Too Clever By Half


A screaming pope – insulting, racism, crap painting, or not?


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.


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8 Responses to Too Clever By Half

  1. brilliant,also never knew prince philip sat for francis !

  2. Grouse Beater says:

    Ta. Am getting fed up with people chasing squirrels!

  3. George S Gordon says:

    According to the QI elves, the Pope is not a Catholic.
    The head of the Catholic Church has many official titles, but none of them include the word pope.
    The head of the Coptic Orthodox Church *is* called the Pope, and is not a Catholic.

    Next up, bears don’t …

  4. Goes well with the Sharon Olds poem: ‘The pope’s Penis’:
    It hangs deep in his robes, a delicate
    clapper at the center of a bell.
    It moves when he moves, a ghostly fish in a
    halo of silver seaweed, the hair
    swaying in the dark and the heat — and at night
    while his eyes sleep, it stands up
    in praise of God.

  5. “The dominant note sounded by post-war art was that of survival, often joined to anxiety in view of the continuing threat of local or global destruction, sometimes with confidence, but most often with an ambiguity common to our response to dramatic events. Images of fear and of despair became commonplace and had much success in the fifties. Some of them, the work of outstanding artists, were negative images of the human condition and at the same time, in their expressive energies, symbolic triumphs over it. […] Francis Bacon’s images of dread are often monumental in scale where Giacometti’s tend to be delicate, and they appeal to intimate, present-day experience while Giacometti’s associate with the image of man through the ages. In his claustrophobic spaces — stage-like, but a close, informal stage, the stage of cabaret not of formal drama — Bacon enacts ambiguous horrors that may hint at the efficient breaking of dissidents belonging to modern statecraft, but equally at the actual and imagined cruelties that we know as part of ordinary life. […] It is even more shocking to find Bacon’s frightful images presented through such beautiful passages of paint. Only Goya has as effectively explored such an incongruity of means and message. Partly because of this duality one associates Bacon with the Surrealist tradition rather with the Expressionist, and for other reasons one could similarly place Moore. But while we can also reasonably describe them as late contributors to the long classical tradition even when, by showing man suffering and perplexed, they seem to invert its meaning (this inversion may be said to have happened in response to Christianity’s call for images of heroic suffering long ago, but the suffering of saints is a gateway to glory), Bacon’s lay and inglorious martyrdoms must be linked to a different tradition, not of heroism but of plain commonality. We know it in fact and fiction, from newspapers, novels and potted psychology, and above all from the amalgams of such matter that reach us through the persuasive medium of film. […] They belong to the tradition of genre painting, of scenes of commonplace and anonymous actions — Vermeers for an age of Kafka and Beckett.” (from Robert Norton’s ‘The Story of Modern Art’, Phaidon, Oxford, 1980, pp 258,259).

  6. nnels says:

    In case anyone is confused, this article is complete fiction.

  7. “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth” (Pablo Picasso)

  8. Anyway, the back of the painting probably *is* a “rather a boring brown weave”…

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