ON BEING TOO BLOODY CLEVER BY HALF
Or writing screeds on why something is not what it’s not – a satire on rushing to judgement and throwing the first stone
The furore that has arisen from the unveiling of Francis Bacon’s startling painting ‘The Screaming Pope’ has stirred up a tremendous controversy in polite circles.
Mentioned in the press as an outrageous slur, a slap in the face of every priest in the land and giving the finger to one particular nun with foul breath, headlined in a tabloid newspaper as “Bacon Fries Pope”, shouted down by Catholic union bosses as sacrilegious, even questions asked in Parliament, the debate has ranged long and wide.
On its appearance the artist was immediately suspended from his fellowship of the Royal Academy pending an inquiry into whether or not the artwork is blasphemous.
The artist’s response was to exclaim, “Wouldn’t matter to me if the Pope is a born again vegetarian or a Malibu surfer, his religion is completely irrelevant”.
The Academy Disciplinary Committee consists of four ordinary members of the public, people chosen because of their total lack of expertise in such matters and their impartiality. Two are Beano readers, one has seen Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ on the Internet and the fourth has never visited an art gallery in his life – the Chairperson.
Taking time off from my career, wife and family, I have studied Bacon’s work in great depth. I come to the inescapable conclusion that there is absolutely nothing in that image that one could state categorically or even half-categorically shows Bacon holds a hatred towards church mice let alone Catholics.
Nevertheless I must write more
One can see how the faithful might be insulted, a Pope holding tight to the arms of his chair, head back, mouth agape, as if in a long despairing howl at the stupendous stupidity of people who believe the edicts he makes up at night for a laugh after a few too many Crème de Menthes. Or he could be simply shouting “Drink! Feck! Girls!”
It is no surprise Catholics have accused the artist of demeaning the Holy Father and the entire Church. The work is a ‘take’ on Velazquez’s “Pope Innocent X“.
Looking at it another way by standing on one’s head to gain a unique perspective, you find the work is painted on canvas, the rear a boring brown weave with only a couple of tatty title labels to interest the eye. The front, what we see, is what is contentious.
Don’t mention the Pope
The controversy appears to lie on whether or not Bacon should have used the word ‘Pope’ in his title, or avoided it knowing, as he might, outrage would be the result.
The acrimony began when Mr Bacon’s painting was shared on Facebook by admirers of his work. The Royal Academy, keen to avoid attacks on its institution while it seeks support for a new all-purpose building, demanded subsidiary, affiliated galleries remove the image from their website, asking them not to discuss it pending an inquiry into whether Mr Bacon is anti-Catholic or just a drunk who can’t hold an artist’s brush steady.
The Twitter sphere went universal overnight. People wrote in support of the artist’s right to “paint what the fuck he likes”. Critics demanding he set fire to the work and stick his head in a pot of paint stripper.
This latter attack seems counter-productive. Once your head has been subjected to excessive paint stripper it will look exactly like Bacon’s Screaming Pope.
Is he for real?
The main criticism is whether or not Bacon was justified in the way he depicts the Pope’s torso in concrete terms – there’s no mistaking the robes, and conjoining it to a blurry face. This makes the image ambiguous, open to interpretation, easily seen as a depiction of the Pope, and by implication, the Vatican, as the head of a place of dissolution.
Bacon’s sympathisers have put this down to an uncharacteristic misstep, a clumsy brush stroke in an otherwise very interesting work on the nature of man’s existence, his agony and ecstasy. One or two have said he’s a “complete bampot”. One angry correspondent writing in green ink claims if he ever meets him he will throw an egg at Bacon.
Into the frying pan
Bacon has most certainly stirred things up, exposing a layer of fear over what can be said that is acceptable, and what ‘no right thinking person’ would dream of saying.
Free speech is everybody’s right, and anybody can be an art critic. Are we qualified to pontificate on the artist’s perceived purpose, that he violates good taste, or are we just a bunch of wankers indulging ourselves? This is an important question but not one to stop me writing this critique.
Choose another pope
Accusation that there exist plenty of good portraits of popes and Bacon’s version is unnecessary hold no weight, in my view, because a pope is a pope is a pope no matter how you dress him up. No matter what pope he’d chosen to depict Catholics will assuredly slap him down for his temerity in choosing a man of transparent humility, a nice man whose only hobby is making speeches from high balconies.
To analyse this further; Bacon is laying bare the state of the Church in modern times, the lack of hope we feel over events we cannot control such as stopping people from writing stuff, and the existential threats we are all heir to in a time of great social flux. Either that, or he has given us a Pope suffering from acute piles.
Innocent but not Pope Innocent
Bacon contends he was not trying to insult Catholicism, nor thought the Pope a Catholic – he is God’s representative on Earth – a long stretch, one has to say, but then Bacon is himself from a Catholic household which encouraged freedom of expression. It probably never crossed his mind to think in those terms. He avers he was trying to illustrate in a semi-abstract, elliptical form how the ills of society are exacerbated by those who would deflect the populace from happiness to strife and uncertainty.
Challenged to explain, he replied “Christ! I don’t like what the damn Pope says, that’s all”.
As for the tabloid headline, it is as plain as the nose on your face, or the Prada slippers the Pope wears, Bacon made no such assertion. Now there is talk he intends to sue the newspaper for defamation. Support for his work has been almost unanimous from art lovers, a few tearing up their membership card of the Royal Academy. The head of that august institution has asked people to remain calm and not to weaponise tweets or gallery catalogues.
Looking into this complicated issue, I have written a 5,000 word dissertation on the subject entitled “Bacon Gets Panned“. Readers may wish to cogitate on- blah, blah. blah.