Peter de Francia. Disparates: A Centenary Tribute

22 November 2021 - 7 January 2022

On this, the centenary of Peter de Francia's birth, James Hyman Gallery is delighted to stage an exhibition of outstanding large-scale drawings and paintings from his Disparates series.


De Francia's stark drawings in deep black charcoal and bold paintings in vivid even lurid colours, present a world of light as well as dark, a place of contentment as well as despair. For to appreciate de Francia's achievements is to recognise a realist with an eye for the fantastic, a classicist with the heart of a romantic. 

In a fascinating essay and interview in the catalogue for Peter de Francia's 2006 solo exhibition at Tate Britain, Philip Dodd writes of 'the problem' of Peter de Francia's status as an unfashionable, even unclassifiable artist, often identified with a particular historical moment - the heavily politicised years of mid-twentieth century Europe.


In fact, as Dodd himself emphasises, there is far more to de Francia's work. This is an artist who despite powerful champions - such as the architect and collector, the late Colin St. John Wilson, and the former Director of the Tate, Nicholas Serota - remains under-appreciated. How, then, is one to account for an artist who has always seemed at the heart of European cultural circles, yet has retained a marginal position?


Peter de Francia's reputation as one of the most important figurative artists working in Britain in the last half-century has always rested on a series of paradoxes. This is an artist revered as a draftsman, whose most famous work is nevertheless a monumental painting, The Bombing of Sakiet (1959), oil and pencil studies for which dominated our first exhibition of Peter's work, After the Bombing in 2005. This is a figure recognised for his contemporary political engagement through such ambitious early subjects as The Execution of Beloyannis (1952) (Tate) The Bombing of Sakiet (1959) (Tate), and African Prison (1960) (Graves Gallery, Sheffield Museums), whose work is nevertheless dominated by mythological and allegoric subjects, often derived from the Greek classics.


This, too, is an artist associated with multi-figure narratives, whose most powerful works include single-figure portraits, the subject of an exhibition at James Hyman Gallery in 2006.


Furthermore, whilst Peter de Francia's work is often identified with the darker side of life, his subjects include brutality, torture, imprisonment and the abuse of power, alongside such works are scenes of great love, tenderness, sensitivity and humour. For, although de Francia is renowned for political works, he is often at his most moving when most intimate.


The artist's home and studio sheds light on these paradoxes. Every wall is covered with pictures: talismans, palimpsests - a mélange of prints, drawings, newspaper cuttings and magazine photographs that transcend time and place: here a Dove of Peace by Picasso, there a portrait head by Léger, architecture by Piranesi, Capriccios by Goya and satires by Daumier and Beckman. Pictures, too, by former students, from de Francia's years as Professor of Painting at the Royal College of Art.


Such is the rich context of de Francia's studios and store-rooms, with their wealth of framed and unframed drawings and stretched and unstretched paintings. These are exciting places of discovery - each visit brings surprises and new wonder at the artist's vivid imagination. A few years ago I suggested to Peter that he might do some pictures on the subject of the Gulf War, a commission he politely (and rightly) declined, for it is a subject that he has already depicted in so many ways. From his massive painting The Bombing of Sakiet to the condemnatory drawings of his celebrated series of Disparates, de Francia's work stands as a damning indictment of power and its abuse.

Compassionate humanism married to satire gives an edge to his Disparates with their attacks on targets such as politicians, the press, the military, religion and science and to his presentation of masculinity in crisis. In such drawings, and in a large series of drawings, under the general title, Fables, de Francia draws on mythology in ways that are remarkably immediate. One may not know the particular myth to which he alludes but as the artist himself has acknowledged: "The Greek myths offer shorthand for certain human situations. Their relevance does not need to be explicitly stated." Such scenes may introduce extremes of physical and emotional violence but these characterisations tell only part of the story. What they hide is the artist's tenderness and love, his wit and playfulness, aspects that were clear in our 2009 show of Art World Drawings. This range was on full view in our major exhibition A 90th Birthday Retrospective, 2011, one of the most powerful exhibitions we have staged in the last twenty years.


De Francia's stark charcoal drawings and bold, vivid paintings present both light and dark, serenity and desolation. For to appreciate de Francia's achievements is to recognise a realist with an eye for the fantastic, a classicist with the heart of a romantic. On this centenary of Peter de Francia's birth, we are delighted to stage this exhibition of his wonderful Disparates.