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.

See also

The World We Live In

The Turnpike Gallery in Leigh is celebrating 40 years of contributing to local culture with an exhibition entitled The World We Live In. The gallery is situated in the Turnpike Centre on Civic Square, just off the main street.  The Centre, which also houses meeting rooms and the town’s library, was purpose built in 1971, just at the time when the area’s main sources of employment – coal-mining and the cotton mills – were beginning a rapid process of decline.

There is certainly something to celebrate here – especially in a week when Brent council closed half its public libraries, part of the wider destruction of public services that is the price being paid for bailing out unscrupulous and incompetent banks.  The Turnpike is exactly the sort of public asset at risk in these desperate days.  So it was good to discover that it was bustling with life –  a party of school children with worksheets were noisily engaged in recording their responses to the exhibits, and a steady stream of adults strolled in to view the exhibition (some, perhaps, after changing their library books downstairs).

The exhibition focusses mainly on contemporary art, a mix of local, regional, national and international art work, some of it quite challenging.  It consists of 26 works selected by the Turnpike Gallery from the Arts Council Collection to celebrate the history of the gallery and reflect something of the place in which it is situated.

Some of the artists in this show are represented in the gallery’s small print collection, including Victor Pasmore, William Scott and Tom Phillips.  Several of the artists have previously exhibited at the Turnpike over the last 40 years, including L.S. Lowry, David Hepher, Frank Auerbach and Rachel Whiteread.

Carel Weight: The World We Live In, 1973

The title of the exhibition is taken from the painting by Carel Weight, one of David Hockney’s tutors at the Royal College of Art in the early 1960s.  It’s a painting that speaks of the loneliness and isolation that can be a part of urban life.  Speaking of his painting in 1991, Weight said, ‘It’s just two people. They may have been in love with each other, I don’t know. But they’ve been very close but it’s all come to nothing. They’re just two solitary figures. That’s very much my theme. It’s similar to my diploma picture in the Royal Academy, The Silence [shown below, but not in the exhibition]. I think love and all that sort of thing is rather superficial. You can love people, but it doesn’t bring you any closer to them’.

Carel Weight: The Silence, 1965

The curators of this show have brought together works that, in very different ways, tell us something about living in an urban post-industrial environment, particularly in the north-west of England in a town like Leigh.  There are works which have local references (such as Ian Walker’s Little Chef, Astley) and those which in some way depict the industrial landscape and heritage (such as William Scott’s Slagheap Landscape).  More generally, there are those artists who reflect upon the built environment of towns and cities (David Hepher, George Shaw).  Others focus on the banal or overlooked elements of the everyday (such as Richard Wentworth or Rachel Whiteread).

Ian Walker: Little Chef, Astley, East Lancs Road, Nr. Manchester, 1984

Little Chef restaurants, with their distinctive red and white signage, appeared along the roadsides of Britain in the 1980s. Walker began photographing them in 1982 and saw the restaurants as one aspect of the increasing Americanisation of British culture. He commented, ‘When I first started photographing them, they seemed to be merely a Disney-ish pop-culture phenomenon. Now I have come to see them more and more as representative of a society where the car-owning, meat-eating family unit is the norm and deviation is frowned upon. So I hope these pictures are both funny and significant at the same time’.

William Scott was largely known as a still life painter but began to develop a looser, more abstract style in the early 1950s. The drab colours of Slagheap Landscape evoke a landscape scarred by the spoils of the mining industry.   The loose, painterly brushstrokes create a sense of the painting being somewhere between a figurative representation and an abstraction.

William Scott: Slagheap Landscape 1952

David Hepher’s paintings examine the urban and suburban, seeking to reveal how buildings change according to how they are lived in. Always working from life in his South London neighbourhood, Hepher began painting suburban house fronts in 1969 before moving on to the architecture of council estates. The exhibition caption notes that Hepher once said, ‘I would like to think that the pictures could make people look differently at the flats around them, to see beauty in objects that they normally dismiss as ugly’.  Yes, I thought, as I looked at his painting, but I bet you’d think differently if you lived there.

David Hepher: Arrangement in Turquoise and Cream, 1981 (Arts Council Collection)

George Shaw, who is shortlisted for the Turner Prize 2011, grew up in Tulse Hill, a council estate in Coventry.  His paintings are inspired by memories of that place and depict empty playing fields, bus stops, lock-up garages and run down housing estates. He paints using Humbrol enamel paints, usually associated with boyhood Airfix kits, which give his works a glossy, impermeable finish.

I wrote about George Shaw earlier this year, and it was the knowledge that a painting of his was on display here that brought me to the Turnpike. The painting is The End of Time, which shows the site where a local pub, The Woodsman, stood before it burnt down. Years earlier, when it was called The New Star, his mother worked there and his father had the odd drink there. Shaw recalls it as being post-war British modern — ‘which is a longer way of saying it was shite’.  He doesn’t know why it was renamed The Woodsman, but suspects it was a marketing gamble. Shaw remembers it not so much as a place where he drank, but as a place he passed by every time he went to visit his mother. The title of the work is inspired by a line in the Eliot’s The Wasteland – ‘HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME’ – and it is part of a sequence of works that explore the passing of time.

I like George Shaw’s pictures and I hope he wins the Turner Prize.  These are truly images of the world we live in.

George Shaw: The End of Time, 2008 (Arts Council Collection)

A photo of a plastic cup skewered on a fence spike might not strike many punters as constituting ‘art’. But Richard Wentworth wants to fundamentally change the way we think about art, sculpture and photography.  Avoiding anything monumental, he finds his motifs in the everyday world instead. His photographs record little actions of human intrusion in the natural environment that he has noticed.  So when Wentworth sees somebody has stuck a polystyrene cup on top of the spike of a metal street fence, what is significant is the evidence of the deed.  It’s the significance of the unintentional: where others may have simply seen a polystyrene cup on a fence – or not noticed anything at all – Wentworth records the minutiae of some passer-by’s inconsequential act.

Richard Wentworth: London, 1999. Making do and getting by

The Rachel Whiteread work that features in this exhibition is also the kind of thing that annoys some people.  It comprises six resin casts of the spaces beneath domestic chairs. Each cast is a different shade – indigo, slate, tea, lime, antique gold and rose – and they look a bit like a row of fruit gums.  The casts are individual, reflecting the different designs of the chairs that she selected. Presented in a straight line, each cast makes present an absent space for one person.

Rachel Whiteread: Untitled (6 Spaces), 1994

Euston Steps – Study is one of several paintings made by Frank Auerbach in the train stations, building sites and streets around his studio in London’s Camden Town. This is one of a series of paintings depicting the steps at Euston Station. While the word ‘study’ suggests that this is a preliminary experiment for a larger or more polished work, in fact this is a finished painting. The expressionist, thick impasto brushwork and the palette of browns, greens and oranges are typical of Auerbach’s painting of this period.

Frank Auerbach: Euston Steps - Study, 1981

Chris Killip started out as a commercial photographer, but in 1970 gave up working in advertising to concentrate on the photography he really wanted to make.  In 1977 he helped found the Side Gallery in Newcastle and was the director for 18 months.  Rocker and Rosie Going Home is part of a body of work produced in the North East which focusses on those living on the margins of society – the unemployed, the homeless, the dispossessed.  Rocker and Rosie Going Home was taken at a sea-coal gatherers’ camp at Lynemouth, Northumberland, where Killip lived and photographed regularly in 1982-4. The sea-coal was part of the waste jettisoned by a National Coal Board pit and washed ashore. Killip exhibited 70 ‘Seacoaler’ photographs at the Side Gallery in the early months of 1984, when Britain’s most testing struggle of loyalties since the General Strike of 1926 had just begun. The Miners’ Strike of March 1984 to March 1985 divided families, communities and the nation at large.

Chris Killip: Rocker and Rosie Going Home, 1984

LS Lowry is pretty much the local lad here: he lived and worked just down the road in Manchester and Salford all his life.  He worked as rent collector, a job led to him walking all over the city. He saw children playing in the streets, people returning from work, going off to work, gossip on the front steps, incidents, market places and Whit-processions. ‘I saw the industrial scene and I was affected by it’, he said. ‘I tried to paint it all the time. I tried to paint the industrial scene as best I could. It wasn’t easy. Well, a camera could have done the scene straight off’.

LS Lowry: The Park, 1946 (Arts Council Collection)

The Park features the stylised ‘matchstick’ figures which he was so well known for, and is painted in his familiar palette of ivory black, vermilion, Prussian blue, yellow ochre and flake white.  Lowry said that his land and townscapes were composites – ‘made up, part real and part imaginary … bits and pieces of my home locality. I don’t even know I’m putting them in.  They just crop up on their own, like things do in a dream’.

Michael Landy: Scrapheap Services (detail) 1995

Two pieces by Michael Landy face each other across the gallery.  They are angry works. The intricate drawing (above) relates to his installation, We Leave The Scum With No Place To Hide (below), which draws attention to the impact on people’s lives of making workers redundant in order to cut costs and improve efficiency. Landy has said of the piece, ‘Most of my works come out of anger.  That’s difficult for me to formulate visually, and in trying to visualise it I came up with Scrapheap Services.  It’s principally about people being discarded and the loss of human potential’.  Scrapheap Services featured thousands of small figures made by Landy from litter he collected every day as he walked from his home to his studio.  In the installation the figures were destroyed by passing them through a shredder with rotating teeth.  The words ‘We Leave The Scum With No Place To Hide’ can be found in the drawing Scrapheap Services.

Michael Landy: We Leave The Scum With No Place To Hide

Leaving this stimulating exhibition, I noticed, above the door to the toilets, this quotation from Pablo Picasso: ‘Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life’.  That could well stand as the mission statement for the Turnpike Gallery as it forges ahead for what will, I hope, be another 40 years.

As I noted earlier, the exhibition at the Turnpike comprises works chosen from the Arts Council Collection, the contents of which can be viewed online.  This is one of at least three websites that I know of  that allow anyone to view works of art in public collections.  The Google Art Project is the result of Google collaborating with some of the world’s most acclaimed art galleries (MoMa in New York, the National Gallery and Tate Britain in London, the Uffizi in Florence and the Hermitage in St Petersburg to give just a few examples) to enable people to view more than a thousand artworks online.  You can’t view all the works in a particular gallery, but where Google Art Project wins hands down is in the astonishing resolution at which the works have been captured, and the application of Google Street View technology, so that you can literally walk through galleries and turn and look at paintings.

But to my mind the most welcome project is the BBC’s Your Paintings which aims to show the entire UK national collection of oil paintings, the stories behind the paintings, and where to see them for real. It will be made up of paintings from thousands of museums (including those held in store), as well as paintings held by other public institutions (such as NHS Health Trusts) but not necessarily on public view.  It’s an excellent concept that’s still under development.


Lucian Freud: dogged portraitist

Lucian Freud: dogged portraitist

What can I add to the mountain of words that are being written about Lucian Freud, whose death at the age of 88 has been announced?  He was, arguably, the most important British post-Second World War painter. He has became famous not only for his individual style of painting, which developed over the years into that distinctive slathered impasto, but also for his masterful and deeply personal interpretation of the nude and the representation of the human face and body. Continue reading “Lucian Freud: dogged portraitist”