What comprised the “social real” of London between 1945 and 1960? In general accounts it was defined by privation and austerity brought on by the personal and economic sacrifices of six years of world war but with a hopeful accompaniment of starting from scratch, of fabricating one’s individualized expression out of the rubble. For painters of this generation the war allowed for a break from the gravitational influences of Picasso and the School of Paris, the same break that would lend lift to the Abstract Expressionist ascendancy in New York. Artists from both cities would assimilate the codified (and for the most part exhausted) styles of Cubism and Surrealism toward their own ends, yet is was figurative painting that took primary hold in London.
November 3 2017 – January 18, 2018
In truth there was no coherent “social real” in London art circles at the time, considering the diverse backgrounds of artists such as Francis Bacon who came from an aristocratic family in Ireland, and Frank Auerbach, who as a child was evacuated to London from Hitler’s Germany. And in fact, the only native Londoner in the group was Leon Kossoff, but then, communities of artists tend to invent their own cultural histories, sourced from their own pasts, while in the process of transforming their futures. Lucian Freud, certainly, would wind up faithfully translating his grandfather’s (Sigmund) psychological analysis by transforming its complex plumbing of psychic association into sinuous skeins of paint defining both his sitters mental state and their skin and bone structure. A good example is seen here in his penetrating, yet opaque, portrait of Lady Willougby de Eresby, simply entitled, Woman With Fair Hair, Portrait II, (1962-63). Similarly, Bacon would deconstruct such symbols of aristocratic privilege as the papal throne in his study of Velazquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X represented here by a gripping Study After Velazquez (1950).
The Freud and Bacon paintings are viscerally realized examples of the painterly poles that would charge this version of a “School of London,” namely the abstract disassembling of the human form and its tactile, sensuous reassembly. While painters such as Kossoff and Auerbach were not as singularly focused on the figure, they too often used it as an armature for the luscious application of oil paint. They both studied with David Bomberg, who in this instance functioned (in an American analogy) as the Robert Henri to their Glackens and Bellows, or to use a term applied to post-war social realist theater in Britain by the London-based critic David Sylvester, their “kitchen sink” to the Americans’ gritty “ashcan.” Bomberg, like Henri, encouraged his students to take up the heavily-loaded brush stroke as an index of “real” expression. Kossoff often takes this injunction to extremes as seen in such a topographically canyoned and crenellated accretion of paint in the landscape represented here, Stormy Summer Day, Dalston Lane (1975), while Auerbach tends to create a somewhat lighter, more slashingly calligraphic stroke in Head of J.Y.M. II (1984-85). Kossoff can evoke Van Gogh’s structural brushwork at times, while Auerbach’s technique assimilates both the labile focal depth of Manet’s paint application and the appropriation of the atomized Cubist faceting of painterly space as was practiced so remarkably by Bacon. Relevant to the last point, what made each of these artists’ contributions to their creative community significant is their sophisticated awareness of previous historical styles of painterly figuration. And, as the show infers, their attendant ability to let themselves be influenced by each other’s development out of these precedents is what really formed their bond.
Any “school” would quickly become moribund (and eventually historically irrelevant) without a constant flow between its assumption of a historical tradition and the nurturance of evolving personal styles. It is this open-ended esprit de corps that helps to invigorate the retrospective, time capsule, aspect of the show. Of the relatively younger generation of artists associated with this group, one of its main promoters, paradoxically, was the transplanted American R.B. Kitaj, who befriended a young David Hockney while they both took classes at The Royal Academy of Art. Kitaj favored a more graphic, illustrative figurative approach that would influence Hockney at a time when they both professionally “arrived” on the cusp of Swinging London and British Pop. A decade later Kitaj would organize a comprehensive show of British contemporary art entitled The Human Clay, which was held at The Hayward Gallery under the auspices of the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1976. While including himself and a younger generation of artists such as fellow Royal College alumni David Hockney, Derek Boshier and Peter Phillips, Kitaj featured Bacon, Freud, Kossoff, Auerbach, and Michael Andrews prominently in the exhibition. Andrews is represented here by the quiescent Portrait of Jane (1989-91) while Hockney is shown by the small but lively oil sketch Montcalm Pool, Los Angeles, (1980). Kitaj’s large painting entitled The Neo-Cubist (1976-1987), a full length portrait of Hockney superimposed by the ghostly profile of the playwright Christopher Isherwood, pays alluring homage to both Kitaj’s longtime friend and sitter as well as one of Hockney’s most significant portrait subjects. It’s a fitting compendium to a show that emphasizes how a microcosmic form of social realism can be derived from a circle of intimates as well as from the larger, less knowable circle of the historical real.