The art of conversation

Sixty years ago, Francis Bacon’s “Pope I” shocked visitors at his first “exclusive” exhibition at the Hanover Gallery in Mayfair; words such as “ectoplasmic” and “a texture like cigarette ash” were used to describe it. It hung near a full-length portrait of Lucian Freud.

After they had met on the way to Graham Sutherland’s house in Wales in 1944, Freud had begun going to Bacon’s studio in Cromwell Place in the afternoons. Freud said later about Bacon: “It was his attitude that I admired. The way he was completely ruthless about his own work. He talked about packing a lot of things into one single brushstroke which amused and excited me, and I realised that it was a million miles from anything I could ever do”.

In 1951, Freud was one of a number of artists who came together at the Slade, where William Coldstream had just arrived as professor of fine art. Among them were Richard Hamilton, Freud’s exact contemporary (both were born in 1922; both died in 2011), Euan Uglow and Michael Andrews. As Hamilton remembered, “the atmosphere was marvellous at that time”.

Francis Bacon: 'Pope I – Study after Pope Innocent X by Velásquez', 1951, oil on canvas. Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collection/© The Estate of Francis Bacon, All Rights Reserved, DACS 2011

The deliberately unorthodox assembly of paintings and drawings that opens at London’s Haunch of Venison gallery next month is intended to parallel similarly surprising conversations between these 10 artists and friends who wrote about art. Ostensibly a historical exhibition, with the earliest works dating from more than half a century ago, it is also contemporary in that three of the artists – Leon Kossoff, Frank Auerbach and David Hockney – are still working; indeed, their images are “alive” in a seasonal sense, literally so, as all three have been concerned year-round with depicting trees, a difficult subject but one, as Hockney says, with “deep appeal, and... partly a spatial thrill”.

The exhibition has the additional ambition that viewers might forget the clichéd conventions that define generations and styles such as “School of London” or “Pop Art”, or a tendency to see the 1950s and 1960s by way of exaggerated attention to Soho or the ICA on Dover Street. In the small art world of postwar London, it becomes clear the ambitious, talented young artists watched each other and were hardly cast down by the nuclear threats that defined the cold war. Auerbach recalls the atmosphere as invigorating: “There was a curious feeling of liberty about because everybody who was living there had escaped death in some way. It was sexy in a way, this semi-destroyed London.”

David Hockney: 'Man in a Museum (Or You’re in the Wrong Movie)', 1962, oil on canvas. British Council Collection/© David Hockney

Underlying the selection for the show was the question as to why the best British art of the mid-1950s to the late 1970s was always about “something”, about facts, sometimes from direct observation of people the artist knew intimately, or, in Bacon’s case, also mined from tables piled high with photographs, mainly of violent scenes. The American abstract expressionist painters of the same period were looking for a more all-over wholeness, a non-referential, mainly gestural way of describing the world, although De Kooning, closest in spirit, remained obsessed with depicting women. Coldstream had thought about these questions in the 1930s, writing to a friend, John Rake: “All the time I have in the back of my mind the feeling that painting must rise above purism and take back humanity if it is to be really vital again”.

Lucian Freud and Richard Hamilton were neighbours in St John’s Wood in the early 1950s. Their recent recollections contain embers of lively exchanges. They discussed girls, and whether artists need strategies, such as Hamilton’s plotting of movement and perspective in his life drawings or studies of organisms, or whether they must instead be attuned to private compulsions, as Freud’s scrutiny of a friend, Lady Anne Tree (“Portrait of a Woman, Portrait of Lady Anne Tree”, c1950), makes evident. Both artists were highly articulate. In 2000 the critic David Sylvester explained that when their now-famous series of interviews began in 1962, Bacon had already learned to talk about art from Freud not him, although he looked to Hamilton and Auerbach for feedback on his painting.

Hamilton was one of the consummate inventors of new production techniques and processes for subverting the ordinary “retinal”, empirical side of painting. He remembered: “There was a turning point in my life, in 1956, where I thought that art doesn’t need to come out of looking at reality… all I needed for stimulation was second-hand pictures in film and TV magazines, newspapers … things that had been pre-digested and ‘two-dimensionalised’”. The image for “Whitley Bay” came from a photograph turned into a postcard: “I find it astonishing,” he said, “that a flick of a shutter over a coating of silver emulsion can snatch so much information about that millisecond of activity over half a mile of beach at Whitley Bay one summer’s day … I marvel that marks and shapes, simple or complex, have the capacity to enlarge consciousness.”

Frank Auerbach: 'Reclining Figure', 1972, oil on board. Private collection/© Frank Auerbach

During the same years, Michael Andrews was absorbed with a series of paintings about social behaviour and parties that came to a head in a commission for a large painting depicting the reception for the first chancellor of the University of East Anglia at Norwich Castle museum. The raw material was sourced from snapshots taken by a photographer who posed the guests in little groups as if at a wedding, supplemented by images of friends and celebrities, the complex panorama collaged on to canvas by a novel method of silk-screening with help from the artist Nigel Henderson.

Something of Hamilton’s aesthetic occurs in Patrick Caulfield’s combination of precision drawing and fascination with design; using flat house paint and black contour lines he transformed commonplace objects and postcard images into enigmatic interiors and still lifes. David Hockney, a fellow student at the Royal College, painted in California in the 1960s, and his sense of light and stillness compares to Euan Uglow’s paintings with their often-blue backgrounds, whether the Reckitt’s blue colouring applied to the studio wall behind the model or the Mediterranean sky. Uglow insisted his goal wasn’t representational painting or to be true to life; something marvellous had to be translated to another world, although he couldn’t begin with photographs: “I’m not interested in that because I like the poignancy of the right light at the right time hitting a bit of colour. Everybody’s trying to make an image, but we have different ways of getting at it”.

Leon Kossoff: 'A Woman Bathing (Study after Rembrandt)', 1982, oil on board. Private Collection, London/© Leon Kossoff

Uglow and Kossoff were friends, and both were reticent to describe emotions; their paintings after the Old Masters, like Kossoff’s “A Woman Bathing (Study After Rembrandt)”, share a direct appreciation of the beauty and contained sensuality of the originals. Hamilton and his wife, thse artist Rita Donagh, recalled Bacon praising Manet for his sheer painterly skill. He “would talk at great length about a rose on a Manet painting: the fact that the brush marks didn’t describe the structure of a rose – they created a rose.” Auerbach’s small figure lying on a bed conveys something of what it would be like to touch her back, an unrepeatable experience translated to wavy, sensual strips of paint. John Berger suggested to Kossoff that while painting from life something else crept in – “the self-effacement of the good host?” – and the artist agreed: “It is to do with the collaboration of the sitter, as you say, but also to do with the disappearance of the sitter the moment the image emerges”.

The reconsideration of British painting in this period will flourish with more exposure of the artists’ lesser-known works, the publication of additional memories and facts related to a wider net of their contemporaries, as well as comparison to some of the equally strong British painters from younger generations.

For certain, the things that draw these 10 artists together are not an advocacy of any one idiom or figurative art ideology. The commonality is the always renewable thrill, or obsession, with the living world and the practice of painting and drawing giving rise to different sensations day by day; the goal an absolutely unprecedented image that is utterly personal.

“The Mystery of Appearance: British Painting 1955-1985” is at the Haunch of Venison, London W1 from December 7 to February 18 2012

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