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BACON, FREUD AND THE SCHOOL OF LONDON

An exhibition at the MUSEO PICASSO, MÁLAGA, 25th APRIL, 2017 to 17th SEPTEMBER, 2017

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Was there a “School of London?” It was a term coined by R.B. Kitaj when he selected work by a number of artists for an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, London, in 1976. Later, the artists involved tended to deny ever belonging to a “school”, and insisted that they each pursued “independent and distinctive trajectories”.

Still, It is, perhaps, a useful term that allows a gallery to bring together paintings by artists who, when Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art were attracting attention, doggedly retained an adherence to the figurative, albeit in varying forms. Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Paula Rego, Michael Andrews, Euan Uglow, and R.B. Kitaj, are all included in the Málaga exhibition, along with David Bomberg and William Coldstream, who are seen as influences on some of them.

Putting artists into groups supposedly representing a style or movement is, of course, something that critics and academics like to do. The artists themselves, as noted earlier, tended to fight shy of being linked to a group. They preferred to be seen as individuals. And I have to admit that, walking around the rooms in the Picasso Museum in Málaga led me to sympathise with that view. Other than predominantly inclining towards the figurative, there isn’t necessarily anything in common to be seen in the work of, say, Leon Kossoff and Michael Andrews. The figurative isn’t immediately evident in the Kossoff paintings on display, whereas it’s important in Andrews’ work. Nor does the work of Paula Rego and Frank Auerbach appear to have much to relate it beyond the general figurative angle.

It is true that, from a social point of view, several of the artists did associate with each other: “Over periods of their lives and careers – particularly in the 1950s-1960s – they were linked by mutual admiration and friendship, socialising in the then bohemian Soho”. There are now many accounts of this period, with the Colony Room club and the French pub at the centre of activities. I’ve read most of them, and they’re lively, but don’t tell us much about a shared approach to art, probably because there wasn’t one.

Michael Andrews' painting of the Colony Room isn’t in the Málaga exhibition, but there are several other of his canvases, including The Deer Park, which takes Norman Mailer’s novel of the same name for its inspiration. And there is his delightful, A Man Who Suddenly Fell Over, a painting from 1952 that immediately attracts the attention and is intriguing in terms of what it suggests beyond its initial impact. Andrews later moved more towards painting landscapes in which people are seen only minimally.

As the title of the exhibition indicates, Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud are what might be called the key figures in the group, and the work on display does point to their importance. Bacon was “concerned with the portrayal of the human condition not at the literal level of observation, but imaginatively crystallising human conflicts into mythical figures”. As for Freud, his work can be unsettling in its directness. Painting portraits, he never went out of his way to make his sitters look good. His head of Leigh Bowery is striking in the way it doesn’t simply represent the outer appearance of the man, but also probes something of his psychological depths.

But it would be unfair if Bacon and Freud were the only reasons for visiting the exhibition. R.B. Kitaj’s work may not be too well-known, but is worth viewing, despite some limitations. He was a very literary artist, in the sense of the range of references one can see in his paintings. And there are also political references. Not everyone found his paintings of value, and in 1994, when Kitaj had an exhibition at the Tate Gallery, the crItic, Andrew Graham-Dixon, gave it an absolutely scathing review in The Independent. Other reviews were also negative, and Kitaj left Britain and went back to America, accusing British commentators of being anti-intellectual, anti-American, and anti-semitic.

I have to admit that I find Kitaj of interest primarily for his references, and not for his actual painting techniques, which do seem fairly basic. There may be some truth, in his case, in the suggestion that groups and movements are often established to allow minor artists to be remembered for one reason or another. Would Kitaj be known if he had not come up with the idea of a School of London? He did, however, and needs to be recognised for his presence at the time.

Euan Uglow’s somewhat cold and clinical human figures, or so they seemed to me, didn’t create a lasting impression in my mind, certainly not in the way that Paula Rego’s almost-fairy tale figures do with their slightly disturbing implications. Rego seems a completely original artist, and it’s impossible to mistake her work for anyone else’s. This is possibly a glib thing to say, bearing in mind that it could also be said of Bacon and Freud.

Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach are the two artists in the exhibition who some people might see as  veering close to abstraction at times, though without ever losing sight of the real: they “produced similarly immersive depictions of London, painting the streets and sites they lived in and knew intimately”. I’ve always been a great admirer of their work and fascinated by the way in which they apply paint in thick strokes to the canvas. They both worked on figure drawings, as well as sketches of streets and buildings.

In going back to the question of whether or not there was a School of London, it needs to be said that this exhibition bears out the artists’ contentions that they were individuals following their own inclinations and aims. What the paintings and other items do show is that, when attention was being focused on abstract expressionism, Pop Art, and the vagaries of conceptual art, there were painters who were concerned to sustain an interest in the figurative. And create some striking examples of it. It’s inevitable that some works will seem more important than others, and that levels of achievement will vary. Likewise, personal taste will determine preferences for one painter or another.

The School of London is an invigorating exhibition. It kicked off in the United States, though with slightly fewer artists included. Will it be shown in Britain? It deserves to be.