Essays by James Hyman

Beyond the Human Clay

Beyond the Human Clay

 
 

In 1976 the great figurative painter and polemicist R.B.Kitaj organized a group exhibition for the Arts Council of Great Britain entitled The Human Clay. To mark the 35th anniversary of Kitaj's seminal exhibition and to celebrate a decade of exhibitions focused on Twentieth Century British figurative art at James Hyman Fine Art, Beyond The Human Clay presents a selection of some of the greatest British artists of the last half century.
Essay by James Hyman
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Beyond the Human Clay


The bottom line is that there are artistic personalities in this small island more unique and strong and I think numerous than anywhere in the world outside America's jolting artistic vigourThere is a substantial School of Londonif some of the strange and fascinating personalities you may encounter here were given a fraction of the international attention and encouragement reserved in this barren time for provincial and orthodox vanguardism, a School of London might become even more real than the one I have construed in my head. A School of real London in England, in Europe with potent art lessons for foreigners emerging from this odd old, put upon, very singular place. Kitaj, The Human Clay, 1976.



To mark the 35th anniversary of Kitaj's seminal Arts Council exhibition, The Human Clay, James Hyman Fine Art is staging an exhibition commemorating this important moment in British art. For Kitaj the exhibition was a means of demonstrating the importance of drawing and of study from life, not just to the figurative painter, but for all artists, and the artists he selected was a deliberately diverse selection, including sculptors as well as painters.

Beyond The Human Clay is divided into two parts: the first focuses on a selection of the artists chosen by Kitaj and the second part presents a selection of younger artists for whom drawing has been an important part of their practise. At a time when art schools are once more under threat from government cuts, the exhibition is a timely reminder of the diversity of practice stemming from a skill at drawing.


School of London

Kitaj's major early painting, The Bells of Hell , is a manifesto painting in its daringly expressive fractured figuration. A bold, direct image, The Bells of Hell is distinctive in being overtly about America and American history as well as engaging with the latest European figurartion and, most notably, the fragmented bodies of Francis Bacon, whom Kitaj praised in one of his very first pieces of published writing. The colours reference the American flag, the subject depicts an important event in American history - General Custer and the Battle of Little Bighorn - and the imagery overtly borrows symbolic motifs from American-Indian pictographs. Inspired by American Indian images in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, Kitaj boldly adopts the formal aspects of his source to bisect the picture and disregards conventional perspective and spatial arrangements in an emphasis on the front plane which also addresses the modernist concerns of his New York School compatriots.

As such, the painting is not only one that Kitaj, himself, considered to be one of his most important Pop Art paintings, but also a manifesto for the type of inventive figuration that he sought.

Kitaj as both painter and polemicist was as one of the most sophisticated and iconographically complex artists of the last half-century, combining physicality with intellect in paintings whose complex themes often needed explicating by the artist in accompanying texts. An American in London, he was initially identified as a pioneer of Pop Art before recontextualising himself as a School of London painter alongside admired contemporaries that included Andrews, Auerbach, Bacon, Freud and Kossoff.

Paradoxically, it was Kitaj, an American who had come to England at the end of the 1950s, who was the most vociferous proselytiser for British figurative painting.

In 1975 the Arts Council invited the figurative painter, Patrick George, to buy work for their collection, which he presented in an intimate exhibition called Drawings of People, and the following year the theme of this show was reinforced by the purchases of R.B. Kitaj, which were showcased in the complementary exhibition The Human Clay. Such promotion gave especial prominence to art school teaching and to the fundamental importance of life drawing. Frequently the suggestion of continuity, through the presentation of such `traditions' as an essential characteristic of the best British art, was used as a riposte to the supposed decadence to be found elsewhere, particularly in America.

The Human Clay mainly comprised drawings and was accompanied by a highly personalised catalogue essay, inspired in large part by Kitaj's recent return to life drawing and by his belief in the importance of this practice for both figuration and abstraction. In it, Kitaj briefly wrote of a `School of London', using the term loosely, as he later explained: `I meant that a School had arisen, like School of Paris and School of N.Y., where a number of world class painters and a larger number of good painters had appeared in London maybe for the first time [...] Like NY and Paris, the London School will continue until its best painters die.' `10 years after the Human Clay, The School of London has no peer abroad [...] the artists are just plain gifted beyond the resources of other schools. For the moment, N.Y. seems played out and Paris doesn't count.'

In The Human Clay Kitaj did include those artists now considered to constitute the `core' of the `School of London' - namely Michael Andrews, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff - but he also deliberately blurred distinctions between abstract and figurative artists and to this end selected over 40 other artists.

Arts Council records show that the exhibition attracted over 10,000 visitors, but it appears to have had little immediate impact. Critical priorities were elsewhere and Kitaj's reference to a `School of London' passed unnoticed. Indeed when in 1981 it was proposed once again, this time by the painter, teacher and art historian Lawrence Gowing, he had apparently forgotten Kitaj's earlier reference and claimed authorship of the idea.

but he was not alone in Britain, or internationally, in his ambitions for figurative painting, nor in the way his painting seemed to gain a new vigour in the early 1980s.

The exhibitions and purchases of the Arts Council of Great Britain during the later 1970s did much to encourage this engagement with drawing, painting and figuration. Monographic exhibitions staged by the Arts Council at the Hayward Gallery in London, where Catherine Lampert had a crucial role, included first retrospectives for Lucian Freud in 1974, Frank Auerbach in 1978 and Michael Andrews in 1980. Group shows had a serious polemical function not least those devoted to drawing. In the years after Kitaj and Gowing's references to a `School of London', their broad conception of a `School' became honed down to an almost fixed core of six or seven painters. This `School of London', including Andrews, Auerbach, Bacon, Freud and Kossoff as well as Kitaj, swiftly gained powerful promotion. The label `School of London', despite the often-used prefix `so-called', soon became the dominant framework for the presentation of post-war British figurative painting, despite the reservations of the artist's themselves. Nonetheless the idea has been greeted with little enthusiasm either by the chief beneficiaries or to those to whom it might be extended.

The presentation of a small core of artists owes most to Michael Peppiatt and much to the British Council exhibition, which he curated A School of London: Six Figurative Painters (1987). Presenting Andrews, Auerbach, Bacon, Freud, Kitaj and Kossoff, this powerful exhibition provided a template for future presentations of a `School of London' such as From London (1995). Despite differences, both exhibitions sought to characterise these very different artists in a way that suggested a commonality of interests. Above all, this was a group of artists for whom the Second World War and its aftermath provided a formative milieu and who, with the radicalism of Giacometti in Paris and de Kooning in New York, created a radical contemporary vision of urban man attuned to a new existentialist sensibility. The same line was also pursued in other exhibitions that stressed the distinctive qualities of the immediate post-war period and its resonance for the painters of the `School'. Prominent among these were The Hard Won Image (1984), The Forgotten Fifties (1984) and The Transformation of Appearance (1991).

An apotheosis was reached in 1987, when the core artists of the `School of London' held centre stage at the most significant precursor to the present exhibition, the Royal Academy's controversial survey British Art of the Twentieth Century: The Modern Movement. This gave Andrews, Auerbach, Bacon, Freud and Kossoff the main gallery of the exhibition. It thereby placed figurative painters of diverse ethnic backgrounds, physically and symbolically, at the heart of a national tradition.

The effect of such exhibitions was to stress national continuity and specifically to secure the perception that contemporary figurative practice was embedded within a national `tradition' of art school teaching. The creation of international contexts for British figurative painting would add an entirely new dimension, reasserting the radicalism and contemporary resonance of these artists.

Nonetheless, it soon became apparent that in the promotion of British figurative painting, it was not the new heights reached by these artists, nor their radical pursuit of the real, that was at the forefront of the claims made for them. Instead, all too often, their work was appropriated and presented as an antidote to the excesses perceived in international vanguard culture. In Britain the critic, Peter Fuller, had an undeniable importance through his pioneering essays of the 1970s and 1980s, championing critically neglected artists such as Bomberg, Auerbach and Kossoff, but all too frequently, his acute insights into these artists were blunted by the role he assigned to them as a riposte to all that he deplored in contemporary, especially American, culture. Similarly, in America, Robert Hughes used the pages of Time to deride the art he saw around him in New York and to praise the supposedly antithetical values represented by Freud and Auerbach.

In the wake of A New Spirit in Painting exhibitions gave a new prominence to British figurative painters. The British Council exhibition, The Proper Study (1984), demonstrated directly the legacy of A New Spirit in Painting , whilst its moralising title exemplified the `high seriousness' that became associated with the British artists contribution to this international concern, against which many of the `Young British Artists' of the 1990s would react. Special issues of art journals also emphasised the position of the `School of London' at the heart of this perceived revival - most notably, special issues of Art International in 1987 and of Art and Design in 1988. The former focused on the `core' artists of the `School' and the latter, although entitled `British Art Now' was entirely devoted to English and Scottish figurative painters of different genrations, with the exception of an interview with the sculptor Tony Cragg.

Narrative painting also enjoyed a higher degree of promotion. In England it was articulately championed by Timothy Hyman, and in Scotland it dominated exhibitions of young Scottish artists, most notably, in the exhibition The Vigorous Imagination. New Scottish Art (1987). Unlike elders such as Bacon, Freud, Kossoff, Auerbach and Uglow, who all sought to deny narrative and to concentrate on the single figure, young Scottish artists developed a bold, colourful, large-scale narrative painting, most often frequented by powerful young men. Ken Currie's workers had a political edge, Steven Campbell's stories were at once fantastic and prosaic, Adrian Wiszniewski's languid young men were the artist's alter ego and Stephen Conroy's scenes suggested the honeyed nostalgia for a bygone age.

Meanwhile, in London, a preoccupation with the expressive power of paint led several young artists to work in the boarders between abstraction and figuration and incorporation of landscape elements allowed critics such as Keith Patrick to champion a new romantic sensibility, shared by artists such as Christopher Le Brun, Thérèse Oulton and Hughie O'Donoghue. Le Brun's powerful large-scale paintings suggested an elusive, half-glimpsed subject, the whispered remains of a past civilisation. Oulton's intricate paintings were at once suggestive of the late landscapes of Turner and the delicacy of Rembrandt's painting of ruffs; they suggested both a world coming in and out of view and a reverence for the traces of the past. O'Donoghue, meanwhile, created a powerful elemental realm of tempestuous seas and skies and an earthy land filled with peat bog men. Somewhat to one side was Tony Bevan whose one-person show at the ICA in 1987 revealed an artist who combined powerful handling of form with a moving social concern that was the legacy of a strong vein of political and social engagement that ran through much British art of the 1970s and early 1980s. Painted with sensitivity and compassion, Bevan pictures were a tender chronicle of those around him.

However, whilst the paintings of such younger artists suggested an awe of their elders, whether it be the great artists of the past or more immediately those of the `School of London', such parameters would be profoundly challenged in the spring of 1985, when Charles and Doris Saatchi opened their magnificent gallery in Boundary Road, in north London, to show works from their collection.

The opening of the Saatchi Collection was a revelation. Its unsurpassed inaugural exhibitions gave British artists unprecedented exposure to the most important contemporary artists in the world. The experience was overwhelming. The minimal beauty of the warehouse building, the massive scale of its spaces, the in-depth presentation of each artist, and the immense power of its first exhibition of Judd, Marden, Twombly and Warhol immediately established London as one of the most significant places to see contemporary art in the whole world. This, and the gallery's third exhibition of Anselm Kiefer and Richard Serra (1986-87), were undoubtedly two of the outstanding shows of the decade. The impact on the priorities of young artists was profound.

In a powerful statement of his belief in the international stature of British art, Saatchi also began to amass substantial holdings of Andrews, Auerbach, Caulfield, Freud, Hodgkin, Kitaj, Kossoff, Milroy, Morley, Murphy, Newman, Rego, Scully, Weight and Willing. This culminated in exhibitions of Kossoff, Auerbach and Freud at the decade's end. It also led to the publication of New British Art in the Saatchi Collection (1989), which even included a section entitled `School of London', and was compiled by Alistair Hicks, whose book The School of London; the resurgence of contemporary painting appeared in the same year. In each case the approach spanned generations, with Saatchi's inclusion of the venerable Carel Weight and the younger artists, Lisa Milroy and Avis Newman, anticipating the more commercial considerations, which informed Hicks' book. This use of the elders of the `School' to help market the achievements of later generations would also be evident a decade later, with the travelling exhibition L'Ecole de Londres: de Bacon à Bevan in 1998.

Saatchi's presentations of contemporary art were complemented by those of the Whitechapel Art Gallery which, under the directorship of Nicholas Serota (1976-88), held major exhibitions of ambitious, expressive, twentieth century figurative painting. These included Guston's late figurative work, Beckmann's triptychs, and Kiefer's meditations on German history, as well as shows foregrounding radical sculptures, from the survey exhibition British Sculpture of the 20th Century to the work of Eva Hesse and Janis Kounellis. Alongside this went the growing internationalism of the Anthony d'Offay Gallery. Initially a specialist in early twentieth century British art, including Camden Town and Bloomsbury Group artists, d'Offay transformed his gallery into London's pre-eminent venue for contemporary international art, introducing a new glamour to the London art world.

By the end of the 1980s everything was changing. In the midst of this new internationalism came a new wave of art school graduates, who unsurprisingly brought with them a new attitude. At the forefront were the students of Goldsmiths Art College, who were presented, initially at least, as the antithesis of the `School of London'. Whilst the `School of London' was essentially male, there was now a gender balance. Whilst the School had been polemically championed for its continuation of `traditional' methods and media, young artists now took a pragmatic, rather than ideological approach to the use of any media to hand. Furthermore, whereas the `School of London', despite its immigrant composition, was presented at the heart of a British tradition, younger artists now allied themselves to international trends. And most crucially, whilst subjectivity, empiricism and hermeticisim had been defining characteristics, now younger artists were more detached, less referential and more ironic.

As the decade came to an end, the high seriousness of the `School of London' and the lofty claims made for British figurative painting were challenged by new priorities. Critical attention was about to shift again.



Although painting and print-making was included Kitaj's focus was drawing and Beyond The Human Clay likewise includes work in all these media but with a particular focus on drawing.

The Human Clay mainly comprised drawings and was accompanied by a highly personalised catalogue essay, inspired in large part by Kitaj's recent return to life drawing and by his belief in the importance of this practice for both figuration and abstraction. In it, Kitaj briefly wrote of a `School of London', using the term loosely, as he later explained: 'I meant that a School had arisen, like School of Paris and School of N.Y., where a number of world class painters and a larger number of good painters had appeared in London maybe for the first time [...] Like NY and Paris, the London School will continue until its best painters die.'... '10 years after the Human Clay, The School of London has no peer abroad [...] the artists are just plain gifted beyond the resources of other schools. For the moment, N.Y. seems played out and Paris doesn't count.at a time of comparative sobriety after the excesses of the last decade, it is timely to remember this moment and to present not just painters who continue to remain at the forefront of critical attention but also overlooked artists and those with more recent reputations.

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