The mid-20th century found the troubled Anglo-Irish artist Francis Bacon coming into his own as a figurative painter.
It was then that many of his themes -- screaming popes, howling dogs and haunted figures trapped in tortured isolation -- caught the eye of a global art community that came to see him as "one of the most powerful and distinctive voices in post-World War II art," observed Shelley C. Drake, president of the M&T Charitable Foundation.
"That was when he located his biggest themes," said Bacon's close friend Michael Peppiatt. "He felt that he had to focus on the most important thing of all to man -- his existence."
Aficionados will step into the artist's dark and anguished world when "Francis Bacon: Paintings from the 1950s" opens May 4 at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery with major funding from the M&T foundation.
The exhibition will feature nearly 50 paintings from the period in which Bacon was at the height of his artistic powers, and is the first to examine his formative works.
Organized by Peppiatt, the exhibit will give his perspective on the artist's emerging style through paintings, drawings and archival materials. At the core are 13 paintings collected by Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury, who were among the artist's earliest patrons and who eventually became his close friends.
The works, a number of which have rarely been seen in public, include loans from public and private collections around the world. Bacon's 1953 painting "Man with Dog," purchased for the Albright by Seymour H. Knox Jr. in 1955, also will be displayed.
Throughout his life, which ended at age 82 in 1992, Bacon controlled every aspect of his art, from selection and presentation to interpretation. He insisted that all exhibitions be classic retrospectives focusing on his most recent works. As a result, his later work was the most visible.
By contrast, "Paintings from the 1950s" brings together paintings from a single decade in that earlier, less visible period.
"The usual feeling you get in a Bacon show is of tortured, strangled human beings alone in a room," Peppiatt explained. "These paintings have a much more narrative quality, a much more approachable Bacon, of sorts. Someone who hadn't decided who he was going to be, someone still in search of himself."
By that period, the self-taught Bacon, who had been banished from his Irish home as a teenager after his staunchly Catholic father realized he was homosexual, had acquired sufficient technical prowess to express his often dark vision with force. But he was not fully in command of his disturbing images.
Eager to explore themes and take risks in his early career, he created images that contain a rawness and sense of urgency that would be lost in his later works.
He had begun to form the evocative style of misshapen figures that reflected his disturbed world view after World War II, and as his work met with financial success during the 1950s, Bacon gained celebrity in art circles -- showing at major galleries and moving comfortably between his aristocratic patrons and the seedy side of society.
Throughout this period, Bacon visited exotic places where he engaged in relationships that would shape his life and influence his work. His experiences with lovers were vibrant and interesting, though some had violent and tumultuous overtones.
Those relationships often bled onto the canvas.
"My work is like a diary," he once said. "To understand it, you have to see how it mirrors my life."
In the early 1960s, Bacon settled into a studio in South Kensington, England, where he drew ideas from heaps of photos, bits of illustrations, books, catalogs, magazines and newspapers.
"I look at hundreds of very different, contrasting images and I pinch details from them, rather like people who eat from other people's plates," he said. "I feel at home here in this chaos because chaos suggests images to me."
Paint was mixed on the door, and scraps of clothing were used to apply colors. When Bacon died, 70 works on paper were found along with 100 slashed canvases.
"Paintings from the 1950s" will be on view at the Albright-Knox through July 29, after earlier runs at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich, England and the Milwaukee Art Museum.