Accompanied the exhibition, curated and with an essay by James Hyman.
Half a century ago the Hanover Gallery, then London's most important showcase for international Modern art, staged the first major one person exhibitions of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. Bacon's exhibition in 1949 was a revelation and the coincidental issue of the leading cultural journal Horizon, reproducing many of Bacon's recent paintings, became a bible for younger artists. Then a few months later in April-May 1950 Lucian Freud's exhibition established the brilliant young illustrator as one of the most powerful portrait painters of post war Europe. Together these exhibitions of 1949 and 1950 were of such importance that in many ways they established the foundations for figurative painting for decades to come.
The response of the young critic David Sylvester was swift and enthusiastic. He proclaimed that Bacon was the leading artist to have emerged in post war Europe and that Freud had `produced easily the best portraits painted in this country during the last decade.' Just a few years later, Sylvester would welcome Frank Auerbach's first exhibition at the Beaux Arts Gallery with similar enthusiasm. In a review accompanied by a reproduction of Auerbach's Head of Leon Kossoff Sylvester wrote that: `Auerbach [...] has given us, at the age of twenty four, what seems to me the most exciting and impressive first one man show by an English painter since Francis Bacon in 1949.' The first exhibitions of Auerbach in 1956 and Kossoff in 1957 provided realism with new vitality.
At the centre of these artist's work was the individual and at the heart of its promotion was a championing of individual freedom - a feature also of the coincidental promotion of American abstraction expressionism. Whilst in America Clement Greenberg's `abstract expressionists' and Harold Rosenberg's `action painters' were presented as visionaries and the artwork was perceived as an arena for psychic exploration, in Britain Bacon, Freud, Auerbach and Kossoff defiantly pushed figurative painting to its limits to create a radical new realism.
In doing so, these artists shared with the American abstract expressionists a stress on mark-making as an indicator of authorial identity - a leitmotif of both Romantic and Modernist conceptions of creativity. As in the work of Willem de Kooning the subject is arrested from a state of flux but unlike it, the painting results from intense scrutiny over time not from an insightful glimpse. As in the work of de Kooning these artists heighten the present, but unlike it the subject is gripped so tight that there is little chance that it can slip from reach. As in the work of de Kooning there is a matter of factness about the finished painting, but unlike it the result suggests effort not ease.
Bacon's chance, Freud's interrogation, Auerbach's adventure and Kossoff's gesture stand at the end of a line of struggle that may be traced through Giacometti's trembling forms to Cézanne's aesthetic of uncertainty. Always the experience of the final work comes with an assertion of the labour involved in its creation. If Picasso represents endless apparently effortless creativity then Giacometti is the antithesis. His work is unresolved and uncertain, it recognises that a definitive statement is impossible. That time cannot be frozen. As in Eliot's Four Quartets, these are paintings about process, flux and generation, about working and reworking; paintings in which the final image never fully obliterates what has gone before and in which the paint appears still to move and take form.
As it was for Cézanne and Giacometti, so it is for these artsts: drawing is the means by which a subject may be grasped. The basis of Freud's early reputation lay in his draughtsmanship, Bacon privately made numerous preparatory studies, Auerbach's draws to underpin his bravura performances and Kossoff even writes of painting as a form of drawing. Indeed even though early reviews of Kossoff and Auerbach referred to Dubuffet, their laboured surfaces can be more usefully compared to those of Giacometti whose surfaces are the unconscious result of the working process and not a contrived effect. As in Courbet's pioneering realism, the patterns of colour over the picture surface relate not only to visual phenomenon but also to tactile or manual patterns or movements. The paint surface acts, not so much as a screen for the projection of the image or as a window to something distant, but rather as something that is within grasp and resistant to the pressure of the hand. In this way the opaque surfaces of Bacon, Freud, Kossoff and Auerbach share with Modernism an emphasis on the materiality of the surface and the properties of the paint itself. No longer is the painting conceived as a window through which objects may be rendered in a normative, undistorted way.
Above all what matters is the intimacy. This is Man as a private rather than a social animal. This is art about the individual not the community, about making sense of one's own inner world. The artist does not simply view a scene but is an integral part of it and often we seem to have intruded upon a moment of crisis. Tough and without compromise, this figuration emphasises the artist's closeness to his subject - whether it be a friend, family member or local neighbourhood - and foregrounds the immediacy of the artist's response to what is before him.
It is the properties of paint that make these works so compelling. Bacon's ejaculatory paint and smeared bodies show his urgent commitment to the human subject. Freud's worried surfaces reflect his alchemical desire that paint should become flesh. Auerbach's exhilarting paint conveys an ecstatic moment in which a heightened awareness of paint suddenly coexists with the springing to life of the subject. Kossoff's expressionism captures the intensity of a specific encounter and its personal resonance.
Today these artists radical rethinking of the potential of art to address questions of mortality remains of profound relevance and may be discerned in some of the iconic works of the last decade: Damien Hirst's animals, Rachel Whiteread's eery memorials, Marc Quinn's blood head and Anya Gallaccio's dying flowers all provide a jolting visceral experience behind which lurks a dramatic preoccupation with death. The work of Bacon, Freud, Auerbach and Kossoff may now be part of history but it remains as much of our time as it did half a century ago.
© 2021 James Hyman Gallery, PO Box 72888,
LONDON N2 2FH