It's an acknowledged paradox of art history that World War II had a muted impact on the art that followed. Maybe the devastation was too great for mere art to absorb. Only a few postwar artists did work that seemed to carry forward the trauma of the conflict or remember its lessons about the beast just below the surface of civilized man. Of those who did, the greatest was the Anglo-Irish painter Francis Bacon, one of the few artists of his time to produce work that aimed to possess that did possess a tragic dimension.
Bacon's canvases show us a world ruled by force and ravenous appetite, a place where men bare their fangs, suffer and die. To create this world required Bacon to dismantle the classical nude and to offer in its place a human anatomy broken and deformed, faces smeared into something just barely recognizable as human. His purpose, he once explained, was "to make the animal thing come through the human." Which he did.
For material he borrowed from sources high and low, from Velázquez and a favorite from a book on oral diseases. We know just by looking at his pictures that the pitiless inspection of human suffering was a signal feature of the 20th century. His breakthrough came with Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, a trio of ferocious quasi-humans that he completed during two drunken weeks in 1944. Over the next three decades he would discover and refine the recurrent figures of his art the Popes with their ferocious grins, the snarling baboons, the bodies wrestling under murderous light. Many of his scenes were transfigurations of the drunken uproar in his own life, and especially the tumult of his relationship with his lover George Dyer. But he had a gift for converting personal into universal drama. Fourteen years after his death, his canvases, so full of sadism, ferocity and bloodlust, have become emblems of an era. And that era, of course, would be ours.