The current “London Calling” exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum showcases 40 years of London-based painters working primarily with landscapes and the human figure from 1940 to 1980. These artists, who have come to be known as the London School, were noted for moving away from the more popular abstraction, minimalism and conceptualism that dominated contemporary art at the time. But instead of going backwards into the realm of realism or a more optimistic idealism, their voices present an authentic, humbling and unflinching depiction of contemporary life.
The current “London Calling” exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum showcases 40 years of London-based painters working primarily with landscapes and the human figure from 1940 to 1980. These artists, who have come to be known as the London School, were noted for moving away from the more popular abstraction, minimalism and conceptualism that dominated contemporary art at the time. But instead of going backwards into the realm of realism or a more optimistic idealism, their voices present an authentic, humbling and unflinching depiction of contemporary life. The introduction of a more innovative figuration, tinged by an extreme emotionality expressed through color and brushstroke, weaves a commonality throughout the 80 paintings, drawings and prints by such noted luminaries as Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Leon Kossof, Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach and R.B. Kitaj. Composed mostly of pieces lent from the stellar Tate, the show also features a number of loans from smaller museums and private collectors adding an aura of uniqueness to the oeuvre, which is vast in scope and as of yet unrivaled as a body of work of this kind in America.
|“Morning Crescent-Summer Morning, 2004” by Frank Auerbach|
First and foremost, the frailty and vitality of the human condition is present, followed closely by an interesting distinction of singular voices in this overall collection that becomes markedly more enhanced by the proximity of these works in one space.
In the stunning yet garishly colored “Morning Crescent-Summer Morning, 2004” we see the evolution of Frank Auerbach’s work, in which his progression through time and career may have lent a brighter tone removed from his earlier pieces in the show full of sharp, angular, chaotic landscapes.
Some highlights include: “Melanie and Me Swimming” (1978-79), in which Michael Andrews portrays an intimate moment awash in his signature dark palate, its dimness accentuating the fragile nature of our ordinary, everyday connection with each other.
|“Melanie and Me Swimming” (1978-79) by Michael Andrews||“Two Seated Figures, No. 2” (1980) by Leon Kossoff|
|“Erasmus Variations” (1958) by R. B. Kitaj|
The Leon Kossoff pieces, full of muddled hues and signature blurred lines, remark on the brutal honesty of common existence through scenes of people at a swimming pool, on the tube, or alone in their living spaces. Particularly in “Two Seated Figures, No. 2” (1980) we find a depiction of an old couple, relaxing on chairs in the home as if exhausted by life and awaiting the inevitability of death.
A seminal piece “Erasmus Variations” (1958) by R. B. Kitaj dissects a sketchily painted face in nine versions of a grid, smudged in his muted colors that also positioned him in the British Pop art genre, which emerged simultaneously in the 1950s.
The Lucian Freud contributions to the exhibition are exciting in that they contain many little known pieces, and works of black and white, that go beyond our normal knowledge of his more stark and evocative, sienna-colored, flesh toned work. The unadorned honesty that we’ve come to know of Freud is there in all its blazing glory yet we are privileged to find works like the larger than life, bulging at its seams body of “Leigh Under the Skylight” (1994) that begs us to look away although we can not. In “Girl with a Kitten” (1947) we find him playing with styles before his move into the bare realism we’ve come to associate with him today.
|“Leigh Under the Skylight” (1994) by Lucian Freud|
Francis Bacon’s traditional warped figures on colored planes are seen aplenty like with “Reclining Woman”, (1961) but the most fantastic piece of his in the show is the terrifyingly nightmarish “Figure with Meat” (1954). In it we see a tormented man sitting between the slashed open cavern of an animal, its bones and blood exposed as if showcasing the internal insanity of the artist’s creative mind even though we know it belongs to a series of work Bacon composed based on Diego Velazquez’s “Portrait of Pope Innocent X. Also noted is a rare glimpse at Bacon’s tumultuous relationship with George Dyer in “Black Triptychs” (1971) in which personages of both Dyer and Bacon appear.
After walking through the halls of the show, one gets the indelible impressions of British life post-WWII in all its dreary permutations as these artists struggled to make sense of, and find inherent beauty within, the naked realities of their lives.
London Calling will remain open at the Getty through November 13th.
Image on top: “Figure with Meat” (1954) by Francis Bacon.
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