MILWAUKEE — Francis Bacon didn't like to analyze his sometimes macabre paintings of distorted or caged figures. He remained secretive about where his ideas originated. He feared his works would be reduced to his influences.
Now, 15 years after his death, people are still trying to figure out what his dark paintings mean. His close friend says he wanted to focus a new exhibit on what's considered Bacon's most fertile decade: the 1950s, when the Irish-born painter's life was particularly chaotic and he struggled to cement his techniques.
"It's certainly the decade when Bacon became Bacon and created this very disturbing world, which we are still coming to terms with now many years after his death," Michael Peppiatt said in an interview from London. "I think he probes our sense of ourselves, which I have to say, marvelous as they are, Jackson Pollock's abstract compositions don't."
Peppiatt is guest curator of "Francis Bacon: Paintings From the 1950s," on view through April 15 at the Milwaukee Art Museum. It goes to Buffalo, N.Y., in May.
Bacon, widely regarded as one of the greatest artists of postwar Europe in the 20th century, died in 1992 at the age of 82.
The 50 or so works on display reflect the self-taught Bacon's tormented life: his father throwing him out of the house at the age of 16 for being gay; the death of a beloved nanny; living a Bohemian lifestyle without a fixed address for years; the horrors of World War II; and the death of a lover.
The decade was also when he started gaining financial success.
"He sort of forces his state of mind on the viewer," said artist Erin Landry, 28, who saw an early showing of the exhibit. "You feel very dark. You feel very pained looking at them."
Thirteen paintings on display were collected by Bacon's close friends, Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury, who financed him early in his career.
The exhibit's signature piece, "Figure With Meat" from 1954, is on loan from The Art Institute of Chicago. It depicts a screaming pope, dressed in purple, framed by two bloody flanks. It brings together Bacon's obsession with Diego Velazquez's portrait of Pope Innocent X and Rembrandt's "Carcass of Beef," both from the 17th century.
"This is a key work in developing the ideas of the Velazquez, combining it with Rembrandt, into creating his own distinctive image," said the Milwaukee Art Museum's chief curator Joe Ketner.
The pope rendition is one of about 50 Bacon did, some of which are in Milwaukee. Many are screaming and in cages sitting on a throne-type chair. One version, "Study for Portrait II," is expected to sell next month for about $23 million through Christie's auction house, a record for the artist.
Also exhibited are spooky sphinxes, a tortured baboon, dark owls and triptychs of the twisted faces of friends.
Bacon was influenced by surrealists such as Pablo Picasso, but some called his work expressionism. He said he was painting reality as he saw it.
Peppiatt, who met Bacon in the 1960s when he interviewed him for a student magazine, said it was fascinating how Bacon's demeanor was unlike the darkness he created. He spent hours at restaurants, drinking wine, having long conversations with much laughter, culminating with a trip to the casino to play roulette.
"It comes from such a buoyant, optimistic person — these dark images, and that's part of his genius," he said. "I think you will see he is ... the sun in the shadow and because he had the very bright sun he had a very dark shadow."
Also on view is a large photo of Bacon's London studio, which he used from 1961 until his death. It shows the disorder in which he worked: smears of paint on the walls and doors as well as cylinders of paint brushes, books, magazines and papers littering the floor.
"(He would) literally kick around in this mess until, to paraphrase his own words ... he would have these images dropping into his mind's eye like slides and then he would spontaneously go to the canvas and begin to painting them," Ketner said.
Bacon once said, "I am like a grinding machine. I look at everything, and everything that goes in and gets ground up very fine."
Sainsbury Centre of Visual Arts in Norwich, United Kingdom, initiated the exhibit. Its director, Nichola Johnson, said that without Bacon, there probably wouldn't be the works of Damien Hirst and brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman, who "explore the edges of what appalls us," she said.
"It would be easy to say this and this artist was affected directly by Bacon's work," she said. "He sits on this kind of balance between the art historical canon, which is the Rembrandt, and the Velazquez and the Picasso, and so on and a kind of much more recent art, which says you can go anywhere, and the thing about Bacon is he made that possible."