Radical Figures: the reinvention of figurative art in post-war Britain

Girls Head in Profile with Cap on, 1963-64

Euan Uglow, Girl’s Head in Profile with Cap On, 1963-64

The other day I spent an absorbing afternoon in Manchester Art Gallery, looking at Grayson Perry’s wonderful tapestries (The Vanity of Small Differences) and an exhibition curated by Jeremy Deller, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air in which he takes a personal look at the impact of the Industrial Revolution on British popular culture, and its persisting influence on our lives today.

But first, I spent some time viewing Radical Figures, a display that explores the pioneering role that painters such as Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and David Hockney played in the reinvention of figurative art in Britain in the post-war decades.

Francis Bacon, Portrait of Lucian Freud, 1951

Francis Bacon, Portrait of Lucian Freud, 1951

This was a period in which radical work in British art tended to be influenced by the modern art of  New York – especially abstraction and Pop Art.  But alongside such boundary-breaking painting, there was another current in art pioneered by a group of loosely associated artists who later were labelled The School of London.

These artists shared a firm belief that they could find new ways to create realist paintings and reinvent the representation of the human figure to make it relevant in the modern world. These figurative painters studied the art of the Renaissance and of Impressionism, whilst their work also had origins in pre-War British art: in the painting of Walter Sickert, David Bomberg and the realists of the Euston Road School.

By the 1970s and 1980s the work of these artists had begun to be recognised as amongst the most important British art of its time. This undeclared group included Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Michael Andrews, Euan Uglow and the more Pop Art-associated David Hockney. As the introduction to the display puts it:

Between them they found new ways of looking intensely at the world around them; to combine in paint what they saw, with what they felt.

Head VI. Francis Bacon (1948)

Francis Bacon, Head VI, 1948

I’m no fan of Francis Bacon, but there are two arresting works here that I appreciated. There is, without doubt, intensity and feeling in Head VI, painted in 1948. It is, quite simply, a painting of a scream.

Bacon and Lucian Freud were close friends, and in 1951 Freud was invited to sit for his first portrait by Bacon. This in its itself was unusual, as Bacon usually preferred working from secondary media, such as photographs.  In fact, Freud quickly discovered this to be the case. When he returned to Bacon’s studio for a second sitting, he found that in his absence the portrait had changed completely since he had last seen it. Bacon had continued, working from memory and, at the same time, incorporating elements from a photo of Kafka leaning against a pillar which Freud noticed among the debris littering the floor of Bacon’s studio.

The 1951 portrait was one of several that Bacon made of Freud over the next decade.  Freud returned the compliment, but only made two portraits of Bacon.  The first (below) was made in 1952 and, although it looks like an etching, is actually oil paint on metal. Bought by the Tate, the painting disappeared in 1988 while on loan to a gallery in Berlin.  Freud painted another portrait in 1956-57 that, as with the earlier portrait, shows Bacon with a downward gaze. Bacon sat knee-to-knee with Freud while he worked on the portraits, and during the three months of sittings for the first work, he is said to have ‘grumbled but sat consistently’.

Francis Bacon 1952 by Lucian Freud

Francis Bacon, 1952 by Lucian Freud

There is a wonderful portrait by Lucian Freud in the exhibition – Girl with Beret, made in 1951-2.  It’s from the early period of his portraiture that is distinguished by fine brushwork and the jewel-like intensity of paintings from the Northern Renaissance which Freud studied intently in the National Gallery at this time.  Freud’s portraits usually involved over 150 hours of sitting – and some have suggested it is this which gives the sitter here such a haunted appearance.  The critic John Russell described Freud’s technique as ‘a particular kind of scrutiny which involves a long, slow stalking of the thing seen’.

Girl with Beret, Lucian Freud, 1951-2

Lucian Freud, Girl with Beret, 1951-2

Frank Auerbach – who is represented here by the urban landscape, Euston Steps and a portrait of his lover, E.O.W (Stella West) – had been taught by David Bomberg, whose influence led Auerbach to execute his work in hugely thick paint (impasto).

Frank Auerbach, Euston Steps, 1980-81

Frank Auerbach, Euston Steps, 1980-81

The portrait of E.O.W. led the critic David Sylvester to remark in 1956: ‘In this clotted heap of muck there has somehow been preserved the precious fluidity and the pliancy proper to paint’.

Frank Auerbach, Head of E.O.W, charcoal on paper, 1956

Frank Auerbach, Head of E.O.W, charcoal on paper, 1956

Euan Uglow is represented here by two paintings – Girl’s Head in Profile with Cap On (top) and The Quarry,  Pignano (1979), a nude that Catherine Lampert has described as ‘a masterpiece that circumvents the question of the relationship between artist and model’.  The explanation for the curious title is that, longing to be abroad in the summer of 1979, Uglow remembered a steep-walled quarry near Pignano outside Volterra.  He created an artificial recess that meant the model’s face was hidden from view.


Euan Uglow, The Quarry,  Pignano, 1979

Uglow’s intention was that the eyes of the viewer could wander over the woman’s forms just as a local person might stare at the boulders in the quarry.  ‘I didn’t want that psychological thing of somebody trying to look to see what kind of person it was – you are supposed to be able to roam over these hills, the green is supposed to be the trees, the blue is supposed to be sky, glittering through the trees.’

Four People Sunbathing, 1955, Michael Andrews

Michael Andrews, Four People Sunbathing, 1955

Michael Andrews spent three years studying at the Slade School of Art in London in the 1940s, where his contemporaries included Craigie Aitchison, Paula Rego and Euan Uglow.  He quickly gained a reputation as one of the most promising painters of his generation. I can’t remember where I saw it (probably at Tate Modern), but A Man Who Suddenly Fell Over, 1952 (not in this display) is a painting I have relished: it reveals the artist’s fascination with human behaviour and is typical of paintings by him which show individuals struggling to maintain their composure in trying situations: overdressed and out of place on the beach, or falling down in the street.

A Man who Suddenly Fell Over 1952 by Michael Andrews

Michael Andrews, A Man Who Suddenly Fell Over, 1952

Certainly, the figures in Four People Sunbathing, unclothed or in swimming trunks, appear awkward and ill at ease, pale townies not really enjoying the afternoon in the open air. In the dazzling light there’s an oppressive feeling on this summer afternoon which seems to have paralysed all activity.

David Hockney, Peter C, 1961

While at the Royal College of Art in the early 1960s, David Hockney had an requited crush on Peter Crutch, a fellow student. Such feelings could not be openly admitted in the context of the law and social climate of the time. Hockney has painted Peter wearing fashionable drainpipe trousers and a skinny tie. The full length portrait is painted in a child-like style with an oversized head and long, thin legs, one leg unfinished. Peter has a red heart on his jacket and the background is plain with the inscription: ‘PETER C’ in the top right-hand corner. In block capitals, the words ‘my friend’ can be seen beneath his hand, with ‘PETER’ repeated in the bottom left-hand corner. The words ‘who is the m’ trail off the right-hand side of the canvas. The piece is a tall narrow work consisting of two canvases joined together.

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