By James Cahill- published in Elephant October 2012
Is there such a thing as a new ‘School of London’ in contemporary painting? Considering that the original School of London was never supposed to have existed, brows will inevitably be raised at this question. But, following interviews with six contemporary painters confronting the Anxiety of Influence (Nigel Cooke, Tom de Freston, Nick Goss, Rachel Howard, Alex Hudson and Justin Mortimer), James Cahill puts forward a compelling case, clearly tracing key ideas and styles through the oily fog of British painting.
The idea of a ‘School of London’ – a movement of postwar British painters including Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Leon Kossoff and others – has been widely dismissed as describing a zeitgeist that never was. R.B. Kitaj, who coined the phrase in 1976, conceded that the notion existed largely in his imagination; if there was a school, it was certainly a polyglot and sprawling one.’ But, crucially, the artists identified by Kitaj did share a distinctly modernist obsession with history and art history. They repeatedly merged the here-and-now with the long ago.
A significant number of London-based painters who have come to prominence in the last decade – among them Nigel Cooke, Tom de Freston, Nick Goss, Rachel Howard, Alex Hudson and Justin Mortimer – engage unabashedly with the art of past, perhaps above all with the art of this postwar generation. They reinterpret and also react against the painting of the ‘Old Soho’ era, but all the while they channel its diachronic sensibility. And, in so doing, they square up to the inescapable ‘anxiety of influence’ famously described by literary critic Harold Bloom as an inevitable affliction of authors – an anxiety that many artists in the 1980s and 1990’s either denied outright or sought to allay through ironic postmodern quotations.
To romantic believers in the ‘originality of the avant-garde’, this trend might seem an unfortunate backslide. Yet through ambivalent treatments of the body and place, and a creeping gravitation towards the real, this new ‘School of London’ (in many ways as disparate as the last) translates the medium and the message of that previous generation into something newly intense – evincing the ‘shock of the old’.
Bodies in various states of change and evanescence recur in the works of these contemporary painters. De Freston’s newest canvases are populated by a bizarre species of animal-human hybrids, their cartoonish human bodies topped by horses’ heads; in Liminal Lives (2012), we encounter a ‘man-stallion’ holding a swooning ‘woman-mare’ in front of open French doors. It was from Picasso’s groundbreaking reconstructions of the body that postwar British artists including Bacon and Sutherland took their cue, and de Freston even more overtly quotes from Picasso:
his figures bear a resemblance to the crazed, whinnying steed in Guernica (1937).
Rachel Howard’s Folie a Deux (2011)- executed in her characteristic combination of household gloss, oil and acrylic – pictures a more subdued metamorphosis of the body. A nude pregnant female reclines against a sequence of orange stripes, apparently melting into this abstract scheme. On the face of it, the figure is a far cry from the visceral contortions of either Picasso’s Dora Maar or Bacon’s Isabel Rawsthorne. And yet, as with Picasso and Bacon, the body becomes an index of emotional states – of introspection, aloofness and vulnerability.
In this way, Folie a Deux shares something of the mood of Kossoff’s Nude (Autumn Morning) (1971):a huddled figure is delineated in sludgy paint, subject and style combining to evoke nausea and torpor. Like Kossoff, and Sickert before him, Howard invests the trope of the reclining nude with psychological realism. The genesis of this process is often attributed to Manet with Olympia, in which he cast a petite prostitute in the lineaments of a goddess. But it is traceable at least as far back as Titian’s Venus of Urbino, who ambivalently holds a hand over her genials (as the academic Lisa Tickner observes, ‘even the Venus of Urbino menstruated, as women know and men forget’).
In Mortimer’s work, too, the body has a peculiar psychological charge. He comments, ‘I want the people in my pictures to be stand-ins for emotional, psychological, elements of humanity’. In Enclave (2011), a bald-headed naked man emerges from a jumble of limbs and figures lying (in sleep or in death) beneath darkly silhouetted trees. The title indicates a mental hinterland as well as a physical one: The ogre-like man seems to stand for nihilism and violence and abjection, while the scene at large suggests the kind of nefarious night-time activity – cruising, dogging – in which people are transformed into anonymous, roving bodies.
Both Howard and Mortimer frequently present the body sous rature – in the process of being rubbed out.s The figure in Folie a Deux is separated from the viewer both by her listless posture and by the watery paint which depicts and distorts her in the same instant. Howard compares her use of paint to Soutine’s in terms of the ‘psychological sense in which it is almost clinging to the canvas – blink and it’ll slip away’. In her purely abstract works, such as Suicide Painting 4 (2007), it is as though once-present bodies have receded completely into schemes of intersecting drips. Likewise in Mortimer’s latest works, bodies are truncated by murky darkness, producing what he calls the ‘suggestion of a human without showing every part’.
Bodies in Goss’s paintings are more insubstantial still. Tin Drum (2012) incorporates a line of figures construed from vague outlines and floating blanks – one of them holding the eponymous drum. But these might, after all, simply be inanimate objects we have misinterpreted, like the wooden doll Olympia in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story ‘The Sand Man’ (1816; also the possible source of Manet’s title for his ‘living doll’). Goss proposes that ‘there’s that possible theatrical twist that one of them might wink at you, he might just start hitting his drum in the painting’. Elsewhere, Goss suggests bodies through their very absence – through easels, stools or houseplants, which appear haphazardly discarded.
These processes of transforming and erasing the body recall Bacon’s ‘curtains’ of streaks in his paintings after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650), which Roland Penrose called the ‘bellowing popes’.» The streaks act as barriers between viewer and painted subject, representing the experience of not seeing. Nigel Cooke’s most recent paintings, for example, Tree Engulfed by Waves (2011-12), are dominated by abstract streaks which threaten to erase constellations of miniature heads and bodies and foliage. Cooke draws a parallel between Bacon’s use of paint (both creating and erasing) and his own: ‘the paint was always for and against the image, both supporting and undermining it, and that is central to my conception of image making’. In line with this, de Freston assails his figurative subjects with squally surfaces, which he likens to Michael Andrews’s paintings of the Thames estuary; in Raft (2012), a recasting of Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa full of minstrel-like monsters, billowing spume threatens to occlude the central catastrophe.
Such obliterating acts of painting reveal something of the underlying mechanisms of producing and looking at a painting. Cooke argues that painting ‘objectifies your thoughts and shuts down any grip on your own ideas, subtracts you somehow from the job you have set yourself’. Accordingly, art historian Norman Bryson appositely writes that paint has been used in Western art ‘primarily as an erasive medium … the body (of the painter, of the viewer) is reduced to a single point, the macula of the retinal surface; and the moment of the Gaze (for the painter, for the viewer) is placed outside duration.”
Another dominant feature of contemporary painting which channels the sensibility of the postwar era is its ambivalent evocation of place. In the works of Auerbach and Kossoff, the city, like painting itself, forms a nexus of associations and histories ‘placed outside duration’. Auerbach’s titles often refer specifically to Mornington Crescent and other north London enclaves, yet his nebulous pictures gesture towards further-flung times and places: the particular becomes a portal to the universal.
Primrose Hill, Winter Sunshine (1962-64) might as well depict the winter sunshine of another age; while Mornington Crescent with the Statue of Sicken’s Father-in-Law (1966) functions like an x-ray to expose the underlying bone structure of the city. It stands equally for London and for the monumental structures of, perhaps, Nineveh or Tyre or Babylon, cities of which the poet and critic LA. Richards wrote:
Condensation of time and place again occurs in depictions of interiors. Bacon’s imagining of the suicide of George Dyer, Triptych May – June 1973, while echoing the sumptuous decor of the Hotel des Saint-Pares where Dyer overdosed, simplifies the scene to the impersonal register of drama.”
Universal ‘nowhere realms’ are everywhere in contemporary painting. De Freston’s settings frequently constitute tightly enclosed arenas with checkerboard floors (or patios) and baldly delineated windows and doors. Such scenes recall bourgeois homes, but also dismantle the distinctions between indoor and outdoor, or between confinement and boundlessness. Moons and lamps become interchangeable; simple black backdrops hint at infinite voids.
Alex Hudson’s paintings also involve surreal juxtapositions, alternating between landscape and cityscape. In Scene Screen (2010), straggly foliage encroaches on a sulphurous yellow panorama – a kind of post-apocalyptic Constable. Criss-crossing lines in the foreground indicate the vestiges of a geometric structure; as Hudson observes, ‘the architecture becomes buried beneath rampant and all-encompassing nature – entropy at work’. An opposite process is underway in Sundown over the Sierra (2010), in which matrices of struts and vectors, reminiscent of Ai Weiwei’s ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium, overrun a pastoral scene drenched in the same sickly yellow.
The no-man’s-land of Hudson’s paintings appears poised between science-fiction scenography and Graham Sutherland’s pictures of bombed-out cities. (Hudson indeed affirms the influence of ‘Sutherland’s twisted, tormented figures and use of black and toxic colours’ together with Paul Nash’s ‘use of geometry and the British landscape … coupled with the otherworldly’). Place, like the body elsewhere, is in flux and sous rature, just as it is in Auerbach and Kossoff’s impasto impressions of postwar building sites, the successors to Sutherland’s elegiac ruins. Echoing Hudson, Goss describes the interiors in paintings such as Tin Drum (based on his band’s rehearsal space) as ‘dissolving slightly – nature’s reclaiming these places back’.
In Lacuna (2010), he sets forth a greyish landscape of juddering oblongs and drips, crowned by fanning curves implying palm trees: ‘that kind of liminal space where you’re not quite sure where it is: exterior and interior collide.’
If de Freston, Goss and Hudson simplify and condense space, Howard frequently eliminates it altogether, Eva (Study) (2005) is based on a photograph from the 1950S of a woman who had hanged herself in an attic. Yet Howard has removed all details of thee scene beyond the figure and her patterned dress. Suspended lifelessly from a noose, she is also suspended from context. Howard memorializes her subject aradoxical means of wresting her from the time and place of her suicide. On other occasions, Howard evokes medical institutions to express a similar sense of nowhereness. Her off-white backgrounds and queasy injections of fluorescent yellow or orange call to mind the desultory colour schemes of hospitals, an association encouraged by titles such as Fear of Madness (2011). Mortimer’s images more literally convey medical institutions or laboratories while remaining evocatively nondescript (he stresses that ‘anonymity is absolutely key’). In Chamber we glimpse anonymous figures in white coats and a fragment of hospital-green curtain. These elements induce the pathological twist achieved by Bacon when he inserted hypodermic syringes into supine figures.
The consequence of expunging form and collapsing space is to demand the viewers imaginative projection. We subconsciously ask of the men in Bacon’s Two Wrestlers (1953): who are they, and where? Are they fighting or fucking? De Freston’s Struts and Frets (2012) is equally ambivalent: it depicts a horse-man strutting, fretting, at the edge of a platform before a maroon sky, wielding the broken daggers which appears throughout the artist’s recent series. This might be an animal version of Macbeth (‘Is this a dagger which I see before me, / The handle toward and?’) or, for that matter, any account of a murderous figure. The creature’s apparent despair is that of a ‘character in search of a narrative’. Paradoxically nowhereness ferments a multiplicity of moods and meanings; as Kossoff has remarked, “Thereness” follows nothingness.”
By contrast, in Cooke’s recent works, nowhereness is engendered not through reduction but through frenetic accumulation of styles and multiple spatial lurches. The resulting polyphony again entails suspension of meaning – as Cooke suggests: invites a relationship, an inquisitiveness, from those approaching it’. In Nature believes You (2011-12), arabesques of grey paint meander around the canvas; small figures in swimming costumes caught within its swirls coax us to read the ‘abstract’ scheme as massive waves. Above, a morose clown’s head hovers like some carnivalesque godhead.
The overall result is a kind of pictorial version of The Waste Land, resounding with echoes of Turner and Dalf and Abstract Expressionism, in a spirit of esoteric free association. Cooke credits his agglomerative approach to Kitaj, a lifelong grappler with the anxiety of influence, stating that Kitaj revealed ‘the idea that painting could be packed with a content so dense that it actually became the fabric of the work … wilfully ugly, joyfully impenetrable, aggressively indifferent to fashion, connoisseurship and taste’.
In one sense, Cooke’s tumultuous and fantastical scenes are a far cry from the deadpan realism of Lucian Freud or the simmering violence of Bacon. But within their stylistic cacophonies are emblems of the banal and senseless aspects of life. What could be more placid than the cliched imagery of sunbathing holidaymakers in Hawaiian Tropic (The Honeymooners) (2011); and what more senseless than a tsunami suddenly appearing and destroying them, as seems to be happening? Of this tension between fantasy and realism, Cooke comments that ‘the challenge and motivation for me is to pose them as co-dependent and near-on indistinguishable’. Bacon often stressed that his paintings, if they are about horror, describe the banal horror of the everyday. An urge to communicate something of real life, in its mundaneness or its madness, also pervades the painting of the present day.
The dog straining at its lead in Bacon’s Man with Dog (1953) vividly prefigures the shadowy creature in Howard’s morbidly titled Black Dog (2007). And as emblems of lowly realism, both are descendants of the dog in Courbet’s A Burial at Ornans who looks blithely in the opposite direction to the coffin.
In the works of these various contemporary painters, the ordinary and extraordinary intermingle. Howard asserts that ‘I find the ordinary far more extraordinary than the supposed extraordinary’. Her Fear of Madness is about ‘quiet madness, the madness we don’t get to hear about’. In Hudson’s Un titled (2010), a cloud swelling above an expanse of water might be a mushroom cloud from a nuclear bomb, or just a cloud. Likewise in Mortimer’s Bureau (2011), the naked man who slides out from beneath a tarpaulin might be dead, or simply anaesthetized.
Once more, a close analogy for this mood of uncertainty may be found in Bacon; in Triptych Inspired by T.S. Eliot’s Poem ‘Sweeney Agonistes’ t (1967), nude figures unravel on beds and a carcass swarms around a chair while a bureaucratic figure speaks into a telephone (John Russell memorably conjectures that he is ‘talking, I suspect, of something quite other than the physical embroilments which are going forth under his nose’).” The folders and telephone in the foreground of Bureau sound a similar note of the unchanging, mundane trappings of life. As Mortimer points out, ‘it’s often down to the shoe or the telephone, and the everyday objects of a violent person. A violent person might have an Oyster card in their pocket but will still kick the shit out of you’. Contemporary painting expounds a kind of Joycean ‘poetry of the ordinary’, amid which moments of epiphany or horror suddenly shine forth.
As shown by the work of contemporary painters in London, the spirit of the so called ‘School of London’ has trickled persistently, though stealthily, into the present. Auerbach and Kossoff (and, until last year, Freud) have continued working long beyond their notional heyday in the 1950S-70S, in the same way that Monet outlived the golden age of Impressionism, dying in 1926. These figures have transported the sense and sensibility of the postwar decades into the present. A revealing example of how Bacon’s ‘Old Soho’ milieu (‘Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends’) resonated with and seeped into the 1990S scene, may be found in John Maybury’s 1998 biopic of Bacon, Love Is the Devil. Maybury invited young artists, including Gary Hume and Angus Fairhurst, to play members of Bacon’s down-and out worlds in Paris and London. Around this time, the YBAs had themselves become habitues of the Colony Room in Soho, famously Bacon’s haunt; and Mortimer, a member for 20 years, comments that ‘Bacon’s ghost “walked the carpet” there.
But while the YBAs may have aped Bacon’s lifestyle, they and other late twentiethcentury movements (whether Minimalism or New British Sculpture) tended to define their work in hostile opposition to that of their forebears. Painting in particular has long been a despised and rejected medium. Cooke claims that ‘there was definitely more hostility [to postwar British painting] ten years ago … At that point, meaning what you were doing in paint betrayed the fact that you were unsophisticated as an artist, and all those “School of London” painters meant what they did to a dramatic degree’.
Mortimer, whose work has been championed by Romanian painter Adrian Ghenie, offers a persuasive theory as to painting’s new-found acceptability: artists from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, trained within a tradition of realist painting, have emigrated westwards and brought with them an unembarrassed affinity for the medium: ‘Suddenly there’s a place in which people like me can show their work without being ridiculed and seen as old hat’.
In the 1997 preface to The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom equates Shakespeare with the Western canon at large, and indicts ‘deniers of Shakespeare’ as ‘sufferers of the anxieties of Shakespeare’s influence’.” Dismissals of painting surely stem from a similar bridling resentment or anxiety regarding the medium’s inescapable influence. However, for contemporary painters, finding one’s own voice seemingly entails a (potentially antagonistic) conversation with other artistic and literary voices. Like Hamlet who asks ‘must I remember?’, they acknowledge the persistence of memory, even while not necessarily finding it agreeable. Howard indeed remarks: ‘In order to make decent art one has to gorge on art history then purge oneself to be free from the weight of it all … Every time the brush touches the canvas you’re having a conversation with the past, each flick, drip, smear, smudge, you’re up against the impossible.’
So while avoiding glib imitations, these painters use their medium’s canonical status – as the first ‘School of London’ generation did – as a way of expressing foreknowledge and eliciting deja vu, whether though psychologically charged bodies or through strategies of erasure or amalgamation. Cooke speaks illuminatingly of his works as involving ‘prolix and emphatic delivery of traditionally composed images’, and proposes that painting ‘involves mutation and invention over time, pushing something along an unknown path until it starts to talk to you about something you didn’t know you knew’.
Therefore the kneeling naked man in Mortimer’s Haftling (2010) – extracted from gay porn – becomes Christ stumbling on the road to Calvary, the execution bed on which he crouches standing for the dropped cross. Expressing the same duality of prolepsis and echo, Howard recalls, ‘When I did the series Repetition /s Truth – Via Dolorosa, on the Stations of the Cross, only a fool could not acknowledge the existence of [Barnett] Newman, so I doffed my cap and got on with my Via Dolorosa.’ These artists say much about painting’s spectral nature. Just as the ghosts of the past are after-traces, half-beings, painting is nothing if not incomplete (by dint of having edges, a painting is more fragmentary than other forms). As such, it aptly reflects the fragmentary, irrational nature of raw experience. What, after all, is more fleeting than lived experience, and what conversely is more rounded-off and polished than a fantasy or a lie?” Perhaps equivocation is the most consistent quality of the ‘School of London’ then and now – the works inhabit a liminal realm between defined and dissolving bodies, specific and ambiguous space, figuration and abstraction.
As if in reflection of its self-reflexive conversations with the past, contemporary painting teems with ghosts and revenants. A vivid example is Cooke’s New Accursec Art Club (2007), where the wandering artists recall the ghosts thronging on the banks of the river Styx in Homer’s Odyssey – another liminal realm – or the rising spirits of Stanley Spencer’s The Resurrection, Cookham (1924-27).’3 Odysseus is confronted by herds of spirits of figures he recognizes from the past, and yet despite this recognition he is terrified by their transubstantiated forms: ‘myriad tribes of the dead came thronging up with a wondrous cry, and pale fear seized me.” His sense of the ‘shock of the old’ is what we experience again and again in the work of these artists, who like Odysseus journey through the world of the dead without being trapped in it, returning to individual creative quests.