Essays by James Hyman

From tragedy to joie de vivre: some thoughts on the work of Bacon, Freud, Kossoff and Auerbach

From tragedy to joie de vivre: 
some thoughts on the work of Bacon, Freud, Kossoff and Auerbach


Essay by James Hyman


In 1952, in one of the first major essays on Francis Bacon, the leading British critic Robert Melville, vividly described the corporeal presence of Bacon's paintings: 'the paint runs thin like blood or coagulates into scabs, for Bacon has an alchemist's obsession with the making of flesh.' This observation encapsulates not only Bacon's aspirations but also those of several of the leading British artist's of the last half century. It links Francis Bacon with Lucian Freud, who has written of his intention to make his paint come alive, and links them both to the physical immediacy of Auerbach's models and the writhing forms of Kossoff's subjects.

Underscoring the intentions of all these extraordinary artists is the desire to make paintings that do not merely resemble life but that possess a life of their own: not a mirror of life but an equivalence to it. The life they depict ranges extensively in mood but may be characterised by a sense of tragedy. Tragic in the sense that behind each painting is both a portentousness and a sense of mortality. There may be an exhilarating sense of immediacy and in recent work, especially, a sparkling joie de vivre, but there is also often an awareness of what T.S. Eliot memorably described as 'the skull beneath the skin'. This is not to say that the subjects appear weak. Indeed a feature shared by all four of these painters is the stoicism that they find within their sitters. There may be a pensiveness to their portrait subjects, but equally there is resilience. These people are survivors.

This is a sensibility shared by some of the greatest paintings in Western art. The recent exhibition of Titian, at the National Gallery in London, demonstrated a similar coexistence of vitality with death and beauty with violence and it is no coincidence that Auerbach and Kossoff have both made direct studies from Titian. Perhaps the greatest ever painter of flesh, Titian was also a supreme dramatist who succeeded in bestowing on moments of immense violence a sense of orchestrated calm. Not for him the temptations of expressionism to signal an emotional response. Nor, for him the easy option of painting types. Instead each person, whether man or god, is presented with empathy and as an individual. The compositions may be supremely composed and the multiple figures related with sophistication, but we are also encouraged to engage with each figure individually.

Something similar is evident in the pictures in the present exhibition. A Bacon composition may be magnificently arranged, a Lucian Freud may be daring in its theatricality, an Auerbach may be exhilarating in its imaginative leaps and a Kossoff epic in its scale, but still what moves us most is the individuals shown. As with Titian, we are shown moments when, even within a collective situation, individual traits reveal themselves. We are presented with moments in which the public self is stripped away and what is left is the private being.

What we also feel is that the artist has not simply viewed the scene but that he is also an integral part of it. Indeed as a viewer, it may sometimes feel like we 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 intimate response to what is before him.

Francis Bacon's portentous portraits and figure paintings demonstrate the way that he reinvented and reconfigured the human body as part of his attempt to reveal the Human Condition. Lucian Freud's fascination with others is evident in intense portraits, in which psychological scrutiny is matched by a sense of the physicality of the subject, which is given a density unmatched since Gustave Courbet. Auerbach's bold use of paint is evident in early work in which the accumulation of layers adds to the toughness of the image and more recent work in which the daring sweeps of paint convey an exhilarating response to the subject. Kossoff's desire to grasp his subject and to convey an immediate response to the people and places he knows best is shown in epic figure urban paintings and intimate portraits.

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 and the role he gave to chance in the creation of his paintings. Freud's worried surfaces reflect his alchemical desire that paint should become flesh. Auerbach's flowing paint conveys an ecstatic moment in which a heightened awareness of paint suddenly coexists with the springing to life of the subject. Kossoff's expressive response captures the intensity of a specific encounter and its personal resonance.

So how are we to account for such extraordinary figure painting and the concentration of so many remarkable artists in London? A starting point may be traced to the aftermath of the Second World War and with what, at the time, was called the battle for realism. This all but forgotten struggle was one of the key moments in the history of British art. For this was the moment, in the late 1940s, when a School of London was proposed for the first time, a challenge to the predominance of the Ecole de Paris and the New York School. Indeed as with both Paris and New York, London was immeasurably enriched by the arrival of artists from abroad: Bacon from Ireland, Freud and Auerbach from Berlin, Kossoff's family from Russia.

This was also the moment when British art was elevated to a heightened status through the international reputations gained by artists such as Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland, Lucian Freud and Henry Moore. While in New York Clement Greenberg's `abstract expressionists' and Harold Rosenberg's `action painters' were prioritising the painted surface and the properties of the paint to create a radical new abstraction, in London Bacon, Freud, Auerbach and Kossoff, defiantly pushed figurative painting to its limits to create a radical modernist realism that also gave a central place to the artist's own actions on the surface of the picture. The ends may have been different but the means were at time strikingly allied and it is perhaps appropriate that with Willem de Kooning dead, Auerbach stands as the most eloquent manipulator of paint alive today.

In London the first showcases for this modernist realism were two of the key galleries of the post war period: Erica Brausen's Hanover Gallery, which gave first one-person exhibitions to Bacon and Freud, and Helen Lessore's Beaux Arts Gallery which exhibited Auerbach and Kossoff for the first time. 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 the Hanover Gallery gave Lucian Freud his first exhibition. Freud had been exhibiting and gaining adulation even while still in his teenage years and his early works already possess immense power, whatever their imitations, but the exhibition firmly established the brilliant young illustrator as one of the most powerful portrait painters of post-war Europe.

The response of the young critic David Sylvester was swift and enthusiastic and he would become one of the greatest champions of these artists. 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 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.

Such exhibitions were of such importance that in many ways they established the foundations for figurative painting for decades to come. Indeed, despite the historical moment to which these artists all contributed: the revival of figurative painting in Europe in the 1940s and 1950s, they all subsequently produced some of their finest paintings. Bacon's later paintings remain under appreciated but may be considered an economical summation of his lifetime's preoccupations. Still the male figure is center-stage but now the violence seems like a distant memory and Bacon's technical virtuosity assumes a new significance. Meanwhile, the panache of Auerbach, provides a vigorous riposte to all those who had characterised British art as drab and depressing. Auerbach's magnificent paintings of London and of those close to him show that behind his preoccupation with drawing their is a dazzling colourist. His sense of the mass of a subject in the round recalls Picasso's pre-Cubist conceptualising of form in paintings of 1906-07, which Auerbach admires. However, in Auerbach's hands Picasso's moment of intense analytic interrogation is transformed into a new, fluid inventiveness. In the cases of both Picasso and Auerbach the firmness of their grip on the underlying structure, something gained from drawing, provides an indispensable prerequisite for ever more daring paintings. This foundation is essential for works in which gesture plays an important part and which are finished in the crisis of a moment

Lucian Freud's paintings, meanwhile, have gone from strength to strength, becoming more and more ambitious with every year that passes. A pointer was provided by paintings of his mother from the later 1970s that introduced a new tenderness, emotional intensity and beauty. Since then, the harshness that was so often a feature of Freud's earlier work has given way to softness, without diminution of intensity, and led to some of the artist's most powerful portraits and figures. Freud's paintings have also become less claustrophobic as his studio has taken on a different function. Where once the studio was an emphatically private realm, since the early eighties it has assumed a more public function, so that in recent works it resembles a stage set full of props (a pile of rags, a chair, a bed, a stool, floor boards) to be peopled by a cast of characters who either dress up or down for the artist, and our, amusement. Whereas paintings from the 1940s were often essentially private, in recent works there is commonly a strong sense of display and the impression that the subject needs, or at least is aware of, an audience.

Kossoff, meanwhile, has steadfastly continued in his pursuit of intimately known subjects. His paintings from life - from Peggy, Fidelma, Sally and others - are amongst the most moving attempts in contemporary art to capture and suspend for a moment the moving presence of the model. At the same time, Kossoff has also painted some of the most powerful depictions of London's churches, trains, railways and streets. In doing so he has roamed from St. Paul's Cathedral to Kilburn Underground station and from the streets of Willesden to Christchurch, Spitalfields. His is a highly personalised view of the city in which the people that fill so many of his cityscapes are often the key to the subject's resonance for the artist. The passing crowds are neither isolated, nor anonymous. Frequently the people depicted, however summarily, are identifiable from the artist's remarkable studio portraits as members of his family or as close friends. As such Kossoff's poignant cityscapes may be read as an attempt to humanise and personalise the modern city.

As such discussion illustrates, the work of Bacon, Freud, Auerbach and Kossoff may have its origins in a tragic sensibility molded by the mid twentieth century, but with each successive year the mood has lightened, new discoveries have been made and new paths traveled. Bacon's later paintings may have revisited earlier themes but they did so with a new lightness of being and in the years since his death the paintings of Freud, Auerbach and Kossoff have all leapt to new levels of achievement.

Now at the height of their powers, what these artist's convey is not merely their respect and even awe at the subject before them, but also their elation at the infinite possibilities of painting. The excitement is palpable. Freud's pursuit of the figure has never lessened yet his paintings become more sophisticated and more playful as they become ever grander. Auerbach's confident grip on form has remained a constant yet now there is an abandonment in his dazzling application of paint. Even Kossoff for whom colour has always been subordinate to drawing has allowed his colour to sing and his emotional range to widen. The elegiac result combines tenderness with lyricism.

Ultimately, then, the work of these artists may now be part of history - standing alongside such international figures as Alberto Giacometti and Willem de Kooning - but it nevertheless remains as vital today as it did half a century ago. Bacon may now be dead, but what is so exciting about the work of Freud, Auerbach and Kossoff is that it is still so immediate. For, despite its fidelity to its roots half a century ago, the work of these artists has never lost its power to elate and surprise as it continues to develop in audacious and inspiring ways.
James Hyman, London, May 2003
Dr. James Hyman is the author of The Battle for Realism. Figurative Art in Britain during the Cold War. 1945-60 (Yale University Press, 2001)

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