Sometimes I amaze myself. I really and truly amaze myself with my ability to get things mixed up. I knew Francis Bacon was around in Elizabethan times. I had a vague memory of him being some sort of scientist-cum-philosopher. I had thought he was a lawyer, too. But I didn’t know that he apparently died from pneumonia contracted when he was researching the effects of freezing on the preservation of meat. And I had never, ever, thought of him as a painter.
So when himself mentioned going to see the Francis Bacon and the School of London exhibition currently running at the National Gallery in Budapest, I was all on for seeing a side of the man I’d not encountered before. But the dates didn’t add up. I’d gotten my Bacons confused. This Francis Bacon was Irish, born in a nursing home in Dublin in 1909. He lived over the road from me at home, near the Curragh in Kildare. [How come I didn’t know this?] His website is a fascinating read. I was particularly taken with this description of his parents:
His father, while not unintelligent, was a belligerent and argumentative man; his mother, a gregarious hostess inclined to self-absorption.
And this belligerent man threw young Bacon out of the house at 16 when he caught him trying on his mother’s frillies. Bacon moved to London and when, in 1927, he saw some of Picasso’s drawings at the Galerie Paul Rosenberg, he thought art might be his thing. But first, he’d serve his time as an interior decorator and furniture designer. His bio really is quite enthralling. I was surprised to see that he only died in 1992. We walked this earth at the same time. His studio was donated to the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin where it was reconstructed and opened to the public in 2001. The Irish boy had come home.
I won’t pretend to understand his art or how he was influenced and in turn influenced so many. That’s beyond me. I found some of his paintings disturbing and there wasn’t one I’d want to hang in my hallway. But his life – his life was quite something.
Amidst the dominance of the late 1970’s abstract, conceptual, and minimalist art, a number of artists focused their creative energies into the examination of the painting of the post war period. The term School of London was coined by R.B. Kitaj in order to refer to the group of artists and their preoccupation with figurative painting whom he gathered for the 1976 exhibition The Human Clay at the Hayward gallery. The chief artists associated with the idea of School of London, in addition to Kitaj himself, were Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Howard Hodgkin, and Leon Kossoff. In the face of the avant-garde approaches, these painters pursued both drawing and painting focused on the examination of the form of the people and the world around them.
A little embarrassed that I’d gotten my Bacons confused, I kept my next addlement to myself until I could test it. You see, another of the painters in this exhibition was Freud. And yes, I’ll fess up. I did wonder how come I’d never known that man was a painter either. I’d gotten my Freuds confused, too. That said, Lucien’s work was more to my liking than Francis’s. I’d happily hang his painting Two Plants on my wall and stare at it for hours. It took him three years to finish this amazing piece of work.
I’d never really appreciated how much work goes into one painting. Seated Nude by another artist in the show, Sir William Coldstream, took sixty 90-minute sittings. He only painted in the presence of the model. Modelling has to be hard work. Sitting still for 90 minutes sixty times? Juliet Yardley Mills (JYM) modelled for another featured artist, Frank Auerbach, each Monday and Wednesday for 40 years. Such dedication. Incidentally, his Head of E.O.W. I was my second pick of the exhibition – the picture I’ve linked to doesn’t do it justice. The colours are quite something. It’s a painting of his long-time model, Stella West. Freud painted a series of 18 portraits of his mother that took 1000 sittings, each lasting anywhere from 4 to 8 hours. I’m telling you – these models are unsung heroes. I can’t help but wonder how artists today fare out. Can anyone sit still, sans phone, for 90 minutes, let alone 8 hours?
I love my art but I’m not an art lover per se. I’ve never studied art history. What I know about style and schools and techniques could be written on a banana skin. But I am a fan of learning, of exploring, of trying something different. For my birthday earlier this year, I received a Friends Membership for the MNG which gets me into these gigs for free. And as I loathe waste of any kind, I intend getting full value out of the investment.
Half-way through, though, I was conscious that I was racing ahead. If I didn’t watch myself, I’d be waiting outside for himself to catch up. So I slowed down a little and instead of reading the captions first, I looked at each of the abstracts to see if I could guess what it might be. Leon Kossoff stumped me. I spent an age with his Building Site, Victoria Street, 1961 and came up with everything but. I finally fixed on cliffs and mudflats. But I was wrong again. That said, his Christ Church, Spitalfields was my third pick for the day. Given my angst at the institutionalisation of religion and what it can lead to, this held me up for a while.
The exhibition runs in Budapest till13 January. Tim Adams reviewed it for The Guardian when it opened in London earlier this year and gave it 5*s, calling it a ‘thrilling and thoughtful exhibition’. I’m sure he knows what he’s talking about [2015 One World award for newspaper journalist of the year, and the Foreign Press award for arts and culture writing]. My lack of ‘fine’ education causes me no end of insecurity. That I had never heard of the School of London and had confused my Freuds and my Bacons is mortifying. I know I should know more than I do, but I’m grateful that I’m getting to remedy the situation, art-wise, one exhibition at a time. And I’m grateful, too, for my new-found appreciation for the unsung heroes of portraiture – the sitters.