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 handcrafting of pictures, what the Marxist art historian John Roberts has dismissively described as “a continuous process of pushing, dabbing and pulling of paint across the surface,” had been challenged early in the 20th century by Cubism’s use of found materials in collage, and by Marcel Duchamp’s advocacy of a directorial role in which the artist organises, selects, copies and directs rather than simply paints.
By the 1980s, however, painting was making something of a comeback. The 1981 show The New Spirit in Painting, reinforced by British Art of the Twentieth Century in 1987, both staged at the Royal Academy, convincingly reinstated figuration. Since then figurative painting has continued to be reprised as a radical practice in numerous exhibitions and publications.
Now we have Martin Gayford’s entertaining Modernists & Mavericks: Bacon, Freud, Hockney & the London Painters and, as a coincidental companion, the current show at Tate Britain All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life.
Gayford offers a persuasive history of painting in Britain from 1945 to around 1970. His book belongs firmly in the personal testimony camp, being partly based on the author’s numerous interviews over a long journalistic career. Although wonderfully vivid, it suggests the losses as well as the gains peculiar to a biographical approach. It opens with the 2013 sale at Christie’s of Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969).
At £89.6m, it became for a time the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction—more than a Van Gogh or Rembrandt. In the 1970s such stratospheric prices for either Bacon or Freud would have seemed highly unlikely. In Gayford’s account this trajectory reads like myth, as a tale of triumph over the odds, in which relative poverty and a measure of obscurity were ultimately vindicated by market recognition.
That representational art came back into fashion should come as no surprise. At its best such art helps us measure ourselves within the world. But there may be another reason for the retrospective success of painting from life. Much of the austere, abstract and conceptual art that had refreshed the art world in the 1970s has turned out to be ultimately less marketable, even if the 1990s saw Damien Hirst and the YBAs forge a more accessible and desirable brand of conceptualism.
One reason may be that such art, stripped of personal emotion and often focused on language, adds little to received ideas about the nature of artistic genius. Such ideas may be hopelessly stereotypical, but they are nonetheless remarkably potent and are usually communicated through well-honed anecdotes about the artist.
Anecdotes are more important than they sound. In 1934 the Austrian critics Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz identified a series of motifs that occur repeatedly in accounts of artists’ lives from classical times onwards. They include the idea of miraculous youthful talent that requires no training; the artist as dangerously rivalrous with peers; as socially alert, witty, and more intelligent than his critics and patrons.
Artists were seen to exercise unusual power over their models, and to be capable of great brutality in the service of creativity. Secretive about sources and techniques, they were committed to artistic labour to the exclusion of everyday concerns. The anecdotal approach was rejected by the modern discipline of art history in favour of documentary sources. But there is something undeniably haunting about such historico-mythic stories.
Gayford’s Modernists & Mavericks does include abstraction in his story of post-war painting, and argues persuasively for the porous nature of the abstract/figurative divide. But he also gives us stories in abundance that mostly relate to figurative artists.
So we learn of Freud, as a frighteningly precocious adolescent, opening the door naked to an important dealer. And of Bacon betraying no emotion as he attends his historic show at the Grand Palais, knowing that his lover and model has committed suicide. Hockney, at a loss at the Royal College of Art, embarks on a series of drawings of a skeleton with such skill that one fellow student—RB Kitaj—is overwhelmed.
In Gayford’s valorisation of genius women are in short supply. Even the greatest woman painter appears less likely to generate anecdotes of interlinking friendships and shared experiences of the kind that are chronicled here: so much turns on the male artist’s sometimes predatory relationship with his model. Pauline Boty blazes with beauty and talent for a few pages. Gillian Ayres (who died in April) and Bridget Riley find their place as great abstract artists and Prunella Clough, also ultimately abstract, is given a cameo role.
Does it matter? Gayford’s entertainingly seamless insights make outsiders feel like insiders. But on reflection much of what we learn is oddly familiar, part of the folk memory of the London art world—legend, myth and magic in the image of artist.
The current show at Tate Britain, All Too Human, is a helpful counterpoint to Gayford’s book. It adjusts a white male story by including the Indian artist Francis Newton Souza and, by coming up to the present day, includes five women: Paula Rego, given a room to herself, Celia Paul, Jenny Saville, Cecily Brown and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, a tempering of the ubiquity of the male gaze.
The strength of this exhibition lies in its focus on artists who offer an intense engagement with the observed subject, and its first rooms are dominated by the School of London. It is a show, almost without exception, of oil painting.
Acrylic hardly features save in one work by Michael Andrews (who worked lyrically with the medium) and another by Paula Rego, otherwise represented by some remarkable large pastels that reinstate the 18th-century conversation piece, stripped of gentility.
Bacon occasionally used acrylic emulsion for backgrounds, but as he explained to Sylvester: “I don’t think that generally people really understand how mysterious, in a way, the actual manipulation of oil paint is. Because moving—even unconsciously moving—the brush one way rather than the other will completely alter the implications of the image.”
This is, therefore, an exhibition about the mystery of oil paint, whether applied with great refinement in early portraits by Freud, or treated with anxious caution by -William Coldstream and Euan Uglow, or worked in churning impasto by Auerbach, the images surfacing battered, evanescent, just readable.
Although they worked with traditional materials, it is significant that none of these artists were Royal Academicians. In the first post-war decades, the Royal Academy was the home of exactly the kind of -figurative art from which Bacon, and Freud, Auerbach and Kossoff wished to distance themselves. From today’s perspective, though, the gulf between the Royal Academy and the RA refusniks appears narrower.
As Andrew Brighton points out in the All Too Human catalogue, both they and the RA traditionalists painted as if Cubism never happened. And does not early Freud have a good deal in common with the largely forgotten Academician -Norman Blamey? Can’t we make a comparison with Michael Andrew’s multi-figure compositions and those by Leonard Rosoman? Why have a show about British figurative painting and leave out Carel Weight?
Both Gayford’s book and this exhibition should be celebrated in the context of a boom time for fresh research into post-war British painting, proving that dissecting British art need not be a parochial exercise. But perhaps the time for testimony is over, in favour of attending to what was not said, and making the connections that artists themselves chose not to make.