Saturday 24 August 2019


Tate Britain, London

(Continuing our look at Britain’s post-war revival of Expressionism. For the first part, looking at precursors Sickert and Spencer, then prime proponents Freud and Bacon, click here.)

London Achurn

If Freud and Bacon’s work was dominated by the human figure, Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach both went in for urban scenes. If that seems a break, there’s one point of continuity. Both Freud and Bacon repeatedly worked with the same models, while Kossoff and Auerbach returned to their home city. Kossoff was born in London, in 1926, and (barring national service) lived there his whole life. Auerbach, originally German, moved there at age seventeen. In fact even to talk of London is too wide, each focused chiefly on his home neighbourhood.

David Bomberg was tutor to and a great influence on both. He painted blitzed London only once, in 'Evening In the City Of London’ (1944). But its imprint is all over his pupils. However, it was more impetus for them as guiding star.

Its London is ghostly, fading out like Brigadoon. While their era was a time of quite rapid development, Parliament’s own website acknowledging “the demolition of listed buildings… continued almost unchecked in the 1950s and 1960s until rigorous new planning procedures were laid down in the Planning Act of 1968.” There’s a possibly apocryphal story than no map of New York is ever accurate, development being so fast and so perpetual. London at that time must have felt similar.

So their London is monumental but at the same time turbulent, ceaselessly overwriting itself. The buildings around you are facts on the ground, landmarks to navigate around. Yet any one of them can at any time be smashed down to pieces, and replaced by something as seemingly permanent as the last one. Elena Crippa, in the guidebook, describes their work as “sedimentation of different temporalities… rather than pure presence and a sense of totality, we find ourselves experiencing a place that is mutating in time, and is always partial.”

See for example Kossoff’s ’Demolition of the Old House, Dalston Junction, Summer 1974’ (1974, up top). (The precise titles, going almost as far as postcodes, are common with him.) Kossoff later commented “demolitions, like building sites and railways, are part of the London I know”.

It was painted from the window of his studio, from the classic artist’s viewpoint of elevation and distance. But at other times, he virtually made action paintings of digging work. ’Building Site, Victoria Street’ (1961, above) looks like it could have been painted from the mud he found there. If conveys effectively how looking upon a building site feels, the powerful gouging of the earth conveyed in those swirls and strokes.

At the other extreme, when he did paint the monumentality of buildings he did so dynamically. For example, ’Christ Church, Spitalfields’ (1990, above) foregrounds diminutive human figures, a classic trick to evoke scale. Yet the Church is depicted not geometrically, but as if rearing up over the figures. And this is not a dramatic Dutch angle Kossoff has chosen to employ, for the wall on the left and tree on the right stand straight. Kossoff is painting a building the way Van Gogh painted trees, powerfully thrusting its way up from the ground, following its own path.

Both Kossoff and Auerbach were Jewish, a people whose history (as the historian Simon Schama once put it) suggests that before long you’ll be reaching for the suitcase again. Auerbach was an immigrant, Kossoff the child of immigrants. And this could be a factor in their turbulent depictions of London. This is the way home looks to the perpetual outsider; you’re contingent on it, it’s all you’ve known, yet all remains in a constant state of flux.

At the same time, we should be wary of seeing this vision as relentlessly negative. Doesn’t an ever-modifying London mach the diasporist spirit more than would a sedate city? And aren’t Modernist artists supposed to celebrate modernity, champion a city that isn’t stifled by its own traditions? And isn’t there something thrilling in the dynamism of these works? Similar to the way children find building sites exciting.

Speaking of which, let’s look at another side of Kossoff - with ’Children’s Swimming Pool, Autumn Afternoon’ (1971, above). It’s a large work which looks like a small sketch blown up to wall size, with no greater detail added. The result is not a set of figures but a series of captured gestures - a stretch, a leap, a loll. All of which adds to the sense of teemingness. The pool already looks too full for anything resembling swimming, yet more figures are leaping in at both front and back.

The result is some bizarre combination of dynamic and idyllic, the nearest Kossoff ever got to Lowry. Kossoff took his own child to that pool, that might even be him holding his boy in the lower centre. But the heightened way its painted makes it seem more like a memory dredged up from his own childhood.

The alert reader might note that at this point I have focused on Kossoff at the expense of Auerbach. To me Auerbach occupies an awkward midpoint, his thickly encrusted layers of paint jarring against his so-very-British fidelity to realism. (His portraits seem particularly inept.) Had he fled Germany for America, as so many others did, perhaps he’d have been free to embrace Abstract Expressionism and the mismatch would have been resolved.

However, this show did succeed in getting me to like him more than I previously ever have, particularly his later years. Take for example ’St. Pancras Steps’ (1978/9, above) which, like Kossoff’s ’Christ Church, Spitalfields’, contracts the urban environment against some human figures. But, in complete contrast, the urban environment is almost completely a set of right angles, further emphasised by the green line at the top. 

And the human figures are not dwarfed so much as transient. It’s like watching a time-lapse film compressed into a single image. And it flips the perspective of earlier. This is the view of a London native, where visitors come and go but the landscape remains. This London is virtually an eternal place we pass through, a barometer of our morality.

The Art of Diaspora

Ronald Brooks (normally RB) Kitaj also often returned to London in his work. ’Cecil Court, London, WC2 (The Refugees)’ (1983/4, above) even uses the precise location title conventions of Kossoff. However here the emphasis is on the figures, making the subtitle seem uppermost. Unlike the portraits of Freud and Bacon it’s a group scene, yet Kitaj uses the receding perspective to lay out discrete figures in a collage style. They behave as if oblivious to one another, one figure sweeping his step while others litter the street and one looks to be giving birth. This was a street he knew and people he knew from it. He even painted himself in, but reading in the foreground, at a remove. It’s as if this where the flotsam and jetsam of the world are currently washed.

London is the city of refugees, the home of the homeless in which the homeless themselves can find no commonality. And yet at the same time they seem beneath the notice of the standing figures, they look as dressed up as entertainers. Some figures are thought to be influenced by Yiddish theatre, and it’s reminiscent of the way disapora peoples can gravitate towards becoming entertainers, trying to wring value from their itinerancy.

This gives a great flamboyance to the work, the vivid colours making it look almost Pop Art despite its grotesquery. (And remember Kitaj cropped up in the Pallant House’s ‘Pop!’ show, albeit as a kind of mercurial element.) It vaguely resembles the ‘motley assortment of figures’ album covers from the late Sixties, such as ‘Sergeant Pepper’, ‘Strange Days’ and ‘The Basement Tapes’ - where the only thing those dissimilar figures had in common was their unlikeness to everything else.

In 1989 Kitaj wrote a Diasporist Manifesto in which he said: “To be consistent can mean the painter is settled and at home. All this begins to define the painting mode I call Diasporism. People are always saying that the meanings of my paintings refuse to be fixed, to be settled, to be stable: that's Diasporism, which welcomes interesting, creative misreading.” (And of course creative misreading is just what we do here.)

”The Bone of Man”

Francis Newton (normally FN) Souza had no real connection to the School of London. Nevertheless, though born in India he lived and worked in London from 1959 to 1967 and there’s more than enough thematic overlap to warrant his inclusion. This might not immediately be obvious. The boldness of his art, with brush strokes sometimes over a centimetre thick, recalls panel icons and stained glass windows. And his art often has religious themes, for example ’Jesus and Pilatus’ (1955/6) below.

This is a style we associate with certainty, art as a guide to a clear symbolic order. His typically highly prominent signature, as here nowhere near the edge of the work, seems uninterested in conveying any illusion of pictorial space, adding to this sense. So we tend to look at Souza as though he’s conveying some simple truth which we haven’t grasped quite yet.

The piercing arrows are a common motif, inspired by the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. (Indeed Souza painted ’Mr. Sebastian’ in 1955.) But there’s no sense of the torment often found in Medieval religious art. Instead you imagine their bearers sporting those arrows as they pass through their lives, stoically accepting their martyrous fate. Perhaps, a Catholic brought up in India, Souza was motivated by following a minority religion. Certainly, his art seems very much the art of the mocked outsider. (Gregory Salter, in the guidebook, finds in Souza a conflicted relationship to his Catholic inheritance and an articulation of the migrant experience.)

In ’Crucifixion’ (1959, above) the central, crucified figure has the expected nails driven into his feet. But it’s almost impossible to tell him from the wooden cross he’s on. His arms seem to be morphing into branches, his legs trunks, both sprouting. He extends off the canvas in all four directions, as if being stretched on it. While the left figure, scarcely any less tree-like, seems to be cannibalising his own arm. And the other’s grimace extends past the edge of his mouth. All three sport crowns of thorns which seem unremovable from their heads. The Biblical crucifixion was a one-off event, necessary to redeem us. Here it becomes an inevitable condition of being alive.

‘Negro in Mourning’ (1957) retains the iconic means of depiction but is of a modern suited figure. This temporal shift is typical of Souza. (‘Mr. Sebastian’ would be another example.) And in a way he’s reverting to source. Medieval art was uninterested in capturing the historical Biblical era, and would dress events up in its own times.

Yet there’s also a surprising similarity between the paintings. With his narrow head and long neck, leading down to that black tie, again the human figure seems its own crucifix. The downward drips of paint add to this effect. Souza pointed out he’d painted it “in London when race riots flared” but also that it was “close to the bone of man.” And so Souza is exploring similar themes to those found in Bacon and Freud, the prison of being.

Postscript: Kossoff died, aged 92, between my visiting this exhibition and writing it up. He relentlessly pursued his own vision, in the words of his Guardian obituary, “through years of being not merely unfashionable but positively spurned.” So let’s dedicate this review to him.

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