From London, an impressive new group show at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, brings together the work of six London- based ﬁgurative painters.
Lila Rawlings checks out some BIG pictures.
hen a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.’ So reckoned Samuel Johnson but this was 150 years before the birth of the Thames Valley sprawl, not to mention London Underground. As a city, London, in all its grimy guises, is not the easiest place in the world to live. Despite this, it has provided rich subject matter for many visual artists intent on exploring the grubby side of life as well as offering a productive creative environment.
Of the six painters that comprise the so-called ‘School of London’ — Francis Bacon. Lucian Freud, R. B. Kitaj. Michael Andrews, Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach — only one, Leon Kossoff, was born and bought up there. The others have lived in the city for 30 years or more and all, excluding Irish—born Francis Bacon who died in 1992. continue to live and work there today.
As a group, they have collected each other’s work, shared teachers and friends, and often modelled for each other. In the 603, they hung out in Colony Rooms, the infamous Soho watering hole, where their drinking exploits achieved legendary status. As the oldest of the group, born in 1909, Francis Bacon became a
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reluctant figttrehead who exerted a major influence on the younger artists. all born
between the world wars. What unites them as a school is their overriding belief in ‘the power of paint’ and their life-long dedication to figurative painting. They are inspired by the heavyweights of the painterly tradition — the old masters such as Poussin, Rembrandt. Velasquez and Van Gogh. Similarly, the School of London are BIG painters, not only in the sheer scale of their work, but in their confident use of paint and their attempts to grapple with psychologically intense themes and ideas.
Described by Kitaj as a ‘herd of differing loners’, most of them isolated themselves in their studios. avoiding prevailing fashions in art. and continued to hammer away at their own thing. In the late 70s there was a resurgence of painting and figuration in which Glasgow and London took the lead and painters such as Freud and Kitaj — exhibited by Sandy Mof’f‘at at Edinburgh’s New 57 Gallery in 1975 ~— started to enjoy international recognition.
There’s more than a touch of irony in the fact that From London at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Edinburgh. is the first UK exhibition to show these major figurative
painters as a group. Rather than separating the work. Richard Calvocoressi. keeper of the gallery. has set out to highlight the connections and affinities between the artists.
In one room (Gallery Three). four paintings all made between 1962—4 by Bacon. Andrews and Freud hang side by side. All have taken the human figure as their subject. In Freud’s A Man and His Daughter painted between 1963—4. it is possible to see his handling of paint loosening up in contrast to his more hard—edged, linear. precise paintings from the 40s and 50s. ‘There’s a much freer feel to this work. with an element of chance or risk.‘ says Calvocoressi. ‘There’s also a wound-like quality to areas of the flesh. which is Freud looking at the way Bacon blurs and contorts his bodies and faces to get a more life-like representation of the human condition.‘
In Bacon’s Study for Self Portrait (1963). the twisted. distorted body hovers in the centre of the canvas and there is an eerie sense of what one critic has called his ability to paint in a way that ‘brings flesh into being'. while at the same time dissolving it. In the two Michael Andrews portraits of Tim Behrens and John Deakin, the influence of Freud and Bacon is present in the overtly physical ‘paint as f‘lesli' feel of the work.