Francis Bacon, Figure with Meat, 1954
Along with the paintings reproductions have a hard time in showcasing, there are also those that can only be seen in reproductions, or that can't be seen anywhere but in reproductions. In this category fits the story of the relationship between Francis Bacon and the Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Velázquez.
Diego Velázquez, Pope Innocent X, 1650
Francis Bacon, Study after Velazquez I, 1950
Velázquez's painting is in Rome, at the Doria Pamphilj Gallery. Francis Bacon saw a reproduction of it and, afterward, gathered a vast collection of reproductions through which he came to study and deeply know the painting. He was careful enough not to ever see it live and, when he was in Rome, avoided it at any cost.
Francis Bacon, Study after Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953
Between 1951 and 1965, he painted 45 studies, variations, reactions toward the painting by Velázquez. It is said that when he finally stopped his study, he had to do so by inflicting violence upon himself, forcing himself to stop.
Francis Bacon, Study for Portrait VIII, 1953
The reasons why Bacon never saw Velázquez's painting aren't known: he didn't feel ready to do so, or he didn't feel worthy, the painting had assumed in him a life of its own, which Bacon wished to preserve and that a live encounter could destroy or all of these together.
Bacon's decision never to see the original painting is regrettable, as he could have made observations that could have improved his technique and his painting, as well as inspired more variations.
Bacon's popes are among my favourite paintings, for the awareness of how much Bacon was haunted by the painting by Velázquez and for the expressive ability of the variations - they are paintings with intense sound and despair, paintings that, in silence, are disturbing; all question, demand an explanation. I'd like to see at least this one live:
Francis Bacon, Study for the Head of a Screaming Pope, 1952