Post-war British painters like Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud are valued as much for their rackety lives as their artistic explorationsby Tanya Harrod / July 13, 2018 / Leave a comment
On the eve of Francis Bacon’s 1985 retrospective at the Tate Gallery, the English art critic Michael Peppiatt wrote anxiously about the “excessively philosophico-literary commentary” that he believed Bacon’s art provoked. Perhaps he had in mind the French theorist Gilles Deleuze, whose refreshing if challenging Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation had appeared in 1981. Deleuze had little interest in Bacon’s life. Instead of “gilded-gutter” reminiscences, he sought to connect the artist with a wider intellectual world—including the work of fellow theorists Maurice -Merleau-Ponty and Jean-François Lyotard.
But this has not been the British way. Insular histories of post-war British art have mostly avoided theory in favour of direct witness, elegantly tracing networks and encounters based on personal anecdotes.
Such testimonies have taken many forms: they range from Peppiatt’s own touching Francis Bacon in Your Blood to the newly-anointed Daily Mail editor Geordie Greig’s record of a Johnny-come-lately friendship with Lucian Freud, Breakfast with Lucian to Catherine Lampert’s magisterial Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting.
In the background, there is David Sylvester’s Interviews with Francis Bacon, the rich but unreliable text that all Bacon scholars have to mine. These narratives focus on a male group of figurative painters often referred to as the School of London.
This was the phrase initially used by Sylvester in 1950 as a riposte to North American artistic dominance. It was taken up again in 1976 by the American painter RB Kitaj, who spent much of his life over here. He identified what he saw as “a number of world-class painters… a School of real London, England, in Europe” that included 48 artists whose drawings he had acquired for the Arts Council. He had particular admiration for Auerbach, Bacon and David Hockney.
At first sight the trio appear to have little in common. But together with Freud they all operated at a remove from avant-garde practice. All four continued to use the pictorial devices of traditional painting, working observationally, employing perspective, using colour in loose relation to the lived world. The results were varied explorations of reality—personal painterly interrogations.
But they were pushing against the tide. By the 1970s painting of any kind was no longer regarded as an essential—or even an interesting—way of making art. The…