A trio of exceptional paintings – by David Hockney RA (b.1937), Francis Bacon (1909-92) and Peter Doig (b.1959) – is now on view
at Christie’s King Street (until 13 Feb), providing the opportunity to see some of the best of British painters of the 20th century and giving a masterclass in modern painting.
Each work represents a key moment in the artist’s career, when they were developing their painterly language and moving in a new direction. Painted from the artist’s studio rather than life, these works express mood and memory rather than describing a specific time and place. I introduce them here and in the film clips below, Francis Outred, Christie’s Head of Post-War and Contemporary Art Europe, tells me about each work and its history.
David Hockney’s ‘Great Pyramid of Giza with Broken Head from Thebes’, 1963, is his first major painting of the sun-drenched South, with his now iconic palm tree cutting through the dry heat of the white canvas.
A consummate draftsman, Hockney covers the canvas with a rich variety of marks that give this painting the improvisational, almost experimental feeling of a drawing. He also compresses the Pyramid landscape into a flat, frontal, graphic surface, filled with dream-like objects from his six-month sojourn in Egypt, that stick out of the desert sand like images from a poem. Here we see the beginning of his fascination with questioning perspective, with looking at a landscape as we see and feel it rather than through the prism of traditional foreground and background. In this work, he is also evolving a new more graphic style of figuration and launching the sunny iconography of palm trees and water that would later become famous in his California paintings.
Hockney has written memorably in RA Magazine
and elsewhere that the camera can lie and that painting enables us to see nature more richly and fully. In ‘Great Pyramid at Giza’ we see him beginning to explore these ideas.
Francis Bacon’s ‘Man in Blue VI’ from 1954 is the penultimate work in this key series of post-war paintings of men in suits sitting at their desks like prisoners in a cage, their power seeping from their faces into the dark void of the canvas that dwarfs and dominates them.
It is worth making a special trip to view this painting if only for the phenomenal face, so small in relation to the rest of the canvas. Bacon has painted a finely wrought, almost filmic face with one of his trademark screaming smiles, but then he slashes his paintbrush over it and the man’s face seems to melt and quiver before our eyes. It is the very chaos of this brushstroke, the element of chance that could have destroyed the composition, which makes it such an extraordinary piece of virtuoso painting.
Peter Doig’s ‘Architect’s Home in the Ravine’ 1991 also plays with chaos and control in painting: at first glance the skeins of white paint covering the canvas seem random but they are really snowy branches through which we glimpse the house beyond. Are we looking through the trees to the house or is the house the background for the snowy landscape surrounding it?
In Doig’s painting, elements move in and out of focus as we look at it and move around this massive, six-foot canvas. He is playing with ways of seeing and painting, using fine lines and planes of colour on the house, thick impasto on the branches and blobs of colourful paint for the snow. Up close the surface is so dense with paint it almost looks like a relief. The painting never stands still, never resolves itself into one thing or another – are we looking at the landscape or the house? Is it real or a dream? Instead Doig suggests that the way we see the world around us is always mediated – just as we can only see this house through the trees, we see objects through others, filtered through experience, rather than in isolation.
At the time he left art school in the early 1990s, Conceptual Art was in the forefront and painting was unfashionable. But Doig maintained, then as now, that painting is conceptual as well as physical, and in his hands – as well as in this early painting – it becomes a poetic and powerful medium for exploring the way we see our world.
- The works are on view at Christie's King Street
from 11am-5pm on Saturday 9 February, 12pm-5pm on Sunday 10 February, 9am-7pm on Monday 11 February, 9am-6pm on Tuesday 12 February and 9am-4pm on Wednesday 13 February.