Issue Number: 113
Post-war British figurative art has long been seriously underrated. Now three new exhibitions are providing an eloquent challenge to that view. Richard Cork reports
Lucian Freud’s death in July this year prompted a widespread recognition of his long, sustained achievement. So visitors will doubtless flock to London’s National Portrait Gallery in February next year, when it opens a major exhibition assessing his steely, incisive mastery as a painter of portraits.
Lucian Freud, 'Reflection' (Self-portrait), 1985. Private Collection, Ireland © Lucian Freud/Courtesy Lucian Freud Archive. This retrospective survey starts with his precocious early works and culminates in a large, unfinished portrait of Freud’s assistant David Dawson posing naked with his dog Eli – Portrait of the Hound (2011). The show will present a formidable challenge to anyone who believes that portraiture has no place in modern art at its most adventurous.
Planned before Freud’s death, the show will now be seen as a well-timed tribute to the artist’s obsessive fascination with sitters as diverse as Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, the performance artist Leigh Bowery, the fourth Baron Rothschild, and Sue Tilley, the benefits supervisor who posed naked in several monumental works during the 1990s. There are 11 self-portraits in the show, including Reflection (Self-portrait) from 1985.
Alongside the NPG show, Freud’s reputation as a draughtsman is re-examined at the new commercial gallery Blain|Southern. William Feaver, a leading authority on the artist, curated the show and points out that for Freud ‘drawing remained, for over 70 years, the basis of his art’. This exhibition is the most comprehensive survey ever to be mounted of Freud’s works on paper, ranging from etchings and watercolours to drawings in chalk, pastel, ink and charcoal. The display of over 100 works, including Boy in Red and Blue Jacket (1945), prove that his impressive command of line underpinned everything he achieved as an artist. Some of his earliest works explore a fantasy realm filled with fairies and goblins. But Freud soon began to explore the faces of his family and close friends, such as Francis Bacon, as well as scrutinising landscapes and animals.
Lucian Freud, 'Boy in Red and Blue Jacket', 1945. © Lucian Freud, courtesy of Lucian Freud Archive. Freud’s work also features in ‘The Mystery of Appearance’, a boldly conceived show at Haunch of Venison. The title echoes Bacon, who once declared: ‘The mystery of painting today is how appearance can be made. I know it can be illustrated, I know it can be photographed. But how can this thing be made so that you can catch the mystery of appearance within the mystery of the making?’ The show’s curator, former Whitechapel Art Gallery director Catherine Lampert, describes the show as a series of ‘conversations between ten British post-war painters.’ They include Bacon and Freud, along with Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Patrick Caulfield, William Coldstream, Richard Hamilton, David Hockney, Leon Kossoff and Euan Uglow. But Lampert says her aim is to reveal ‘the extraordinary quality and liveliness of these artists’ and ‘to suggest fresh, tangential connections’. She says their achievements ‘are still persistently underrated in non-British accounts’. In US museums the story of art after the Second World War ‘includes hardly any British artists apart from Bacon, partly because art, led by America, was going in the direction of abstraction, and also because British museums have been timid in telling the story of British art’.
Francis Bacon, 'Pope I – Study after Pope Innocent X by Velásquez', 1951. Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections. The show, says Lampert, has four themes: ‘paintings of single people, not classic portraits or nudes but products of the sitter and the artist; paintings realised by way of very rich, organic forms derived from people and nature; pictures with direct reference to museums and to classic genres like interiors and landscape; and finally art that records life, sometimes with the filter of photographs and preparatory studies or set-ups.’
Lampert believes there are times when these artists are in regular conversation with each other about their work. ‘When Hamilton was a student at the Slade, he was very close to his teacher Coldstream. Kossoff and Uglow had a very high regard for each other’s work, and Bacon once asked Auerbach if they could collaborate on a painting. Auerbach refused, but Bacon was clearly fascinated by this young artist.’ Lampert herself is one of Auerbach’s regular sitters: ‘I’ve been going to his studio for 33 years, and Frank tells me lots of anecdotes.’
Lampert has secured some impressive loans, such as Bacon’s powerful painting Pope I – Study after Pope Innocent X by Velázquez (1951), Michael Andrews’s The Thames at Low Tide (1994-95), Patrick Caulfield’s screenprint Coloured Still Life (1967) and David Hockney RA’s Man in a Museum (Or You’re In The Wrong Movie) from 1962. She hopes the show will encourage UK museums to be more daring in presenting British figurative art.