Wednesday 28 December 2011

The power of artistic orthodoxy

The Mystery of Appearance: Conversations between ten British post-war painters, Haunch of Venison, London

Among opinion formers for the visual arts it’s almost taken for granted that the Mayfair art scene is set in its ways and is the home of convention. Shoreditch is where you go today if you want to find out what’s the sharpest cutting edge in the artistic tool box, while South London has some arty hot spots too. But an exhibition in the heart of the traditional West End art world is a challenge to these lazy assumptions. Why?

This exhibition is a fresh appraisal of ten artists - Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Patrick Caulfield, William Coldstream, Lucian Freud, Richard Hamilton, David Hockney, Leon Kossoff, and Euan Uglow - all of whom were active at a time when abstract painting, rather than portraits or landscapes, dominated the art scene. But before we look at their conversations (more of that word later) in depth, let’s see what’s outstanding in the examples of their work on offer here.

Installation view. Photo: Peter Mallet

Coldstream’s picture of ‘Lord Ifor Evans’ (1958-60) shows the academic appearing to contemplate the weight of his responsibilities. And Andrews’ painting, ‘The Lord Mayor’s Reception in Norwich Castle Keep, On the Eve of the Installation of the First Chancellor of the University of East Anglia’ (1966-69) takes the theme of the status of academic activity a stage further. The painting seems, in its content, to epitomise the image of traditional, establishment-worshipping art - here we have a collection of the great and the good, with soberly-suited old establishment figures of respectability including a bishop in a purple frock coat whilst an army of waitresses stand at a respectful distance: we can almost hear the roar of well-bred conversation. But the painting is a witness to the importance which was once accorded to academic and civic life as it captures the interplay between them. For we see here at an event held to mark the importance of learning. Today, such a gathering would be regarded primarily as a PR event and educational box-ticking exercise with the acknowledgement of academic excellence coming a poor second - if at all.

But Andrews doesn’t just deal in scenes from provincial life. He shows us the metropolis, too. ‘The Thames at Low Tide’ (1994-95), shows moored barges, and tidal water which insinuates its powerful return. Stayingwith London, Auerbach gives us a vision of rus in urbe with ‘Primrose Hill, Winter Sunshine’ (1962-64), where the combination of what seems to be a brown mess cut by curvy green lines manages to define the hill perfectly - we can feel its attraction for runners and sense the cityscape lurking beyond. The riot of seemingly disordered strokes in Kossoff’s ‘Willesden Junction, Summer No 1’ (1966) captures the jumbled yet orderly maze of lines at this industrially bleak, yet atmospheric, North London railway junction.

Sex heaves with disturbing images in this exhibition. Freud gives us ‘Francis Bacon (study)’ (1951) a drawing in which the screaming queen who gave us screaming popes looks almost innocent, angelic even, an effect of his upswept, wing-like eyebrows. (From Bacon we have here ‘Pope 1- Study after Pope Innocent X by Velazquez’ (1951), showing an apprehensive looking pontiff.) In contrast, the subject of Coldstream’s ‘Seated Nude’ (1972-73) radiates an air of fed-up despair whilst Uglow’s ‘Nude, Lady C’ (1959-1960) shows her as superficially drowsy, but with a feel of underlying alertness as if she is alive to somehow being exploited.

Auerbach’s ‘Reclining Figure’ (1972) shows us a female figure lyingon her stomach, her hands seemingly tied behind her back, her mouth appearing to shriek. Hockney’s ‘The Room Tarzana’ (1967) gives us a boy lying, too, on his stomach and, with upturned face, looking apprehensive (at his lover? At the possibility of unpleasant sexual congress? At rejection?).

Hamilton gives us what, at first glance, appears to be a gentle scene well away from the Pop Art sophistication with which he is associated: ‘Mother and Child’ (1984-85) seems saccharine enough until we look at the threateningly self-satisfied expression on the child’s face as it is cosseted by its mother. Uglow gives a more visceral mother-child relationship: his ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ (1979-81) captures the mixture of desperation and grief on a mother’s face as she sees her child about to be killed: she shrieks for the child to be saved but knows already that her protestation is in vain. Caulfield’s screen print on paper ‘Coloured Still Life’(1967) shows us three goblets, a jug and a bowl which induce a feeling of calm. So should Uglow’s ’Çiftlik Köyü’ (1966), a still life with sunshine, a blue sea and, in its foreground, a white mosque. But the peaceful depiction of its content unavoidably reminds us that it was painted at a time when a mosque could be shown without it arousing overtones of theological or cultural conflict. This is art which grabs our attention and makes us realise that traditional ways of seeing still have validity.

Nevertheless, we must not only admire the art we see here but also return to the exhibition’s title. These artists had personal relationships in various ways: Bacon and Freud were habitues of post-war Soho; Coldstream, Freud and Hamilton taught at the Slade while Andrews and Uglow studied there; Auerbach, Caulfield, Hockney and Kossoff were students at the Royal College of Art. But whether - as is said inthe title of the exhibition- we should call these relationships ‘conversations’, a word with overtones of intimacy, discussion and evaluation, is open to question.

Like all students, teachers and painters, they doubtless indulged in their fair share of rants in the refectory and prattling in the pub. But the influences they had on one another probably came primarily from seeing, rather than discussing, from the visual impact made by, and the appreciation of, each other’s work rather than discussion in a formal, verbal sense. What they did share was a love of representational work and, one suspects, a bloody-minded determination to plough their artistic furrows however unfashionable - or unsettling - they might be. The unique nature of the contributions of each individual artist should be rigorously respected.

And that last point leads us nicely on to consider that what is important about this exhibition is not only its content but its location at this achingly-trendy, revamped gallery located in London’s West End. It is a timely contrast with the East End arts’ scene, with the added attraction that it has a content which is constructive and without any overtones of jerry-built controversy designed to garner column inches rather than provide visual and cerebral stimulation. It has gathered masters of observation to make us look afresh at body and landscape. We should also note that, almost within paint-flicking distance, the Royal Academy has recently appointed Tracey Emin Professor of Drawing. While some may feel that her fame has more to do with (self) advertising rather than art, this appointment is a recognition of her abilities to combine the hard application of a classical tool, drawing – with all the skills it involves and which makes its practitioners think about what it is they wish to depict - with the ability to shock. It would be good to think that Mayfair is set to work some magic in the art scene by promoting the power of artistic orthodoxy when properly understood and applied by, and appreciated through, fresh eyes.

Till18 February 2012

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