Images of Man

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

After the Second World War there was a shift in artistic practice and values, a desire to begin anew. Post-war life in Europe was one of deprivation, chaos and depression; art was born in antagonism, a rejection of traditional notions of beauty in favour of a primitive, spontaneous and often brutal approach to the human form. Art and literature were bound up with an exchange of existentialist ideas and philosophies, ideas exploring individual freedom and moral responsibility; that man defines himself through his own actions. Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism 1946 being a key text in understanding and shaping the climate of the artistic period.

Traditional artistic qualities such as beauty and refinement, balance and harmony, were rejected in favour of a more ‘instinctive’ approach to making art. Many artists resorted to spontaneous gestures in an attempt to find a universal form of expression. The almost complete disappearance of the human figure in this type of work, reflects not only a profound anxiety about the survival of the individual, but also a desire to make art free of conventional imagery.

In England, responses to the anxieties of a changing world produced two differing approaches. The sculptor Henry Moore remained profoundly humanist in his desire to locate the human form in nature, even if the figure was often pared down to its most primitive, abstracted form. The violent and contorted figures found in the paintings of Francis Bacon, however, appear bleak in their depiction of the existential anguish of the individual.