New Images of Man Level 3: Room 2

Francis Bacon, ‘Seated Figure’ 1961
Francis Bacon
Seated Figure 1961
© Estate of Francis Bacon

The fundamental question for many artists in the middle of the twentieth century was how to continue to make art after the catastrophes of world war, the Holocaust and the threat of nuclear annihilation.

The atrocities associated with the Second World War signalled such a total collapse of civilisation that creativity had to acknowledge and respond to that rupture. ‘Hell is other people’ wrote Jean-Paul Sartre in the existentialist drama Huis Clos 1944, signalling the impossibility of true communication between individuals, while the philosopher Theodor Adorno held that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’.

Isolation and desolation bled into the highly personalised art of abstract expressionism and the European movement informel. The scarred surface of the work bore witness to the artist’s actions, asserting their presence in the world. ‘To help art regain its place,’ wrote Jean Dubuffet, ‘it should … be seen naked with all the creases of its belly.’ The human figure persisted within and alongside the physical gesture, and Francis Bacon’s focus on the isolated body found echoes in the work of contemporaries such as Willem De Kooning and Alberto Giacometti.

The coalescence of figuration and abstraction was quickly recognised. In 1959 many of the artists in this room were included in Peter Selz’s New Images of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The French critic Michel Tapié had already proposed an energetic renewal in 1952 in Un Art autre (A different art): ‘True creators know that the only possible way for them to express their unavoidable message is through the extraordinary: paroxysm, magic, total ecstasy.’

Curated by Matthew Gale.