‘One knows that, by some accidental brushmarks, suddenly appearance comes in with a vividness that no accepted way of doing things would have brought about’ – Francis Bacon
This, according to Francis Bacon, is ‘the mystery of appearance in the mystery of making’ – the title and structuring concept for the major new exhibition of British painting at the Haunch of Venison.
Back in the newly renovated gallery space on New Bond the gallery presents us with the work of ten post-war painters who sought to revive figurative and landscape painting, particularly portraiture, at a time when abstract and conceptual art was dominant (the show focuses on the 50s and 60s). Featured are: Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Patrick Caulfield, William Coldstream, Lucian Freud, Richard Hamilton, David Hockney, Leon Kossoff, and Euan Uglow.
The show is guest curated by Caherine Lampert, a former director of the Whitechapel Gallery and an expert on this period of British art. Keen to break down some of the classic tropes, clichés and categories associated with these artists, Lampert hopes that this show will more accurately provide a sense of the complex contextual milieu in which the works were created. Great emphasis, then, is placed on the links between the artists – many of who were friends, studied together at the Slade and Royal College of Art (particular hubs of ‘banter and rivalry’), or were connected by interested and influential critics such as John Berger, Lawrence Alloway, and Lawrence Gowing.
Lampart is a particularly good choice to curate an exhibition of this type since she has had personal experience of these interactions, knowing most of the artists at the time, being close friends with some, and even sitting for Auerbach. This insider’s perspective can be detected in the idiosyncratic selection and hanging of the paintings – with the exhibition tending to focus on lesser known works and pieces from private collections which have not been seen in public for many years, if ever. This approach is, of course, not without its problems, and the intricacies of interrelations between the artists can be somewhat lost on one who is not as knowledgeable as the curator of the contextual world of these painters. But, undoubtedly, all will be illuminated by the essays in the soon-to-be-available catalogue. Much more accessible, and maybe more interesting for a non-historian, are the more formal and conceptual themes that the curator has managed – very successfully – to draw out.
In interview, Bacon described how he was ‘always trying through chance or accident to find a way by which appearance can be there but remade out of other shapes’, and provocatively suggested that the best way of achieving this might in fact be to ‘just to pick up a handful of paint and throw it at the canvas and hope that the portrait was there’. These ideas of chance and intuition – of moving paint around until something happens – is a central theme for many of these artists, most notably Michael Andrews (especially in ‘the Thames at Low Tide’1994-5), and startlingly so in the work of Kossoff and Auerbach in particular. Auerbach’s virtuoso ‘Reclining Figure’ 1972, summoned up with just twelve fat, dripping brushstrokes laid into a background layer of already thick wet paint, is almost precisely the appearance of a figure ‘remade out of other shapes’, while, in making out Kossoff’s ‘Seated Woman No. 2’ 1959 one could believe that the artist had simply thrown a large congealed mass of paint at the canvas and squelched it around until something emerged. This might be said to form one theme of the show, about the process of making, about paint as a medium in which the artist, almost as observer, sees something appear.
The second theme, though linked with the first through Bacon, can be approached in terms of a relationship with photography. Some of the artists worked from photographs rather than from life, or indeed painted into photos, and so the fundamental flatness of the photograph becomes a central interest in this exhibition. This is made explicit in a spectacular painting by Hockney, ‘The Room Tarzana’ (1967) – one of the highlights of the show. The work consists of a painted square surrounded by unpainted canvas border not unlike a Polaroid photo’s white edge, and so it comes as no surprise that this is indeed a painting of a photo.
The room, in which a half-naked man lies as stiff as a plank on a bed, has had its spatiality destroyed. The paint is non-textured, uniform and blank. The edges of objects are either too crisp and straight, or oddly smooth. And the surface is filled with a white uniform light. The depicted room and sitter have had their spatiality destroyed, and the whole effect is akin to a vacant stare while the distortion of the central shape heightening the sense of awkward unease. That eerie distancing effect of the lens has not merely been captured in another medium; it has been transformed, cleansed, and made tangible, with the inherent flatness (oxymoronically, perhaps) made to shine out blindingly.
A similar investigation is taken up by Hamilton – arguably the most analytical of the artists included in the show. ‘Whitely Bay’ (1965), one of his masterpieces, is a magnified and pixelated photograph which he has painted over, tracking points across the image. Close to, the paint just seems to lie over the pixel pattern without any relationship to it, but on moving back one sees that he is picking out, with impressionistic dabs of paint, the people standing on the shore. He is both overlaying and destroying, but also creating clarity, and picking out highlights. It is an elusive, difficult work, the effect of which is ultimately beyond linguistic description. For Hamilton and Hockney, their reality is the world with a dimension removed, laid bare against the flat surface of their canvas.
What perhaps unites all the works in this show, drawing together the two themes, is a certain destructiveness, or desire to remove something. Whether it is Hamilton’s analytical destruction of a photograph by the removal of detail and depth, the deconstruction of figures into ‘other shapes’ by Bacon and Auerbach, or Hockney’s flattening of space and smoothing of surface, destruction is used a tool to investigate ways of looking. And this is not destruction in a gratuitous raging sense, but more as a taking away in order to reveal – ‘the mystery of appearance’ through the ‘mystery of making’. Words Laurence Lumley © 2011 ArtLyst