The question of what it means to be human took on a new and pressing urgency in the aftermath of the Second World War. As Europe steeled itself to the task of rebuilding its devastated cities and mourned a huge loss of life for the second time in a generation, the full horrors of the conflict were yet to emerge. The extent and depravity of the atrocities committed in the concentration camps was only beginning to be understood, still less come to terms with; the atomic bomb presented a new and looming threat. The response in America was a complete break with representation in the form of Abstract Expressionism. For artists who remained committed to figuration, there was a dilemma: could the human experience be adequately represented in paint, and if so, how?
This postwar crisis forms the backdrop to Tate Britain’s exploration of a century of painting human experience, in all its visceral, messy, immediacy. It’s also at the heart of Martin Gayford’s new book Modernists and Mavericks, in which he describes vividly the friendships and rivalries that defined the London art scene in the middle decades of the 20thcentury. The generation of artists working in the years after the Second World War brought a new vigour and immediacy to figurative painting, testing the possibilities of painting itself, with an emphasis on the plastic, sensual qualities of the medium uniting the work of artists with such contrasting approaches as Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon.
Existential angst pervades the work of Francis Bacon; as early as 1945, his Figure in a Landscape is locked in a struggle to maintain its material presence, dissolving entirely at points before re-emerging at others. The human condition is reduced to its most primal elements, the silent scream of a baboon no less real or affecting than that of a human. Displayed alongside Giacometti’s Woman of Venice IX, 1956, Bacon’s reimagining of the human figure is given a broader European context, in which his interrogation of the human condition is understood as part of a general sense of alienation. If the gnawing anxiety of Bacon’s paintings renders the artist’s presence as uncertain as that of his subjects, Freud’s harsh realism places the artist in a position of unassailable power, his single figures subjected to a searing, and sometimes cruel scrutiny, reflected in the frank manner in which they return our gaze.
If Bacon and Freud represent contrasting approaches to the isolated human figure, they are locked together in perpetuity under the banner of the School of London, a name coined by RB Kitaj in 1976 to describe the artists at the forefront of British figurative painting. More than any shared sense of artistic endeavour, the label describes a social group that centred on the Soho drinking club the Colony Room, with Leon Kossoff, Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach and RB Kitaj at its core in addition to Bacon and Freud.
Elena Crippa, the show’s curator, notes that the label has perpetuated ‘a history of exclusion as much as inclusion’, omitting artists like Paula Rego, and Francis Newton Souza, whose experience had not been white, male and western. Rooms devoted to each of these artists provide something of a corrective, introducing in Rego’s work not only a female perspective, but a narrative element that is entirely absent from the work of Bacon and Freud, though represented in the paintings of Andrews and Kitaj.
Francis Newton Souza came from India to London in 1949, his reappropriation of the tropes of ‘primitive’ art that had been so vital to modernist developments in the very early 20th Century creating an uncomfortable, and sometimes confrontational dialogue with the western tradition. But Tate’s exhibition places him at the heart of British figurative painting in the postwar years, his treatment of the city as a living entity aligning him with School of London painters like Kossoff and Auerbach.
These two painters revisited parts of London much like a portraitist might return to a particular sitter, evoking the restless nature of city life, and gestural use of paint, which builds up in paintings like Kossoff’s Building Site, Victoria Street, 1961, in a way analogous to the process of construction. It’s a characteristic shared with their teacher David Bomberg, a painter whose legacy has until very recently been neglected but whose influence as an unorthodox, if inspirational teacher at the Borough Polytechnic, not to mention as an original and innovative painter, distinguishes him as one of the most important British artists of the 20thcentury. Bomberg’s sensual use of paint, and highly evocative depictions of London during the Blitz establish him as a foundational influence on postwar figurative painting, alongside Chaïm Soutine, Stanley Spencer and Walter Sickert. His disdain for conventional art school teaching set him up in opposition to the Slade School, where in the 1950s, Sir William Coldstream was inculcating in students a regard for close analytical observation that has come to be seen as characteristic artists including Lucian Freud and Euan Uglow.