Life as meat

Post–World War II London artists dabbled with expiration date

Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne, by Francis Bacon (1966), oil on canvas
  • Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne, by Francis Bacon (1966), oil on canvas

In the years following World War II, the biggest art conversation was about abstraction and what to do with it. The critical center was New York and the artists in question were Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, Gorky, and Kline. At the same time, several painters in England (though not all British-born) were complicating the idiom of representational painting. Each side had things to say about the other. Francis Bacon, the most articulate of the British artists, called Abstract Expressionism “decoration.” Harold Rosenberg, one of Abstraction’s house critics, called Bacon’s work “too figurative, too narrative, too concerned with Christian imagery yet dangerously unpious in its view of religion.” Barnett Newman said (approvingly) that Abstract Expressionists were “freeing [themselves] of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth.” Bacon and five other figurative artists working in and around the ruins of postwar London were cultivating those “impediments,” and a sampling of their work is on view in London Calling, currently at the Getty Center.

These artists ate and drank together; they argued about and observed one another’s work; Bacon and Freud gambled together in casinos. I first saw Francis Bacon’s pictures in 1972, during the opening credits of Last Tango in Paris. I was a 27-year-old poet with no thought of ever writing about painting, but seeing those illustrations stirred a desire to say something, sooner or later, about Bacon’s work. (I’m slow: I didn’t get around to it until the 1990s.) The Tango images — a woman slouched in a chair, a figure sagging on a divan — were expressions of emotional disfigurement, solitariness, and tense anticipation kneaded into mercurial shapes, appropriate icons for Tango’s drama of carnal appetite and existential strain.

Dublin-born (in 1909) of British parents, Bacon was the oldest of what one of the six, R.I. Kitaj, termed the “London School,” and his palette of incited yellows, billiard-table greens, flamingo pinks, indigos, and reds gave a posh, privileged look to his vision of human animalism, of life as meat with an expiration date. The gamble of accident was part of his process. Artists before him had invited randomness into their interaction with the canvas, but Bacon’s interventions were more purposeful. He required instability. As a picture came into a structure, he’d destabilize it, pull it out of an achieved form, sometimes by swiping a rag across the canvas. It was an aggressive kind of painting-against-itself. His portraits of acquaintances and lovers, usually photograph-based, featured smeared skulls, enfolded faces, and elastic bodies composed of glistening planes that shed a protoplasmic “skin,” a kind of shadow incarnate.

Bacon left home at 17, traveled, worked as a furniture and interior designer, and by the early 1930s, virtually self-taught, was making paintings on profane and messily sacred subjects. His work responded as much to the containments of space as to human mood and expressiveness. Within the pictures he created staging areas, boxy structures or display platforms that look like laboratory containers or jewelry displays. The settings expose more than they enclose. The figures’ mouths sometimes remodel the mouth of a screaming woman in Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin. In the 1954 Figure with Meat, her mouth appears on a figure derived from Velázquez’s 1650 Portrait of Pope Innocent X: the blue-robed pontiff shares a caged space with split halves of a beef carcass, meat-and-blood wings that obliterate any sense of the transcendent.

Other of Bacon’s photographic models were the stop-action motion studies Eadweard Muybridge made of wrestlers, acrobats, and ordinary people walking, jumping, and climbing steps. Bacon subverted photography’s stillness by working color to make it look a little runny and decomposing. In the central panel of Triptych August 1972 two males muscle around each other like wrestlers or lovers. On the left panel is a seated George Dyer, Bacon’s model and lover who had recently killed himself, and on the right, the artist. Seeping from the figures is that familiar flayed-skin human spoor, a puddling pinkish flesh tone that looks like a spill of selfhood.

Girl with Kitten, by Lucian Freud (1947), oil on canvas

Girl with Kitten, by Lucian Freud (1947), oil on canvas

Bacon met Lucian Freud in the 1940s. Freud’s ambition was the pursuit of fleshly countenance. In an early work like Girl with a Kitten from 1947, the girl’s skin has a bruised pearliness, a tone Freud would work many variations on in his career, and her lost gaze directs her consciousness way beyond the picture. (She’s holding the kitten by the neck, like a trophy.) Freud experimented with consistency of surface and the elasticity of interior space. The surface of Girl with a Kitten is smooth, chaste, indifferent. The placid flesh from the 1950s pictures gradually gets eroded and corrupted by time; the fineness of finish breaks down into flaky cellular bits and knobs as Freud inquires more and more into the contemplative weathered-ness of the human form. The later work has coarser, broken consistencies, and his nudes look as if they’ve just now dropped or been pushed awkwardly onto beds. The skin in Freud’s work is a blast of carnal presence. He painted the life of time in the body, the decrepitude, the fat, the little and great collapses, just as in the early work he showed a lovely, though tough, youthfulness of presence.

One of Freud’s students at the Slade School of Fine Art was Michael Andrews, born in 1928 and, dead at age 67, the shortest lived of the six artists in London Calling. Of them, he was the most social; his paintings observe human consciousness registering its awareness of others and its surroundings. One of his best known pictures, A Man Who Suddenly Fell Over, doesn’t illustrate the act of falling so much as it reveals two states of mind in that moment. A portly businessman, trying feebly to break the fall with his shoulder, is suspended in a state of worried amusement that there’s nowhere for him to go but down, while the woman observing the event registers a shocked queasiness. Andrews liked parties and liked making pictures based on them. In the busy drinking-club crowd in Colony Room I (not included in the exhibition), his friends Bacon and Freud mix it up with journalists, arts people, and hangers-on. In his landscapes, Andrews aspirates the surfaces and breaks them down into a beautifully expressive unevenness. In a swirling grayish 1994 painting of the Thames Estuary, globs and chunks of clotted ash and dirt are mixed with the paint to create a pensive, elegiac moment in the mind: the churned textures of land and water become a platform for fishermen revealed high in the scene like presiding spirits. The entire picture feels like a modernist dream of 19th-century representation.

Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff are often mentioned together, for good reason. They exalted physical reality and gave it a personal and historical specificity, and both handled paint for its sculptural dynamics. They met at the Royal College of Art in the 1950s and went about town together, making drawings of ruins and re-building sites then returning to their studios to work them up into paintings. “It was sexy in a way, this semi-destroyed London,” Auerbach later said. “There was a scavenging feeling of living in a ruined town.” They were urban poets and returned often in their work to specific places. Auerbach’s motifs are places in north London like Mornington Crescent (where he has worked since 1954), Primrose Hill, and Camden Town. He and Kossoff carried histories. Berlin-born in 1931 to Jewish parents, Auerbach was sent to England at age eight while his parents stayed in Germany and died in the camps. Kossoff was born in London in 1926 to Russian Jewish immigrants and the melancholy of displacement hangs like a veil in much of their work.

Of all these artists, I’m partial to Auerbach. The figure in his E.O.W. Nude, from the early 1950s, looks like a land formation; the dry cracks and mineral slopes are a topography of the artist’s feeling for the motif. The pigment in places is over an inch thick; the curls, indentations, and contorted masses of color aren’t anguished self-dramatization; if anything, they’re celebrations of the momentous immediacy of physical reality. The exhibition includes two pictures of Primrose Hill, where you see in the action of the pigment — twisty deep runnels, screwed-up pinch marks, rivering alluvial colors — an aggressive decisiveness that’s a bearer of change. There are several preliminary drawings of a Primrose picture that show how Auerbach would return to his studio, to the painting-in-progress, with drawings that registered his changing feelings. There’s a teeming resistance-against-itself going on in the work. The meaty twisty pigment is like an unsettled force of nature resisting Auerbach’s effort to define. (He spent a year on one of the Primrose pictures.) His pictures in their way repeat the ruins-rebuilding process he saw around him.

Technically, Kossoff and Auerbach look cousinly. They apply paint heavily then remake pictures by repeatedly scraping down and re-painting speedier newly faced surfaces. Auerbach’s pictures are dramas of emergence, the subjects pushed up into form as if pressured from the inside and below. Kossoff’s pictures have a swifter, punchier presence. He’s also very partial to the figure. In Man in a Wheelchair from the 1960s, the man’s pain and restriction are dramatized by paint that push-pulls and sweeps and bunches across the canvas. Kossoff has also been much preoccupied by social groups, by human relatedness as a field of action: a married couple, a children’s swimming pool, a busy booking hall of the Underground. Of the London School, he’s the most citified and socially expressive.

R.B. Kitaj, too, was preoccupied by the life of social groups and the social life of the individual, but his vision is political-historical; in his later years he was obsessed with Jewish history and identity. Born in Ohio in 1932, he lived for many years in London, then in America, mostly in Southern California. His colors are more aerated than those of the other artists, his surfaces loose and illusional.

Kitaj was bookish and his work intellectualized. (“For me books are what trees are for the landscape painter.”) His paintings think, and his pictures stir together personal, social, and political events. The several heads depicted in Erasmus Variations combine profile sketches of women in his life with doodles taken from the notebooks of Erasmus. Iconography and the visual idiolect of collage gave Kitaj’s work a baggy, often playful, inclusiveness, whether it’s a 1964 photo of naked nature-children playing instruments in a field collaged into a larger, more inclusive pictorial story, or his fellow painters David Hockney, Auerbach, and Freud present in the ritualistic, celebratory The Wedding. His imagery often has a cut-out, assembled look, like the human and horsey shapes, one of them a winged, dragonish creature, in Isaac Babel Riding with the Budyonny. (The Budyonny is a breed of Russian military horse favored by the Bolsheviks.) Kitaj, who died in L.A. in 2007, didn’t have a mastering, achieved style as most of the painters in London Calling do, but he did have a vision that locked the personal inside the historical. He’s the one whose paintings ask to be read, and the selection on view left me wanting to read more.

London Calling: Bacon, Freud, Kossoff, Andrews, Auerbach, and Kitaj, on view at the Getty Center in Los Angeles until November 13. 1200 Getty Center Drive. 310-440-7300; getty.edu

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