London is calling you to the Getty Museum where you will currently find a power-packed special exhibition featuring the dynamically curated masterpieces of artists Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, R.B. Kitaj, Francis Bacon, and Lucian Freud (in that order, yes). Six men who were all contemporaries working in London in the second half of the Twentieth Century.
The Tate Modern in London has honored one of the arists, Frank Auerbach, with a recent retrospective and continues to hold many of his painting and drawings in their collection. Auerbach, along with Leon Kossoff, are the two surviving artists of the exhibit who continue to make work in their old age. In fact, the Tate curator Elena Crippa originally proposed an Auerbach show to be hosted by the Getty, which then evolved into collaboration with the director of the Getty, Timothy Potts and Julian Brooks, Senior curator of Drawings. The result is a smashing presentation of reality as interpreted through painting and drawing by these artists who committed to the human figure and the immediacy of their surrounding interior and exterior environments in the city they called home.
Just as the term “modern art” became a common term in the 1940s, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud were exhibiting their paintings in London galleries. The end of World War II brought about tremendous pain, destruction, and consequently, a rebirth can be seen in a new conception of paint on canvas. In Michael Andrews, we see paint as collage in his mixed compositions of memories derived from photos, as in “Melanie and Me Swimming, (1978-79)” where Andrews tenderly holds his young daughter in a lake as she splashes her feet out of a dark void. In “The Deer Park, (1962)” he created a pastiche of famous characters including Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Rimbeau at a posh party. Posing celebrated people together in an unlikely imaginary setting, Andrews has illustrated a dream of blurred faces and bodies, but still familiar all the same.
We move on to Frank Auerbach in what appears to be an explosion of paint on canvas. It is thick paint built up and scraped away, a larger act of drawing the London streets and building surrounding his studio as well as intimate interior scenes featuring his close friends. Aureback has mostly employed a color scheme of earth tones: reds, browns, greys, and yellows. However, there are also paintings with brilliant bright yellows and blues such as “Mornington Crescent – Summer Morning (2004). The impression of these works are impressive and intense, standing as a strong metaphor for an anxious city suffering from post war PTSD.
Auerbach sets the tone of bravery with the use of aggressive paint marks that is also characteristic of the London scenes painted by his friend Leon Kossoff. In “Children’s swimming pool, Autumn Afternoon (1971),” Kossoff shows us an extremely active public swimming pool that newly opened by his studio in the early 1970s. It is where he would take his son to learn how to swim. Upon looking at this large-scale painting, we are assaulted with the splashing, running, diving, and chatter that are animated by Kossoff’s gestural use of the paint, which includes swirling drips, reminiscent of Jackson Pollack. Kossoff would often lay the large wood boards on the ground and work horizontally, being the ever-active figure himself. The painting of his parents, “Two seated figures No. 2 (1980),” is even larger and more immediate. Kossoff reminds us that we all get old and it was important for him to seize the pose of his reclining parents by quickly drawing them in person and then completing the painting in just three hours (look out for the clock!).
I have a soft spot for the work in the following room, the large, colorful canvases of R.B. Kitaj. A bookish scholar, Kitaj infused his interest in literature and more specifically, his Jewish heritage in his paintings. In “The Wedding,” he recreates his marriage to his beloved wife Sandra Fisher. His friends surround him including David Hockney, Kossoff, and Lucian Freud. The tableau vibrates with primary colors: the red, blue, and green seem to come right from the tube and one cannot help be reminded of the whimsy of Marc Chagall heightened by a German expressionist austerity of lines as seen in the works of Max Beckman. It was Kitaj who came up with the label “School of London” in 1976 to describe the works that he and his peers were making that continued the figurative / representational tradition in a time where conceptual and minimal art proliferated the art world.
And of course, there is Mr. Bacon, a man who looms large amongst the group. Before getting to his large paintings, we are offered insight into all of the artists’ processes that are strongly rooted in drawing. We can even see small drawings made with quick paint marks from Francis Bacon, who claimed he never made preparatory drawings and went straight to the unprimed canvas. Rounding the corner, “Figure with meat (1954),” is an early version of his famous Pope series. A seated Pope Innocent X caped in purple is screaming with a blurred face as he grips the arms of his chair. Two large cow carcasses flank his pose on either side and a black arrow directs our attention to the meat. The painting is based on the famous Diego Vélasquez portrait of the same pose in 1650 when he travelled to Rome to complete the commission for the Pope. Velasquez’s version if filled with a strong gaze and a lively Pope dressed in cardinal red whose flesh is also beaming with pinks and reds. The difference is inescapably political and haunting. On a deeper and more primal level, it’s as if Bacon is telling us that even the Pope suffers the agonies of life and will die. After all, Bacon has been known to say that we are all just living walking carcasses. It surely is a depressing and challenging part of the exhibit. Just across the way on the adjacent wall is the large “Black Triptychs (1972-74)” featuring Bacon’s late lover, George Dyer, who committed suicide a couple of days before his retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris. Here, the body and bodies are distorted and blurred, also reminiscent of the visceral quality of meat achieved by the coarse application of paint and contrast of heavy blacks with bright pinks and orange blobs that ooze out from bone white structures in the bodies. The Triptych is awesome and overwhelming, but Bacon has found a way to contain the excitement and lament in one masterpiece. It becomes clear at this point that the exhibit is revealing a larger message and truth about life. There is war and there is death, but there is also life and it is compelling that these artists assumed their drive to capture the life within and around themselves.
Like the denouement to a gripping psychological thriller, we are left with stark reality in the large fleshy portraits by Lucian Freud. In an early portrait, “Girl with a Kitten (1947),” Freud’s soon to be wife appears to be choking the neck of a cat. What is so intriguing about this small painting is that the cat appears to be OK, almost indifferent to the action, steadily staring directly at the viewer. It is Kitty (Kathleen Garman) who has the shell-shocked eyes, filled with anxiety, confusion, and thought. It is a wonderful work that is set nicely with other early works before we see the large later works we have come to praise Freud for. The monumental “Leigh under the skylight (1994),” is a massive vertical portrait of the London underground performance artist, Leigh Bowery. Bowery crosses his legs with finesse, treating his body like some ancient Greek sculpture. Here, however, Freud does not idealize his proportions, but displays them exactly as they are. Leigh’s flesh appears to be alive and moving with large brush strokes and texture. Freud’s mastery is evident and in your face. The underlying urge to get this paint on the canvas and create form hits home here.
From Andrews to Freud, London not only calls, but screams like the Pope in Bacon’s portrait, as a city filled with stories to tell and six painters who just couldn’t wait to describe them in sublime works of art.