British Masters: A New Jerusalem

The final episode last night of  the BBC 4 series British Masters, presented by James Fox.  He must have been in the studio this weekend re-editing his voiceover since the programme –  about postwar British painting – was bookended by his assessment of the work of Lucian Freud, referred to in the past tense.  That was sadly appropriate, but as for the rest – Fox hadn’t lost his penchance, seen in parts one and two, for hyperbole and conservatism.  ‘Today’, he intoned, ‘our great British painting tradition is in peril’.

Lucian Freud, Girl with a Kitten, 1947

The argument that Fox presented was this: in the decades after the horror of the Holocaust, when many had lost their faith in humanity, British artists turned to the great British figurative painting tradition to address the question, what does it mean to be human?  He argued that in early portraits such as Girl with a Kitten, 1947 (above), Lucian Freud ‘articulated the anxiety of his age’.  Despite the circumstances of Freud’s relocation from Berlin to London in the 1930s, I  suspect this painting has more to say about his first marriage to Kitty Garman (the woman portrayed) than wider existential concerns.

Similarly, Fox suggested that Francis Bacon ‘stared deep into his own soul to explore the human capacity for evil’. But here, too, it’s arguable that Bacon’s paintings express more about a sense of loss and guilt arising from the relationship with George Dyer, his most important and constant companion and model, who committed suicide in 1971, just two days before the opening of Bacon’s major exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris.

Graham Sutherland Thorn Tree (1945)
Graham Sutherland Thorn Tree (1945)

Much more convincing was the section on Graham Sutherland’s ‘thorn tree’ paintings made in Pembrokeshire in the immediate post-war period.  Sutherland experimented relentlessly with the motif of thorn trees, bushes and thorn heads (above), explaining:

About my thorn pictures: I had been thinking of the Crucifixion (I was about to attempt this subject), and my mind was preoccupied by the idea of thorns, and wounds made by thorns. In the country I began to notice thorn bushes and the structure of thorns, which pierced the air in all directions, their points establishing limits of aerial space. I made some drawings and in doing so a strange change took place. While preserving their normal life in space, the thorns rearranged themselves and became something else – a sort of paraphrase of the Crucifixion and the Crucified Head – the cruelty.

He began a series of ‘Thorn Head’ paintings in 1945 (below), initially inspired by the commission to paint a Crucifixion and by photographs of concentration camp victims from the recently ended Second World War.The thorns became a metaphor – for torture, the concentration camps, military hardware – for a ‘cruel and broken world in which nature and man was doomed to destroy itself’.

Graham Sutherland, Thorn Head, 1949
Graham Sutherland, Thorn Head, 1949

In his studies for the Crucifixion, commissioned in 1945 for the church of St. Matthew in Northampton (below), Sutherland became intrigued by the notion of Christ’s crown of thorns and began to incorporate the natural forms he encountered along the Pembrokeshire coast, abstracting them to give his work a surrealist appearance. His artistic inclinations lay more in the spiritual aspects of nature rather than religion but when he was commissioned to paint a crucifixion for St Matthews church in Northampton he drew deeply on the emotions he experienced viewing the photographs of concentration camp victims that had recently been published. These images became the inspiration for a painting that was critically hailed as defining the human condition in the immediate post-war era: ‘Belsen, Hiroshima, Nagasaki – all the world’s suffering condensed and distilled into one suffering body’ in Fox’s words.

Graham Sutherland: The Crucifixion,1946 St Matthew’s, Northampton
Graham Sutherland: The Crucifixion,1946 St Matthew’s, Northampton

Fox linked this postwar mood of anxiety and pessimism to the critique of consumerism and its invasion of the seclusion of the home and domestic life in Richard Hamilton’s Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? (below) before moving rapidly on to assert that  ‘as national pessimism gave way to a new optimism, David Hockney dared to suggest Paradise might be available to us all’.

Richard Hamilton, Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?
Richard Hamilton, Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?

In Hockney’s bright and colourful California paintings, such as A Bigger Splash (1967, below), Fox saw British art moving on from despair to optimism.

David Hockney, A Bigger Splash

Yet, in the early 1970s, just as the world finally began to recognise the genius of Britain’s painterly tradition, Fox claimed, young artists at home turned against it.  And here, once again, Fox chose a dramatic event to support his thesis, implying that the artist Keith Vaughan took his own life as a consequence of the growing marginalisation of figurative painting such as his.  But was that the case?  Vaughan maintained extensive journals which reveal a gay man troubled by his sexuality.  He was diagnosed with cancer in 1975 and committed suicide in 1977, recording his last moments in his journal as the drugs overdose took effect: Fox let the camera linger as Vaughan’s spidery writing slid off the page.

Keith Vaughan, Landscape with Two Bathers (The Diver), 1954
Keith Vaughan, Landscape with Two Bathers (The Diver), 1954

With glimpses of Tracey Emin’s unkempt bed and Damien Hirst’s preserved animals, Fox drew his conclusion that the great British tradition of painting is today in peril, as interest and money gravitates towards other artistic forms.  But, is this to overstate the case?  As Marina Vaizey has remarked at the ArtsDesk:

Painting, and representational painting, in spite of all the theories and all the varied media that have absorbed artists in the pre- and postwar periods, has never gone away, even if we are in thrall to light bulbs going on and off, exploded sheds, inside-out houses: the art world now has room for everything. But Lucian Freud, although he would have abhorred the notion that in any way he was a crusader, almost single-handedly kept the whole idea of the significance of painting the world as one person saw it alive and at the centre of things.

But Hockney is still painting  (after a brief foray into photo-collage), while Lucian Freud persisted until last week. There are painters painting in Britain – if not always in the metropolis.  The tradition continues in the work of Kurt Jackson, Mary Newcomb, Peter Doig, John Knapp-Fisher, David Inshaw and George Shaw. There’ll always be painters.

Peter Doig,, Blotter, 1993
Peter Doig,, Blotter, 1993
John Knapp-Fisher: Cresswell Street, Tenby 1998
Mary Newcomb, Court Fields
Mary Newcomb, Court Fields
David Inshaw, The Badminton Game, 1972
David Inshaw, The Badminton Game, 1972
George Shaw, The Time Machine 2010
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4 thoughts on “British Masters: A New Jerusalem

  1. Amazing. St. Matthew’s Church Northampton (my home town) has this cruxifiction AND a Madonna and Child by Henry Moore. I remember so well from my childhood now!

  2. Thank you from a homesick ex-pat in the US for your wonderful and uplifting contribution to posterity! What did you teach before you retired. You seem to have a finger in many pies there!

  3. Well, it certainly wasn’t art! I taught many different things, from a spell teaching housing and welfare rights to community activists to, mainly, working on Access to Higher Education courses that prepared adults who’d missed out on earlier education opportunities for university. I taught study skills, information technology and European Studies, always trying, where possible, to bring in literature, music and art.

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