemkin). The final Pope throws his hands up as if to say, “That’s it. Enough.”

No one quite knew how to take these paintings. A critic wrote: “Bacon has tried ... for one continuous cinematic impression of his Popes—an entirely new kind of painting experience.” Another wrote that it looked like the Pope had been strapped into an electric chair.

While a student at Princeton, Davies became enamored of Bacon. He offered to write about him in his doctoral dissertation but was told he needed to have access to the artist because of the scarcity of material about him. As a result, he arranged for 16 interviews while he studied at the Courtauld Institute in London. Davies found Bacon to be an intelligent man, articulate about world affairs, a pleasure to talk to.

His studio was an absolute mess, says Davies. But his home was a model of perfection. As the artist would prepare to leave his studio—full of brushes and props and baskets, boxes and cans, piled untidily on one another—he would carefully remove every spot of paint from his hands. “You know painters who leave the paint where it will show, on their hands and clothes, so people will know they’re painters,” says Davies. “Well, Bacon was the opposite.” If he was going out to dinner, he presented himself accordingly.

“My relatives in England thought I was wasting my time,” Davies says. Very few people had heard of the artist. At the time, there were only two books on Bacon (Davies, along with Sally Yard, has since written a third, Bacon, published by Abbeville Press as part of the Modern Masters series). Davies kept up his friendship with the artist, seeing him again and again over the years—and always admiring his work.

“How can you like things that are so ugly?” I ask. “The legs end in deformed bones; the heads are bashed in or daubed with enormous smears.”

“Ugly?” asks Davies in surprise. “It’s all a matter of perception. I would never use the word ‘ugly’. When I first saw a Bacon painting, I thought it the most interesting thing I’d ever seen. Among all the ‘pretty’ art, I could hardly wait to see more. I can hardly wait for his paintings to get here. I could sit and look at them forever.”

But, I protest, the subject matter is grotesque. Faces simply don’t exist. A mouth is all one can see, usually at the end of a pole-like formation. It snarls; it wails. Bacon himself described his compulsion: “I have always been very moved by the movements of the mouth and the shape of the mouth and the teeth. People say that these have all sorts of sexual implications...”

Davies and I look together at Bacon’s Painting, 1946 of a powerful, brooding figure with a huge, bull-like neck. Behind him is a split carcass, suspended like a crucified human body. A railing is skewered with cuts of meat. Because the painting was purchased by a famous dealer—for perhaps only $2,000 —Bacon’s reputation was made. He immediately took off for Monte Carlo, so the story goes, where he made a killing at the tables. He took a small villa and squandered his money in two weeks, having a splendid time and making many friends.

Fine, I say. But the painting is ghoulish.

Davies sees much more in it than I do. The figure is a dictator with a bloody mouth, he says. He is in the same pose as the Popes, but the setting is different. An umbrella probably refers to Neville Chamberlain. The figure reflects Bacon’s familiarity with news photos of Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler and Benito Mussolini, as well as of Franklin Roosevelt in his cape at Yalta. The headless carcass hanging above him is the crucifixion, which fascinated Bacon as an emblem.

“Was he religious?” I ask.

“No, he was not religious. He was an atheist. But the emblem fascinates him.”

“Was Bacon anti-Pope? Did he take a position on the subject?”

“He wasn’t referring to any particular Pope, although he had been raised in Ireland and knew the lore. The Crucifixion was curious to him—as a myth—as all artists are confronted with this myth.”

I begin to see my revulsion as superficial. Bacon’s portraits of Isabel Rawsthorne are not necessarily hideous—though nothing like the model herself. Rawsthorne was a lady who kept a bar where young servicemen drank. She had a habit of tossing her head, a motion Bacon caught in a famous portrait that is largely a smear —such a smear, it obliterates her face. But that was his objective. In her portraits, scraped, blotted and dragged strokes of paint obscure her nose and mouth.

IT IS DECEMBER, and Davies has sent for the eight paintings from Switzerland, England and the United States, plus a ninth, Study, done in February 1953. His emissary is waiting in London, as we speak, to accept the European works.

The photo on the cover of Davies’ book is called Self-Portrait 1969, and it, too, shows a grossly distorted mouth. This seems to be a recurrent element in Bacon’s work. Davies and I argue about the face.

“I can see the wonder of the eyes,” I say. “But the mouth?”

“Ah, that’s the part I love,” says Davies. “He’s taken a red sweater and daubed the chin—you can see the ribbing of the sweater—and maybe used the little caps on the paint tubes to make two round objects at the chin.” But it’s the smear he loves.

Bacon himself said it best: “I think if you want to convey fact, this can only be done through a form of distortion. You must distort to transform what is called ‘appearance’ into image.”

“Once in a while, in this business, we get to travel to Europe,” Davies says. But it’s not all glamour. The emissary must keep the paintings in view at all times. He must wait in a hotel in London, accompany the paintings to the cargo section of a plane, meet them at unloading out on the tarmac, see them safely into the cargo area of the airport, watch them loaded on a truck and then ride with the truck across the country to California. He can’t let them out of his sight, because “They might stand in the rain at the airport, or perhaps the hot sun,” says Davies.

He’s thinking of how he will exhibit the paintings. He will build a small room within the Farris Gallery, so that if you stand

in the center, you will never be more than 14 feet from a painting. They will hang on eight walls, with the final painting inspired by Velásquez on a ninth wall just through the door. Two auxiliary works, gathered for the show, will complete the offering.

“And how do you imagine people will react to them?” I ask.

“That remains to be seen. If they see them as you do, without knowing the history and the value, they won’t like them. If they see them as I do...” His voice trails off.

There will be a video to introduce the painter to the audience, as well as an on-line presentation, and there will be other educational functions. One is a gathering of curators—about 150—from around the country. People will talk, and the word will get out.

Once, in the fall of 1953, it was planned that all eight of Bacon’s papal paintings would be shown at the Durlacher Gallery in New York City, but only five portraits (numbers I, II, IV, V and VII) were included in the show. This exhibition in the United States was very well received, both critically and with sales, and the paintings were dispersed. Four are now ensconced in major public collections in the United States (the Museum of Modern Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Loeb Art Center at Vassar College). The remaining four are in private collections: one in the United States and three in Europe.

The present exhibition, on view only in San Diego through March 28, brings this series together for the very first time since they were painted by Bacon in 1953. It has been endorsed by a major grant from AT&T, a California Challenge Grant from the California Arts Council and a Federal Indemnity Grant from the National Council on the Arts & Humanities, and has received support from the British Council in London.

Go see them. Take along Davies’ book, so that you may know the history of the artist (1909-92). And with luck, your own introduction to the meaning of violence will improve with the experience.

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