Bright lights, small island

One exhibition has been screaming to be mounted in London’s Olympic year – the story of the most contested, relevant, underexplored terrain of our national art: British 20th-century painting. Tate could have done a significant show but hasn’t. Instead, a survey is evolving piecemeal at institutions public and private from now through 2012. Lucian Freud at the National Portrait Gallery, Richard Hamilton at the National Gallery, David Hockney at the Royal Academy and Frank Cohen’s collection of British modernism at Chatsworth are highlights for next year. Graham Sutherland opens in Oxford on Saturday; the Scottish Colourist series is under way in Edinburgh.

Most superbly for London, Haunch of Venison this week launched an exhibition of 10 postwar British painters, The Mystery of Appearance, curated by Catherine Lampert, former Whitechapel Gallery director and a friend of several of the artists. Arranged as conversations around the nude, artist and sitter, nature and engagement with Old Masters, the show juxtaposes well-known works – Francis Bacon’s furious caged “Pope I”; Hockney’s cool, flat depiction of his young lover on a bed in “The Room, Tarzana” – with those never or rarely seen in public, such as Patrick Caulfield’s pared-down, shadowless “Red, White and Black Still Life” and Michael Andrews’s witty, astute class narrative “The Lord Mayor’s Reception in Norwich Castle Keep”, painted over collaged photographs. The result is one of the most insightful, serious commercial gallery ventures, challenging prejudices about parochialism and insularity, and asserting that British figurative painting in the 1950s-1970s was the equal of work made anywhere in the world.

“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,” wrote William Coldstream, an influential teacher at the Slade through these decades. His stark, neutral, measured “Seated Nude” hangs in the opening room, and you see at once in the works surrounding it both his impact – in Euan Uglow’s meticulously constructed, sculptural yet shallow-planed “Nude, Lady C”, for example – and how the next generation subverted the figurative impulse, or raised the bar, to breathe fresh life into a traditional medium.

Frank Auerbach’s thick-squeezed tubes and cylinders of rose, lemon, apricot paint on a dark ground just cohere into a human form in “Reclining Figure”. Hamilton’s delicate cropped pencil and watercolour nude sketches are studies of movement and instability. Freud’s “Portrait of a Woman (Portrait of Lady Anne Tree)” (1950) is a masterpiece of chilly naturalism, each curl delineated, every vein beneath translucent skin, each tonal variance across the face and neck, applied in loose but controlled strokes.

David Hockney’s ‘The Room Tarzana’ (1967)

The materiality of paint is everything here, explored in intriguing dialogues. Bacon was fascinated by “this very good-looking painter in the French pub” – the young Auerbach, who, like Bacon, packs a huge amount into a single brushstroke to achieve a sense of physical presence. The fragmented, comic “Man in a Museum (Or You’re in the Wrong Movie)” suggests the influence of Bacon’s blocks of colour and leaking figures on the youthful Hockney. The watery, murky sensuality of Leon Kossoff’s “A Woman Bathing (Study After Rembrandt)”, lit up by the rich white folds of the girl’s shift and flashes of crimson background, contrasts with the grainy-silty layers in Andrews’s abstracted late landscape of barges, chain ladders and muddy embankment in “The Thames at Low Tide”, and suggests different approaches to texture.

Are these works specifically British? Yes, above all because they are empirical, starting with a motif painstakingly observed, and about sensation – of the painter’s experience of the subject and of paint. The hard-won surfaces and shifting light in Kossoff’s “Nude (Autumn Morning)” and the turbulent “Willesden Junction, Summer No 1”, for example, are alive and fresh with the drama of their making. Freud’s semi-nude pencil sketch of Francis Bacon with his trousers undone fizzes with the thrill of the younger artist encountering new possibilities from the older one. Close observation, Freud wrote, “will eventually reveal the all without which selection is not possible”, the model “providing the starting point for [the painter’s] excitement. The picture is all he feels about it, all he thinks worth preserving, all he invests it with.”

Lucian Freud’s ‘Francis Bacon (study)’ (1951)

Such quotations reflect too what these paintings are not: neither theoretical nor political, not about national trauma and history, as in postwar German painting – compare Gerhard Richter’s Tate Modern retrospective – or about the drive to an all-embracing absolute, as in American abstraction. As Hamilton said, “There is no rhetoric, only a calm resolution in the undertaking of a remarkably daring endeavour.”

At a distance of half a century, British moderation, understatement, preference for facts and experience, look every bit as heroic and questing as American idealism.“Having worked in Bomberg’s class, having an emphasis on being, as it were, inside the painting and that what one did was one’s gesture that arose out of one’s sensations, then a Kline or a Pollock, although admirable, was in no sense news,” Auerbach recalled.

‘Coloured Still Life’, screenprint by Patrick Caulfield (1967)

British postwar painting is sometimes pigeonholed as dark and repressive but there is a terrific life force here. Few paintings distil a bleak vision of human existence as futile and trapped more exuberantly than Bacon’s opulent “Pope 1”. And when Auerbach and Kossoff roamed postwar building sites around Smithfield, the effects were an art of construction – those densely built up, almost three-dimensional surfaces – not one referencing rubble and destruction, as in Kiefer or Baselitz. “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,” Auerbach says.

He and the other two living artists here are notable painters of nature and, particularly optimistically, trees: Kossoff’s wonderful recent series around a cherry tree; Hockney’s monumental landscapes including “Bigger Trees near Warter”; Auerbach’s lifelong engagement with Primrose Hill, shown in two abstracted, glowing examples. This is a revelatory historical show that, most importantly, engages with painting as a continuous, living, joyful mystery – turning on, as Bacon asked, “how can appearance be made. I know it can be illustrated, I know it can be photographed. But how can this thing be made so that you catch the mystery of appearance within the mystery of the making?”

‘The Mystery of Appearance’, Haunch of Venison, London, to February 18,

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.