'Bacon strips away the layers and gets to the core'

Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X , 1953, 601/4in by 461/2in, by Francis Bacon (1909–92), Des Moines Art Centre, Des Moines, Iowa, USA. Bridgeman Images.

Tamara Rojo says:
‘As a school child in Madrid, I was taken to the Prado, and I became familiar with Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X. And then I came to England and saw Bacon’s portrait and, suddenly, the Velázquez was revealed to me in a much deeper way. With the Velázquez, you could admire the technique and skill of the artist and guess at the sitter’s personality, but with the Bacon, you saw straight into the soul of the man–he got you in the stomach. Bacon strips away the layers and gets to the core; reveals that monster to everyone. You can’t help but stand in awe in front of this masterpiece.’

The ballerina Tamara Rojo is the new artistic director of English National Ballet, with which she will continue to perform. The season opens with Sleeping Beauty in Milton Keynes on October 17.

Art critic John McEwen comments:
‘Between 1950 and 1970, Bacon painted 50 Pope pictures, most of them inspired by the famous Velázquez portrait of Innocent X. Some featured in his first one-man show, when he was 40. This apparently late start would not have disconcerted him. As he said many years later, ‘painting is an old man’s occupation’.

His horse-training father was a descendant of the Elizabethan Francis Bacon and Francis was a traditional family name. He believed that, had he wanted, he could have claimed the long dormant title of Lord Oxford (not to be confused with Oxford and Asquith), but titles, which he refused even when offered, meant nothing to him. He had an aristocratic indifference to social distinction, behaving with equal courtesy to everyone. The only way to judge people was how they behaved instinctively, and his aim was to paint as instinctively as possible.

Two artistic images, both of screaming figures, especially ‘excited’ him—‘excitement’ was all he asked of art—one in Poussin’s Massacre of the Innocents and the other a frame from Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin. ‘It is not the anguish in Eisenstein’s film which attracted me,’ he told the late Shusha Guppy, ‘but the beauty and intensity of the image… I was obsessed by that image and at the same time by Velázquez’s portrait… one of the great paintings of the world. I thought perhaps I could bring the two together… but I don’t think it worked and I now regret having done them.’ History thinks otherwise.’

This article was first published in Country Life, October 10, 2012