When Arnold van Praag held his first exhibition at Roland Browse and Delbanco, exactly forty years ago, it was a complete sell out. Lush colours, confident handling of paint and strong drawing announced the dramatic debut of an exciting new painter. Shortly afterwards this powerful first impression was consolidated by van Praag's inclusion in the Whitechapel Art Gallery's major exhibition The Face of Man. (1967)
A student at the Slade School of Art from 1953-57 van Praag was one of an extraordinary generation of alumni that included Michael Andrews, Victor Willing, Euan Uglow and Craigie Aitchison. Unlike them, however, van Praag's diffidence and increasing withdrawal from London has meant that whilst attracting powerful admirers his work remains too little known.
Van Praag's achievement is a singular one, not least in the way that he has retained the Slade School's veneration for drawing whilst escaping the need to slavishly record appearance. Instead as van Praag explains in his text in the present publication, he has always felt free to present fictionalised scenes that spring from his imagination that nonetheless return us - as though for the first time - to the world around us.
Over the years van Praag has worked on a number of inter-related series. Images of an artist in his studio - including early paintings of Toulouse Lautrec and later paintings of Rembrandt painting a carcas of beef - have recently led to pictures of an unidentified painter, who may or may not be the artist himself. Butchers and fishmongers inhabit similarly cluttered environments, the spill of meat or fish echoing the tubes and brushes of the painter. Everyday scenes coexist with religious and mythological subjects such as paintings of Susannah and the Elders.
However, over the last decade it has been the Thames and city of London that have come to dominate van Praag's work in an exhilarating series based on the artist's commute to work and the experience of seeing London from the top deck of a bus.
These paintings of London reveal van Praag to be a colourist with few peers - one thinks perhaps of the later paintings of Frank Auerbach. And in his vertiginous sense of collapsing space and toppling buildings one may be reminded of Leon Kossoff.
The results, however, are far from derivative. Indeed van Praag's paintings of commuters asleep in a train or rushing across London Bridge are very much his own vision. But the artist does more than just personalise the city. van Praag's achievement in these latest paintings is to capture not only the incredible dynamism of London but also to celebrate the extraordinary vitality of its citizens.
London, July, 2005
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