Bacon, Francis (English, 1909-1992)

Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X

Reference Type:
Screams were pervasive in Francis Bacon’s work of the late 1940s and 1950s. They were part of his search for the deepest and most basic expression, the rawest emotion—the kinds of feelings that human beings usually manage to hide and are expected to hide in civilized society. But underneath all the calm exteriors anyone could be screaming inside, even a Pope. Based on a famous 1650 portrait of Pope Innocent X by Spanish painter Diego Velásquez, Bacon’s pope looks trapped in a fragmented world. Although Bacon was a self-proclaimed atheist, he nonetheless was fascinated with the way in which the church raised the Pope spiritually above everyone else in spite of the fact that he was simply a human being. So Bacon searched for what might be underneath the Pope’s outward trappings, elegance, calm, and sense of spiritual power, which in Bacon’s mind was essentially the same thing that’s inside us all. Screams, Bacon felt, take us closer to instinct and therefore closer to animals, who are not expected to hide their true feelings under a mask of civilized calm and control. In some of Bacon’s paintings, animals scream too. A mouth can be open for many reasons: fear, happiness, danger, surprise, aggression. Mouths can scream or cheer, laugh or cry, encourage or debase. In Bacon’s work they come from a wide variety of sources, some of which may be surprising. The earliest image that attracted his attention in this way was Nicholas Poussin’s painting Massacre of the Innocents. He was captivated by a mother’s scream as she tries to prevent a soldier from killing her baby—a cry of total terror and despair. He saw a similar type of scream in the 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin, when a nurse cries out in horror as a baby carriage rolls down the stairs after the child’s mother is shot during a massacre. He also had numerous photographs of World War II dictators Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler addressing crowds—screaming their message with wide open mouths. In addition, Bacon had a collection of clinical photographs of people suffering from extreme hysteria, and kept throughout his career a medical book with hand-painted illustrations of diseases of the mouth, in which he admired the “beautiful colors” of the insides. The open mouth could also refer to his own frequent struggle to breathe as an asthmatic. Notes by Mariann Smith
Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa