National Gallery brings Bacon, Freud and School of London art to Budapest
A new exhibition at the National Gallery brings the School of London to Budapest for the first time. The show, arranged in collaboration with Tate Britain, focuses on works by post-war artists from the same social circle who were pursuing different forms of figurative painting, as opposed to avant-garde styles. The highlight are pieces by key representatives of this loose genre, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. While their artistic styles differ greatly, these masters also portray the human body in its raw, sagging reality. Showing post-war London under renovation, heavily layered paintings by living members Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff also stand out.
“The exhibition is wonderfully installed and very intelligently adapted to these spaces,” said Alex Farquharson, Director of Tate Britain, at the opening ceremony of this milestone in National Gallery history. While the immensely popular Frida Kahlo show is still running within the same building, for the School of London, nearly 90 artworks are displayed across the elegant museum halls, introducing Hungarian viewers to this distinct period in modern British art.
Featuring crowd-pulling signature works by Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, this major show manifests highly personal, often intensely sensual experiences in watercolour or oil. “Art that acts directly on the nervous system,” as Farquharson explained.
But it’s not only Bacon and Freud whose prolific pursuits defined the transnational society of the School of London, a close circle of friends who frequented the same pubs of Soho. Sculpture-like urban paintings by Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, from the same fraternity, also receive a prominent place at the National Gallery, where these canvases appear as living, breathing bodies.
“We wanted to show a distinctive, long-lasting era of the British modern painting,” underlined Elena Crippa, curator of Tate Britain, who had an influential role in setting up the Budapest spectacle. “These artists often portrayed their friends, lovers and relatives in a way that was more direct, rather than idealised.”
This almost ruthless depiction of the body already appeared in early 20th-century painting, such as in the obscure art of Walter Sickert, whose radical representation of the human figure had a strong influence on Bacon and Freud. Sickert, French-Russian painter Chaim Soutine and the audacious David Bomberg are all presented here as harbingers for the School of London.
Distorted and eloquent embodiments underscore the exhibition, culminating in masterpieces such as Bacon’s Study After Velázquez, showing a vulnerable and isolated entity influenced by Diego Velázquez’s 1650 Portrait of Innocent X. Curator Crippa explained that in the British reinterpretation, the figure’s screaming mouth refers to post-war pain: “This is an artwork that made Bacon very important to generations of painters”.
Also displayed at the exhibition is a Bacon triptych, created to commemorate the artist’s long-term lover George Dyer, a deeply troubled soul. Dyer committed suicide in his French hotel room just days before Bacon’s career-making exhibition at the Paris Grand Palais in 1971, causing the artist grief expressed through the consistent use of black paint in his work.
A distinct Bacon technique, bodies blurred out, influenced David Hockney, whose multi-dimensional-yet-figurative illustration of his favourite Typhoo Tea is considered a wink to the unfolding Pop Art trends of the mid-20th century.
Another supporting pillar of this century-spanning show is the timeless art of Lucian Freud, the grandson of neurologist Sigmund Freud. In his career, the painter created meticulous depictions of his near and dear ones in profoundly sensual ways. In some portraits, such as the one that depicts his wife Kitty with their dog, he often juxtaposes fur and skin.
Meanwhile, a dominant nude by Freud illustrates his assistant David Dawson. The man in the portrait made a surprise appearance at the exhibition launch to provide insight into this remarkable painting before posing with his picture in front of museum visitors.
“He painted at night,” remembered Dawson, depicted on the canvas as a piece of raw flesh lying on the studio bed. In the picture, he is accompanied by Freud’s whippet Eli and a semi-withered plant. “Each of Freud’s paintings was either day or night. While he was painting the floor, I still had to be on the bed. He said that if you are not in the painting, it will change the whole atmosphere. He also worked very slowly,” explained Dawson in soft tones.
This painstaking precision that Freud followed also derives from William Coldstream, whose art takes on an analytical approach. For accurate proportions, Coldstream and his students used little nicks and crosses to depict body parts. A closer look at these portraits reveals these tiny indicators visible from behind a thin layer of paint.
Friends of Bacon and Freud, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff are on view in secluded halls. They shifted their focus towards the demolished London cityscape and its slow revival after World War II. Blanketed in rich layers of oil they applied over the years, their radically conceived pictures appear as boards upon which you build scale models.
“Kossoff’s family came as Jewish immigrants from Russia,” explained Crippa, pointing at one of the artist’s most significant works, Christ Church, Spitalfields, Morning. “The Jewish community settled around Shoreditch in East London, where this Baroque church is found. This picture celebrates the history of his family and this particular building is in a part of London that is constantly changing. Though Kossoff’s brushwork, we see the dynamism and immediacy of the painting. This gives it an incredible energy.”
Hungarian curator of the show Dávid Fehér added that the School of London was highly heterogeneous in terms of its identity and culture. “But there’s one key thing connecting them,” he said.“They were all men.” Fehér went on to explain: “One exception was Portuguese-born Paula Rego, a former student of Slade School of Fine Art, who assumed the role of showing the female aspect within figurative painting”. By way of example, Fehér showed crayon work Dancing Ostriches: “Rego gains her inspiration from Disney movies and tries to depict the challenges of ageing and the female body image”.
The conclusion of this show invites the visitor to examine the contemporary art of Cecily Brown, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Celia Paul, a former girlfriend of Lucian Freud, her portrait also displayed among his works at the exhibition.
“These artists seek an answer to such elementary questions as how the female or the male can be depicted by a woman,” underlined Fehér. “This masculine practice of painting has gained a new context and this is the most important message of our exhibition. The relevance of painting has been questioned by many and the aim of this display is to prove that this art form is still very much relevant. British painting is a typical example of this. It is a local story with a global effect.”
The exhibition is on view until 13 January. For more details, visit the National Gallery website.