Essays by James Hyman

The Persistence of Painting: contexts for British figurative painting. 1975-90

The Persistence of Painting: contexts for British figurative painting. 1975-90


Essay by James HymanFor the full text please see the catalogue of From Blast to Freeze: British Art in the Age of Extremes, Kunstmuseum, Wolfsburg, Germany, October 2002.


A School of London: National Contexts for British Figurative Painting

Two men face us. Side-by-side they stand, both virtually naked: one wears just his round-rimmed glasses and the other just a t-shirt, socks and sneakers. Despite their nakedness the effect is relaxed. There is something jovial rather than aggressive about this confrontation. There they stand arm in arm, barely containing their smirks. Behind them there is a large blank canvas, which they fill, to one side is a ladder and to the other side are some canvases. We are in an artist's studio and there to greet us are David Hockney and R.B. Kitaj.

Behind the bonhomie, far removed from the macho posturing that Julian Schnabel and Georg Baselitz soon made famous, there was a serious message. This convivial photograph was a come-on. The cover illustration for the January-February 1977 issue of the political and cultural journal, The New Review, memorably encapsulated the two artists' advocacy of `depictions of people' that was at the centre of the conversation between them published within the journal. Reactionary in tone, this conversation revealed a deep mistrust of the notion of progress, a questioning of modernism and an advocacy of rigorous life drawing.

This photograph graphically illustrates a trend in British art to be found not only in manifesto essays and exhibitions but also major paintings from the late 1970s onwards, in which a range of British artists sought to champion figurative drawing and painting. Indeed a major painting that Kitaj began at this time, entitled `The Neo-Cubist' (1976-87), has as its roots the cover photograph from the New Review and encapsulates these ambitions. A naked David Hockney stands facing us, shown frontally and side on, articulately demonstrating Kitaj's abilitities as a meticulous draftsman, striking colourist and expressive painter.

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, 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. Significantly, the gestation period of `The Neo-Cubist' was also the time in which several figurative artists working in Britain, who already had long established reputations, took their work to new heights prominent among them, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Howard Hodgkin and Patrick Caulfield.

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 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.

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.

A New Spirit in Painting: International Contexts for British Figurative Painting

One cannot underestimate the impact on the reputations of established artists and the aspirations of younger painters of the Royal Academy exhibition, A New Spirit in Painting, in 1981. This controversial event proved to be one of the key exhibitions of the decade. Its catalogue declared that `in 1980 painting changed', and its walls displayed an array of international artists, foregrounded painting and gave prominence to figuration and expressionism. It included a number of British artists of different generations within a context that was both international and contemporary rather than national and historical. Its effect was thus heightened by the avoidance of narrow parochialism.

Painting and, above all, forms of figuration were once more on the international critical agenda, to be championed as a vanguard rather than as a conservative phenomenon. Placing side by side the painting of younger as well as older men, the exhibition did much to suggest to younger British artists that to paint the figure need not indicate merely the continuation of English art school teaching or the legacy of a `tradition', from Sickert to Bomberg, to Auerbach, Kossoff and their students. This new realignment allowed their work to assume a radical international stature.

The title, A New Spirit in Painting, however, exposed a paradox at the heart of the exhibition. As critics at the time recognised, this was no new direction for painting, as was especially apparent from the British artists selected: Auerbach, Bacon, Charlton, Freud, Hockney, Hodgkin, Kitaj, McLean. Rather, it revealed a reorientation of critical and curatorial attention towards forms of artistic practice that had become marginalised. However, such criticism, although valid, hid the fact that in significant ways the painting of even such long-established artists was changing. There was indeed a new spirit in painting.

The work of several of the most significant figurative painters leapt to new heights in the 1980s through a loosening up in the handling of paint, which was often married to a generous widening of these artists' palette. Certainly, the panache of Hodgkin and Auerbach, Hockney and Caulfield provided a vigorous riposte to all those who had characterised British art as drab and depressing. Auerbach's magnificent paintings of Mornington Crescent showed that behind his preoccupation with drawing their lay a dazzling colourist. Hockney heightened his colour, losened his brushstrokes and shifted scale and viewpoint with new freedom. In the expansive `Mullholland Drive' (1980), one of the most ambitious of these large-scale works, the almost fauvist handling of colour showed how far Hockney had removed from the high finish of his works of a decade earlier. Even Hodgkin, for whom colour had always been fundamental, found a new range of expression, layering form and colour to add a new sensuality, luxuriance and wholeness. Such decorative complexity also came to the fore in the paintings of Patrick Caulfield. Having explored the theme of the interior in paintings of the early 1970s, he addressed still life motifs, enjoying the clash of ever more lurid wallpaper and tablecloth patterns. But the mid-1980s Caulfield had come to refine these ever busier paintings by adopting grounds of a single intense colour, isolating still life elements and beginning to replace the previously unexpressive paint with a new textural richness.

Even tonal painters, for whom colour remained subordinate to drawing, produced work of a new-found confidence and expansiveness, matching increased mastery of the medium with more ambitious challenges, as in the case of Freud and Kossoff. Lucian Freud's paintings of his mother of the later 1970s introduced a new tenderness, emotional intensity and beauty. The harshness of the late 1960s gave way to softness, without diminution of intensity, and led to a series of sophisticated multi-figure portraits, initially showing two figures, as in `Naked Man and his Friend' (1979-80), and culminated in one of Freud's most ambitions composition to date, `Large Interior W.11 ( after Watteau)' (1981-83). Meanwhile, Kossoff continued his pursuit of intimately known subjects. His paintings of a new life model, Fidelma - an ongoing series begun in the late 1970s - were a moving attempt to suspend for a moment the moving presence of the model. At the same time, Kossoff also painted some of the most powerful landscapes of his career, showing the booking hall and exterior of Kilburn Underground station and the massive form of Christchurch, Spitalfields.

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.

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