Bacon at last meets the pope as Velázquez comes to town

The National Gallery will display Portrait of Pope Innocent X with Bacon's reinterpretations

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In a new gloss upon the posthumous career of Francis Bacon, the National Gallery is using the occasion of the current loan of Velázquez’s “Portrait of Pope Innocent X” from the Doria Pamphilj Gallery, Rome, to create a juxtaposition with four compositions of popes that Bacon executed under its inspiration.

It is a comparison well rehearsed in the classroom but one which was deflected by Bacon himself who worked from reproductions and refused to consult the original painting on his occasional visits to Rome. The “confrontation”, as it has been described by the National Gallery, will take place during the closing days of the current exhibition of “Masterpieces from the Doria Pamphilj Gallery” (2-19 May). Bacon’s versions, “Head VI” 1949, the celebrated caged and screaming bust in the collection of the Arts Council, “Pope I” 1951, a full-length treatment in the Aberdeen Art Gallery, and two later pictures of 1961 and 1965, both of which are owned by unidentified British private collections, will be hung on the wall facing Velázquez’s portrait in Room 30, rather than displayed to either side of it, so that the comparison will slightly less insistent.

They belong to a series of some forty portraits of popes that the artist executed over a fifteen-year period. It is a characteristically bold gamble by the gallery which created a precedent when it juxtaposed Raphael’s “Portrait of Pope Julius II” with a “Woman” composition of de Kooning in an exhibition on the subject of colour.

It will undoubtedly attract considerable attention, but the suspicion remains that the occasion will support Bacon’s own opinion that his pope series was a failure when it finally appears in the company of the most awesome portrait of the seventeenth century.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Bacon at last meets the pope'

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