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A Few Prized Obsessions

Curator Hugh M. Davies brings together a series of Francis Bacon's papal portraits from the U.S. and abroad to form an intimate exhibition.

January 10, 1999|LEAH OLLMAN | Leah Ollman is a frequent contributor to Calendar

SAN DIEGO — In the summer of 1953, British painter Francis Bacon invited his friend, art critic David Sylvester, to sit for a portrait in the "gilded squalor" of his studio. Sometime during the fourth sitting, Sylvester's likeness mutated (as Bacon's images were prone to do) into a somber, ghost-like portrait of the pope. Obsessed as he already had been for years with a portrait of Pope Innocent X painted by Velazquez in 1650, Bacon launched feverishly into a series of eight variations on the papal portrait.

Twenty years later, the series itself sparked a new obsession. Hugh M. Davies, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, was just beginning research for his doctoral dissertation on Bacon in 1973, when he noted to himself that the papal portrait series of 1953 had never been exhibited in its entirety. The notion of organizing such a show gestated quietly until just a few years ago, when Davies actively started to hunt for the eight paintings, which had landed in both private and public collections, in the U.S. and abroad. Through aggressive courtship and delicate pressure, Davies negotiated the loans, with the eighth lender signing on only last fall, to avoid, he said, "being the skunk of the party." Next Sunday, "Francis Bacon: The Papal Portraits of 1953" opens at the museum's main facility in La Jolla.

"It's the longest series in Bacon's career," Davies explains from his office facing a panoramic expanse of the Pacific. "It's the one series that dates from what I consider his strongest year. It's when he really hit his stride. The intersection of his technical ability and his vision were at a critical moment. And this is the subject which was the signature theme of his career."

Bacon (1909-1992) made his first painting in response to the Velazquez in 1949, and continued with the theme, off and on, through 1972, painting a total of 25 versions of the papal portrait. A photocopied chronology of the paintings is taped to the wall in a small foyer outside Davies' office, and will be reconstructed in an information gallery as part of the show.

Most of the paintings by Bacon resemble the Velazquez in structure, with the pope in traditional vestments, seated in a chair trimmed with gold finials and turned at a slight angle away from the viewer. Bacon made the image his own, made it work directly and violently on the nervous system, as he put it, through his distinctively raw handling of paint, veiling the figure behind curtain-like stripes and often painting him with his mouth agape in a frozen scream.

A self-professed nonbeliever, Bacon was legendary for disavowing any social content in his work, preferring to link its violence and "exhilarated despair" to his own psyche and not to the human condition in general or the horrors of the 20th century. Though he was fixated on the image of the pope (as well as the crucifixion), he denied that his paintings had anything to do with religion.

"Some people say that the pope [represents] Bacon's father, and he's wrestling with the whole Oedipal thing, which is probably true," Davies says. "Other people have said the obvious, that this is a very powerful masculine figure in feminine clothes--laces, a dress and pretty colors. There is something hilarious, particularly to a gay man"--as Bacon was--"to see the pope in drag."

Bacon himself said that the Velazquez image haunted him, that he was obsessed with the grandeur of its color and the role of the pope.

"Pope Innocent X was the most powerful man in the world at that time, in 1650," Davies says, recalling conversations he had with Bacon, "and it is a very powerful, official portrait. He was a very strong individual, but also very corrupt, and Velazquez shows you that. What is brilliant in the portrait is that you can look at this guy's face and see that he misused his power. He's so haughty. Velazquez pleased the client and at the same time passed on the fact that the guy's corrupt. It's all there."

Bacon, who never attended art school, taught himself to paint by looking at Velazquez, Rembrandt, Van Gogh. He loved "the glitter and color that comes from the mouth" and hoped one day, he said, "to be able to paint the mouth like Monet painted a sunset." But he was also intrigued by the power of photography and its various manifestations, such as film and X-ray imaging.

"I see every image all the time in a shifting way and almost in shifting sequences," Bacon once said, accounting for the feel of cinematic progression in his serial work. He often quoted 19th century photographer Eadweard Muybridge's pioneering motion studies of humans and animals. The scream motif, too, originated from a photographic source, a scene from the 1925 Eisenstein film "Battleship Potemkin," in which a nanny who has lost control of her young charge is seen in a tightly framed close-up, her eyeglasses askew and her mouth stretched open in an agonizing cry.

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