In 1953, the British painter Francis Bacon created over forty pictures in which he combined Velasquez‘s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650) with a scene from filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein‘s Battleship Potemkin (1925). Bacon’s humanisation of the Pontifex Maximus presented him as a creature driven by fear and pain. Bacon broke with a sacred ban that had immunised the body of God’s deputy on earth against any sort of physical suffering and fear. Soon after Pope John Paul II had brought himself to give his last public appearance at the end of March 2005, a photo-series was published in the international press. The pictures show the Pope giving Easter mass, his face distorted by physical suffering. The Canadian artist Trevor Guthrie, who lives and works in Zurich, came across the pictures and immediately felt compelled to create a piece based on the newspaper photos.
Using the photographic source material from March 2005, Guthrie assembles a triptych in the same format as Bacon’s earlier picture. The Guthrie triptych is more than an overt reference to Bacon’s influence. Another dimension opens up when the current media publicity that delivered the context for Guthrie’s drawing is taken into account: “The power of the media when the Pope was dying, and the idea that eventually, life can and will imitate art. This is an important aspect for me,” Guthrie explains. The French structuralist Roland Barthes also tries to describe the social significance of photography as a medial element in his Reflections on Photography: “The age of Photography corresponds precisely to the explosion of the private into the public… the private is consumed as such publicly.” Even Pope John Paul II was subject to this development of earthly progress, and thus the loss of physical power turned into a public performance. The global presence of the media perverted the private act of the dying of Karol Wojtyla but could also be interpreted as a paradigm for the publicly celebrated readiness to make sacrifices. “With the Photograph, we enter into flat death,” according to Barthes. When life turns into art, the banality of death is emphasised the more strongly, and in a world of lost rites and myths, photography belongs to those art forms that are able to express death in an asymbolic and profane way.
Besides being an homage to the renowned painter, Guthrie‘s triptych emphasises the thin line between sympathy and commercialisation which the media does not always manage to balance out. However, the study actually intends to ironise rather than to moralise, as can be seen by the hinted-at halo above the head of the Pontiff in the right panel of the triptych. Guthrie’s ‘post photography’ work interchanges between two worlds: between a journalist’s snapshots and Francis Bacon’s study, between the banality of ‘flat death’ and the aesthetics of a life turned into art.
It is mainly the technique of vertical lineation employed for the presentation of the Pope’s face that alludes to the well-known painter. The physiognomy seems distorted by the straight lines that give the impression of an almost animalistic motion, such as when the Pope flings open his mouth or lets his head fall to the side. The decaying features take on a stronger effect than in the press photographs through a process of aesthetic alienation, the purely physical elements of the triptych affect the viewer much more directly. As in Bacon’s study, the pictures deal with the disturbing distortion of physical pain. La vita imitata l’arte works as a countermovement to the portrait painting of the Renaissance, when the demand for ‘imitatio et decorum’ asked for the truthful representation of the living person. “In a way, haven‘t Bacon‘s screaming popes inevitably become the most truthful of portraits?” Guthrie asks. The Guthrie pope drawings are a fascinating commentary on the spectacle of international media in an age when nothing is too sacred.