Thursday, 14 January 2016

British Figurative Art

Around 1995, an editorial in Art Monthly criticized the British Council for promoting figurative art as the main achievement of British art in the 20th century. In 1993, one of the first Francis Bacon exhibitions since the artist's death took place at the Museo Correr in Venice, with Richard Hamilton in the British Pavilion. In the following Biennale, in 1995, Leon Kossoff was in the British Pavilion, and he also featured prominently in the curated exhibition Identita e Alterita, which focused on images of the human body. Other British Council touring shows focusing on post-war figurative painting were also cited as evidence of this disproportionate emphasis.

The Bacon exhibition at the Museo Correr, and the Kossoff exhibition in the British Pavilion in 1995, were both curated by David Sylvester. As a result, he was strongly connected to the promotion of a group of artists widely referred to, however erroneously, as the 'School of London'. To an extent this showed Sylvester continuing to favour one (although not the only) sort of art he had admired since the 1950s: figurative painting, predominantly of the human body, combining close observation and a relish for paint as substance. However, within amongst British artists falling into this category, Sylvester's own preferences had changed over the years.

Princess Diana and Andrea Rose at the 1995 Kossoff exhibition in Venice (photo by William Feaver)

Sylvester had been amongst the very first to write in support of both Frank Auerbach and Lucian Freud, but had long since ceased to write about either artist (criticizing the later work of both artists in a public discussion in Edinburgh in 1995). On the other hand, Kossoff and Euan Uglow, neither of whom he had written about before (except for passing mentions), were both the subject of eulogistic texts in the nineties. Some of the same qualities can also be found in younger painters he admired in the nineties, Jenny Saville and Cecily Brown, while it is also relevant in this context that Sylvester was a huge admirer of Gilbert & George, to the despair of some of his admirers. (The recent Robert Hughes volume The Spectacle of Skill contains, amongst its previously unpublished material, a passage in which Hughes states his admiration for Sylvester's work while completely failing to comprehend why he was so drawn to Gilbert & George.)

In his essay for the 1995 Kossoff catalogue, Sylvester makes (perhaps too) clear that he considered Kossoff to be directly descended from Constable, as he did another English artist who he sometimes claimed to be the greatest of his generation, Malcolm Morley. The excellent series of responses to the proposition 'There's No Such Thing as British Art' in volume one of the Paul Mellon Centre's British Art Studies reminded me of Sylvester, not least because Martin Hammer, in his statement, quotes him on Sickert: "The tragic flaw in English painting is compromise, unwillingness to be committed to a point of view, a desire to have the best of two or more worlds (especially, in our time, a present and a past world)." Sylvester's sense of British art, or at least the best British art, seems to have involved the attributes found in the artists mentioned above, and I think this is why he was so keen on making this connection between Constable and Kossoff.

This is all pretty well known and I'm always keen to draw attention to the less familiar aspects of Sylvester's work, but it's striking how neatly the group of essays about British artists he chose to reprint in his selected essays, About Modern Art, fit together. In the final edition 22 out of 77 essays are about British artists, of which only five are about abstract art, and only one on a British abstract painter (Bridget Riley). Given how wonderfully Sylvester wrote about artists such as (abstract) Pasmore, it's hard not to see this presentation as a streamlining of the British tradition. One of my favourite unpublished Sylvester statements, in fact, is a wonderful defence of Marcus Harvey's Myra at the time of the Sensation exhibition, which demonstrates his conviction in its power and importance not only as an image but as a painting.

What I mean to say, simply, is that in reflecting on Sylvester and British figurative art in the 1990s, it's important to remember there was a lot more going on than the succession of Bacon exhibitions he curated. He paid close attention to the work of younger artists, sometimes in texts which haven't been reprinted and sometimes in personal correspondence and other unpublished writings, but it all adds up to a strong sense of an ongoing tradition.

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