Essays by James Hyman

A "School of London" in little England



James Hyman
Art Monthly
November 1991


The Tate Gallery's latest venture outside London, an exhibition of paintings loaned from its collection, has just opened at the Sainsbury Centre, Univ. of East Anglia, entitled `The Transformation of Appearance'. It presents just five artists: Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Leon Kossoff, a list that is so familiar that the title need not spell it out. This is the `School of London' in what Michael Peppiatt has described as its `core'. The selection could not be more orthodox, but it is time to question seriously the narrowness of this presentation.

In the past, critics have most often dismissed the `School' as a marketing ploy, but is attacking it as a myth nurtured by dealers hitting the principal target? The term `School of London', as it is most commonly used, is primarily an institutional and curatorial construct rather than a commercial phenomenon. In this it differs significantly from its proposal by Kitaj as a generous all-embracing label in `The Human Clay' Hayward Gallery, 1976. The idea of a `core' of artists was developed through a series of public exhibitions: Andrews, Auerbach, Bacon, Freud and Kossoff were presented together at the Tate Gallery in 1985; in 1987 the Royal Academy staged the exhibition `British Art in the Twentieth Century' which toured Europe and included R.B. Kitaj, who was also in the British Council show `A School of London: Six Figurative Painters' the same year Five of the six were again presented together in the first rehang of the Tate Gallery 1990 and this new exhibition continues the trend. However, its title, `The Transformation of Appearance', a deliberately unspecific choice, highlights the Tate Gallery's problematic attitude towards a `School'. The very institution that did so much to propagate the notion has proved notably coy in its own use of the label (in public at least). Yet the idea of a `School', whether overtly acknowledged or not, has taken root and at present dictates the display of British figurative painting made since 1945. There is clearly a distinction to be made between shunning the use of the label and dismissing the idea itself. The situation, as its stands, suggests that not using the label `School of London' is now even more problematic than using it. Its use, at least, serves as an explicit reminder of its artifice.

The crucial question, of course, is whether this grouping has any historical legitimacy If it was argued that it simply reflected the best British figurative artists this particular question could be avoided. Unfortunately, though, the selection is not simply presented as a `best of British', it is packaged as historically valid. The `Transformation of Appearance' shows us this myth-making process in action: all the works come from the Tate except for one notable exception, Michael Andrews's The Colony Room of 1962. Even Andrews's most impassioned supporters would not claim that this transitional represented him at his best. Yet it is The Colony Room that has become a leitmotif in presentations of the `School of London'. Why? Because its portraits of Bacon and Freud and depiction of the legendary Soho drinking club enshrine the idea of a group.

The exclusion of Kitaj from `The Transformation of Appearance' is also orthodox. Kitaj often appears in the `core' but this has been widely criticised. Kitaj came onto the scene later than the others so it is suggested that he should be omitted to give greater credibility to the School by rooting it in the 1950s. But to exclude Kitaj is merely to fiddle about. The real problem is the idea of a core. Why should it be limited to a handful of painters?

As a banner headline the School of London may indeed bring increased public awareness, but at what price? As the dominant and increasingly unacknowledged framework for discussion the School is deeply flawed: closures stultify rather than stimulate; to dress up is one thing, to straight-jacket quite another Since the war this country has had some of the strongest artists at work anywhere and the School undoubtedly includes some of these. However, the repeated presentation of so few artists is contributing to an ever worsening myopia, a failure to address properly the work of those included and an increasing marginalisation of those omitted. It is likely to lead to a backlash.

This has all been a very recent phenomenon. A decade ago the Tate used rooms 46 and 47 for British figure painting and used changing displays to present, among others, David Bomberg, Craigie Aitchison, John Lessore, Rodrigo Moynihan, Raymond Mason, Euan Uglow and Sheila Fell in addition to those already mentioned. The Tate's `The Hard Won Image' Summer 1984, which highlighted the role played by Helen Lessore and her Beaux Arts Gallery, did something similar. Taken together they indicate that the legitimacy of applying the term `School' to these artists might be increased if it could be defined more precisely and less narrowly - these two aspects need not be contradictory.

However, the nationalism of the idea and of a proposed tradition of English empiricism adds further problems. Is it valid to trace a lineage back through Coldstream and the Slade and through Euston Road and Camden Town? Is there really such a figurative tradition within British art? If there is, then does it provide a useful conceptual framework for discussion of post-war figuration? What of Francis Bacon, for instance? Within the context of the School of London, Bacon's relationship to French art is almost ignored and his indebtedness to Surrealism altogether hidden. Furthermore, if one wishes to find examples of fidelity to the subject and the rigours of life drawing one might equally well look abroad. Given the familiarity of his work and his personal links with British artists, one is unlikely to find a more relevant artist than Alberto Giacometti.

The Tate Gallery itself has so far failed to present a convincing alternative to an English tradition. This is ironic. A celebrated feature of the recent Tate Gallery rehangs is their reintegration of British art with that of Europe and America. But although this has often exposed the comparative shortcomings of British art, it has so far failed to make the most of one of the few areas in which Britain is at the forefront and where such contextualising might be most fruitful, namely post-war figuration. Sadly, there has been little attempt to display British figurative artists alongside contemporaries such as Balthus, Dubuffet, Giacometti, Morandi, de Stael and even de Kooning. (At the Univ. of East Anglia, the Sainsbury's wonderful Giacometti drawings and sculptures are by happy coincidence, displayed nearby.)

When it comes to the post-war years we still seem to be in the grip of a persistent, even pernicious `Little Englandism', an insularity that presents figurative artists of whatever background as part of a national tradition and marginalises their place as part of a band of international painters whose bloody-minded pursuit of `appearance' was intensified by the hegemony of abstraction. Even `The Pursuit of the Real: From Sickert to Bacon' Manchester City Art Gallery and Barbican, London, 1990, an exhibition which boasted a wonderful selection of painters and paintings, was marred by its attempts to locate the School within a British tradition. This it did through an extremely selective catalogue of earlier artists and individual works. Stanley Spencer, for example, was represented, or rather misrepresented, as 'Secular Stan', a painter of single figures and tormented self-portraits. A facile comparison of Spencer and Lucian Freud transformed a Christian embedded in community into an existential angst-ridden painter of isolated figures. If this is an acceptable approach, if such `rereadings' are really the way forward, then no doubt we will shortly be persuaded that Lucian Freud is the progeny of Dod Proctor!

It is time to rethink time for a new strategy. We are frequently told, in literature about the School, that its artists go `against the grain'. In fact the very idea of a School does precisely that but in ways that are less heroic. It flies in the face of the work itself and the evidence of an internationalised art world. If these artists have a bond it is a dogged single-mindedness. If they have a creed it is a stress on the individual. Theirs is no shared aesthetic and their attitudes to representation are diverse. Furthermore, the successive declines of the Schools of Paris and New York do not mean that there is a vacuum to be filled as Alistair Hicks jingoistically suggests in The School of London Phaidon, 1989. All the evidence points to the reverse: an increasingly decentralised art world, a breakdown of orthodoxies and a potentially healthy pluralism. Champions of a School of London have missed the Modernist boat.

There are perhaps two ways forward. As an alternative to group exhibitions, one-person exhibitions of artists, both familiar and neglected, devoted entirely to recent work offer a temporary antidote to spurious over-historicising. The display of recent pictures would combat charges of conservatism, ossification and irrelevance (and it is encouraging to note that the Whitechapel has taken the first steps along such a path). We need to get away from the precious packaging of `Modern Masters'.

But perhaps the most exhilarating strategy would he to liberate the paintings completely from their familiar context, to let them breathe again. A group show without a thesis would be a welcome start. Work could be chosen in all media, from any country and even any century to create a show justified simply by the quality of its exhibits (exhibits that could perhaps be left uncaptioned). A transhistorical approach would throw off the shackles of an alleged tradition or ideology. It would empower visitors to respond with a minimum of mediation or direction and encourage and even provoke their own personal, inner dialogues. I could even imagine an exhibition that used provocative juxtapositions to challenge preconceptions: Cave Paintings with Auerbach's early work; Romanesque carved Tympani with Kossoff's `friezes' of life outside Kilburn Underground -one could think of numerous examples that would restore a sense of immediacy and make the paintings live in the minds of the viewer!

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