Whilst visiting a friend last weekend I took in Manchester Art Gallery’s Radical Figures: Post-war British Figurative Painting exhibition.
When I say exhibition, I mean room. There were only twelve paintings on show, on the theme of how the approach to figurative painting in Britain changed – was radicalised – in the post-war period (which judging by the dates of the paintings ranges from the early 50’s to early 80’s).
Clearly, this wasn’t the gallery’s main event – a concurrent exhibition called the The Sensory War 1914-2014 took this title. Nevertheless, it included some heavy-hitting artists, notably Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, David Hockney and my perennial favourite, Francis Bacon.
A good way for me to describe the room is that it was like a puzzle. I can imagine the high-concept, low-budget Saw–style film now: “1 room, 12 paintings. Only one way out.” Thankfully, the way out I was looking for did not involve sawing off an appendage. It was trying to understand the theme and connection between these stylistically disparate works.
The first obstacle to my escape plan has happened many times before – I read the introduction to the show and this biased my view. The words that stuck out were “a firm belief that [the artists] could find new ways to… reinvent the representation of the human figure to make it relevant in a world traumatised by the Second World War.”
It could have been so simple. WWII was unimaginably traumatic, as The Sensory War exhibition later showed. These artists were compelled to express the full extent of this trauma in relation to the human figure, which heretofore was treated in a certain respectful and classical manner (a point helpfully driven home by the Pre-Raphaelite paintings on view next door).
The first couple of paintings fit well with this interpretation. Lucian Freud’s Man’s Head (Self-Portrait I), 1963, is composed of bold, sweeping strokes. It has the effect of giving the head a visceral and lumpy – almost bruised – feel, as though the face started as a piece of clay and was sculpted, often brusquely, into the form we see. You could even interpret the composition as though suggesting the face is being punched. Such trauma!
Next up was Frank Auerbach’s Euston Steps – Study, 1980-81. While the blurb mentioned “warm oranges and duck egg greens evoking warmth and sunlight”, to me it felt muddy and messy, almost frustrated in places. Possibly, a chaotic landscape. It was difficult to fully take in. (I have to admit, seeing a photo of the painting online suggests a lot of this was due to the room’s lighting). The same went for York Railway Bridge from Caledonian Road, Stormy Day, 1967, by Leon Kossoff. It felt miasmic and melting. Incomprehensible. And the difficulty of managing the piece visually was increased by the sheer thickness of the paint, which literally added an extra dimension to contend with.
While I could make out some figures in Auerbach’s Euston Steps – Study, I couldn’t do so as readily in the swirling sprawl of York Railway Bridge, odd for a show about post-war British figurative painting. I didn’t let this confusion hold me back, though. I was pulled immediately over to the next piece, Portrait of George Thompson, 1975, another by Leon Kossoff. It was spattered, aging and weighty. It also appeared like crumpled up paper then flattened out, or a wet plastic bag. The figure seemed forlorn and ill-at-ease, and the pose suggested to me scratching and irritation. The colours were suitably gloomy.
Here were 1 and 3/4s of a wall of anxious, traumatic art. So far, so good. It was at this point though that my beautifully laid out narrative began to unravel. Girl with Beret, 1951-2, by Lucian Freud is a great painting. Finely detailed. The girl’s eyes draw you in. Her expression is subtle to a point: the slight curve at the right corner of her lip suggests a measured playfulness, while the left corner and her sideways gaze betrays a simultaneous dissatisfaction.
A great painting, indeed, but not one that I could readily draw back to a need to “make the human figure relevant in a world traumatised by the Second World War”.
I became a bit desperate with the next, Euan Uglow’s Girl’s Head in Profile, 1963-4, going so far as to read the little red marks distributed across her face as scratches (it became clear with Uglow’s later The Quarry Pignano that his approach to painting involved systematic and mathematical planning via these marks).
Good ‘ol Francis Bacon then came to my rescue, albeit briefly. Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, 1965, is typically visceral, presenting Henrietta as flayed and open. In reference to the fact Bacon often worked from photos, he is quoted as saying “I don’t want to practice before them the injury that I do to them in my work.” Now this is a painting about trauma!
Yet the remaining works further scuppered my plan. And by the time I came to Michael Andrews’ Four People Sunbathing (1955), I had to openly admit that I had a limited grasp of what was going on.
That’s not to say I didn’t like what I saw. I enjoyed Andrews’ Study for All Night Long, 1963-4, as a painting that very successfully captured the sensation of late, drunken tomfoolery. The sickly artificial colours, blurred faces and body language all provoked a keen sense of having been there before. In this respect, it also managed to convey the darker elements of the night out, when the initial buzz of social interactions wears off and our deeper anxieties begin to surface.
There was also David Hockney’s Peter C, 1961. Its strokes felt frenetic and charged, which makes sense given the backstory of unrequited romantic interest. Peter’s pose and the boxed-in composition also suggested to me a hanging marionette, as though David was playing out some kind of control fantasy in the painting.
Having closely viewed all of the paintings, I took a seat in the middle of the room. Lacking knowledge of this ‘radical’ historical period in art, I had clearly been forcing interpretations.
It got me thinking about the nature of exhibitions on a number of counts. Firstly, my relationship with curators has become a lot more complicated. I have a newfound fear of and respect and pity for curators. Fear, because the power of the curator is pretty immense, when thinking about how much one’s impression of a painting is coloured by what came before, what comes next and even the lighting conditions. Respect, due to the pressure of making tough choices about the display of exceptional, world-renowned and incredibly expensive paintings, all the while needing to make them accessible to the public and the show itself commercially viable (be it measured by ticket sales or footfall). And finally, pity, given the stress that must result.
Secondly, why is there such a need to create a coherent theme for exhibitions? Why not put a load of paintings together, distanced in time, theme and style, and just see what fits? Imagine a show about human art in general, as though extraterrestrials were attempting to capture the full historical range, combining cave art from Sulawesi, the Mona Lisa and Tracey Emin’s unmade bed? It would certainly be different. And given my – and I assume others’ – tendency to actively, often desperately, seek meaning, a show like this could actually provoke some truly unexpected thoughts about art.
And finally, on this last point, it’s OK to interpret wildly. Meaning ascribed to paintings in a show – whether my own attempts or that of the gallery and curators – is inherently subjective. Radical Figures might actually have been designed based on a single curator’s individual interpretation of post-war figurative art, rendering void any belief that I somehow haven’t grasped an absolute truth about this period in British art. Maybe this curator was the actual radical here, rejecting conventional thoughts on how best to display Freud, Auerbach, Hockney and Bacon side by side.
Whatever the answers to these questions, I know one thing for sure: next time, I’ll look at the art first and read the captions second.
Radical Figures: Post-war British Figurative Painting runs until Sunday 23rd November, 2014. You can find out more by clicking here.