|Lunch at Wheelers: L-R: Timothy Behrens, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach and Michael Andrews. |
Photograph © 1962 Estate of John Deakin.
T. Behrens and the so-called School of London (an interview)
by ANTÓNIO CERVEIRA PINTO
António Cerveira Pinto (ACP) – what does the following list  means to you?
SCHOOL OF LONDON ARTISTS
Michael Andrews (1928-1995)
Frank Auerbach (1931)
Francis Bacon (1909-1992)
Lucian Freud (1922)
R. B. Kitaj (1932)
Leon Kossoff (1926)
T. Behrens (TB) – It means friends I don’t see any more. Mike and Francis are dead, and Kitaj I never even met, I can’t think why, since we had a good friend in common, the playwright and poet Harry Tierney. I don’t think Kitaj went to the Colony Room, at least I never coincided with him there. Leon Kossoff didn’t go very often either.
ACP – quotation:
”...So many frequented The Colony Room that a self-contained movement, ‘The Colony Room School’ arose. Essentially a subject of R.R. Kitaj’s ‘School of London’, its nucleus comprised a group of friends and contemporaries: Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud, Michael Andrews. The latter’s painting, The Colony Room I, 1962 sets at least two of them in their milieu (all 23′ x 12′ of it): Freud stands off-center facing out, and Bacon sits to his left with Muriel Belcher on her stool dividing them... ” 
Question – Are you depicted in this painting? What did the Colony Room mean to you and to your art activity?
TB – No. I remember being rather offended that Mike hadn’t put me in. I asked him why, and his answer was typically intelligent. He was painting the Thyssen portrait at the same time. He said that he had at first considered using me as one of the characters, but changed his mind because he thought that to do so would divert or dilute the emotional energy he needed for the portrait. I could easily identify with that sort of thing, and felt ashamed of the childishness of my initial reaction.
Robin Muir says that at least two of the group of friends are represented in the picture, meaning Lucian and Francis. But Mike himself told me that he intended the chubby seated figure to be an ambiguous mixture of Francis and Dab Farson, another habitué and friend of ours, who wrote a gossipy but affectionate and brave biography of Francis after his death.
ACP – Ron B. Kitaj first referred to the School of London in his catalogue introduction to the exhibition titled The Human Clay at the Hayward Gallery in 1976. Kitaj noted that “while abstraction, happenings and transformations were triumphant there was a special trend towards figurative painting as well as a kind of obsession for the human figure among most London painters” .
Question: This description could also apply entirely to your artwork… don’t you think?
TB – I disagree with Kitaj. The figurative tendency, the obsession with the human figure was decidedly not shared by “most” London painters. There were weak, traditional figure painters, who behaved as though Paris had never existed, but I assume he’s not talking about those. The great majority of ambitious or “good” or “real” painters were abstract. It would be tempting to say that the painters of the so-called School of London were locked in heroic, defiant rebellion against abstraction. Speaking for myself, though, if I can include myself in the group, there was never any choice. I didn’t understand abstract painting. It seemed so one-sided. Figurative painters deal in abstraction too, after all. The excitement, the challenge, lies in making sense of abstraction on one hand and representation on the other.
ACP – quotation:
“Each of these painters instilled a personal style in their works dissecting reality and the morphological attitude of models, expressionist and violent for Auerbach, hallowed with dream and mystery for Andrews, coloured and graphic for Kitaj while Kossoff seems much attracted by thick materials. Francis Bacon was much concerned by human condition using derision to depict human figures always shown distorted so as to express anguish and solitude. Contrary to Bacon’s nudity of the soul, Lucian Freud seems fascinated by the nudity of bodies and proves to be a master in expressing sheer intimacy with no restrictions.” (Ron B. Kitaj) .
Question: Could one refer to the specificity of your paintings, within the esthetical mood defined by Kitaj, as something less sharp, less analytical, less expressionist, less concerned by morphology, … and more holistic, more poetic and more de-dramatized, being notwithstanding a very personal approach to subjective realism?
TB – I find it very hard, if not impossible, to see my work objectively compared with that of other painters. I paint the way I do because it seems to me the most direct or logical way of communicating my personal set of visual preferences. I know I haven’t really answered your question, but I’ll try another approach. You use the word poetic, which I can never understand in reference to painting. I want to paint pictorially, not poetically. That’s why I write poetry, in order to exploit that other side of myself. However, I was recently accused of painting short stories.
ACP – quotation:
“I hardly know why I agreed to buy pictures for the Arts Council. I should have stayed in bed like Oblomov. Anyway, the shutter banging in the wind did not defeat what became a labor of love and I’m glad I did it. I told them I would only buy pictures representing people . . .? (Ron B. Kitaj) .
Question: How central is a sculptor like Henry Moore and he’s drawings about the war as an inspiration for a generation to which most of the modernist optimism was already gone with the deadly wind of two world wars and several million of victims?
TB – Henry Moore was the English modern artist for my student generation. One day I found myself in a smart Hampstead drawing room with Nick Garland, Francis Morland and Eduardo Paolozzi.
Paolozzi picked up the phone and said in his Scottish accent: “Hullo Henry”. He sounded a bit apprehensive, but Nick and I, both 18, were extremely impressed that he should be on Christian name terms with the great man at all.
Afterwards there was a fairly fierce, generalised reaction against Moore. I can never understand the impulse to shoot down people who are genuinely grand and have become famous through merit, rather than ambition. (It’s now the fashion to denigrate Bacon too).
I’ve just done a picture, based partly on a photo by Alfonso which contains people sleeping in the Madrid metro during the Civil War. It’s only now, answering your question, that I realise I owe the image to Henry Moore, who did a famous series of drawings of the London version of the same subject.
ACP – quotation:
“The singe human figure is a swell thing to draw. It seems to be almost impossible to do it as well as maybe half a dozen blokes have in the past. I’m talking about skill and imagination that can be seen to be done. It is, to my way of think and in my own experience, the most difficult thing to do really well in the whole of art.” (Ron B. Kitaj) .
Question: Landscape painting and portraits are a very well known trend in British art, and I can imagine the so-called School of London, very impressed with such powerful artists like Constable, Turner, Gainsborough, Reynolds, John Sargent, William Blake and Whistler. In times of delusion, requiring new attention to the human soul and body, but also to the precious environment of life, photography (now under the control of information age), probably seemed not enough to your generation. Painting had, so to speak, another chance to prove its innocence and wit. Is this a fair judgement? What was the hard talk of those times in relation to the future of art? Was there any sense of future in your perception of the evolution of contemporary culture? Or was it only a matter of dealing with the present… and painting?
TB – I hate the term the School of London. I don’t blame Kitaj for coining it, because if he hadn’t someone else would have done. But it takes an effort for me to pronounce the words.
Constable was the only English painter you name who was influential then – and only to Lucian, I think. It was rare to hear people mention English painting of the past, neither was I interested in it myself. Lucian was obsessed by Rembrandt and Francis by Velásquez. The setting for Mike’s picture The Deer Park came from Velásquez too. I spent years studying Breughel, Vermeer, Goya, Michelangelo, Courbet, Delacroix…
I’m a painter of people. Occasionally I do an unpopulated picture, but unless it contains human traces – an unmade bed or an interior – I can’t work up the enthusiasm to carry it through. I have done landscapes, specially when I was very young, but I never thought much of them.
“What was the hard talk of those times in relation to the future of art?” In Soho there was very few places where you could drink through the afternoons. The Colony Room of course was one, but there was also a bar next door called the Club des Caves de France. It was a tougher sort of place with a more heterosexual atmosphere. Muriel Belcher could be quite strict about bad behaviour, and the drunkest people of all, who weren’t always welcome at the Colony, were tolerated at the Caves. One of these was Roger Hilton, a pioneer abstract painter of my parent’s generation. One day, practically on his knees with exhaustion and whiskey, he whispered in my ear: “Kid, the future is yours.” It wasn’t a reference to our respective ages. He meant he thought that abstract painting was finished. This was exciting, coming from the headquarters of the theoretical enemy, because we were outsiders, whatever Kitay says. The paintings of Hilton’s last years were dancing nudes.
Writing that anecdote down suggests an answer to the rest of your question. People like Roger Hilton belonged to some ism or other. They were politically minded and thought about the future of art, that art had a predictable future. We – the Colony Room School or the Beaux Arts Gallery School, to avoid that pretentious expression for once – were anti-political, anti-School in fact. There was a feeling in the air of aristocratic scorn for expressions like “the future of art”.
A dandyish feeling too. Bacon had something to do with Oscar Wilde and Lucian perhaps with Baudelaire.
ACP – As far, you have been totally erased (or self-erased…) from the so-called School of London, with the exceptions of two portraits where one can testify your early association to the core of the Colony Room Group: Lunch at Wheeler’s, a photograph, produced like a ‘tableau vivant’, done in 1962 by John Deakin, and a portrait of yours done by the painter Michael Andrews, belonging to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection (now in Madrid). What did really happen at the time to your relation with the future School of London? 
TB – What happened was that the Beaux Arts Gallery closed, my friendship with Lucian dissolved and I left the country. It was like the end of a chapter. You say I’ve been “erased” (or “self-erased”) from the School of London. I think I was more of a desertor, and desertors don’t get easily forgiven.
ACP – You have been working a lot in the last decade or so. Could you tell us a little more about this silent work?
TB – I’ve always worked a lot. It’s just that lately I seem to produce more pictures. I don’t think I can tell you much about what you nicely call “this silent work”. I hope it speaks for itself, in silence that is.
ACP – Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach were born in Berlin, Bacon was an Irish from Dublin, Kitaj was a native from Cleveland, Ohio. Where are you from? This so-called School of London and their relations with British realist painting tradition may have, in fact, a more diversified cultural background. Don’t you think?
TB – It’s true that the School of London is short of real Londoners, but so was the School of Paris of real Parisians. Picasso spoke French with an atrocious Andalusian accent, Matisse was from the Belgian frontier, Modligliani was an Italian Jew, Chagall and Soutine Russian Jews…
Lucian was born in Vienna, Frank in Berlin, Paula Rego in Lisbon, Bacon in Dublin, Mike in Norwich. Craigie Aitchison was born in Edinburgh. It mystifies me that nobody talks about Craigie in the context of the School of London, far more than it does that nobody talks about me. Craigie has lived and worked in London for 50 years. He’s one of the 4 or 5 best known English painters, both to general public and to specialists. He was an intimate friend of Mike Andrews and Euan Uglow. His work fits perfectly well into the stylistic disparateness of the so-called group. Almost most importantly he was Helen Lessore’s favourite of all of us.
And yet nobody outside England has heard of him.
I was born in London, but my fairly recent ancestors were Hamburg Jews. There was a lot of Jewish blood in my London circle of friends: Frank, Lucian, Kossoff, Helen Lessore. Kitaj is Jewish too. Frank Auerbach, Lucian once told me with the air of having just made an important discovery, comes from a long line of rabbis.
ACP – Most of the work we are going to see in your first retrospective ever was done in Spain in the last two decades. Before this period you have been in Italy. How do you see the relationship of your art, done outside the environment of the Colony Room, with the so-called School of London? As I see it, there is still a very strong connection with the principles that made that Lunch at Wheeler’s the vortex of a decisive de-construction of the modernist tendency to abstraction…
TB – I often wonder about this myself. I chose to live in Spain and not in England, surrounded by Spanish rather than English people. I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else I’ve lived, and my youngest son grew up Spanish. Painting is a means of communication. In as much as painters paint “for” anyone, I’d like to paint for the people I see every day, who are Spanish people. To put it another way, I’m conscious of a great debt to the Spanish, which I’d like to repay in my favourite coinage, painting. But on the other hand one can’t deny or escape the overwhelming heritage of the formative years, until 25, say. The other day I asked a friend: “Do I paint as I talk, with an English accent I mean?” When, after some thought, he said no, I was pleased. But the way you phrase your question suggests you disagree.
Copyright © 2003, António Cerveira Pinto
- This interview was done between january and april of 2003 for the book published on the occasion of T. Behrens retrospective, curated by António Cerveira Pinto, which took place in Madrid, A Coruña and Lisbon, in three different flavors.
- As referred by Robin Muir in John Deakin: Photographs; selected & essay by Robin Muir. The Vendome Press, New York, 1996.
- It is almost impossible to locate any reference to T. Behrens as a member of the Colony Room group of artists that made this pub so famous, and it is even more difficult to find any of his artworks in any of the many exhibitions related to the so-called School of London. Here is some relevant data collected from the Internet when I was trying to discover how far this erasing process has gone.
The Human Clay Exhibition (1976), curated by Ron B. Kitay
LIST OF ARTISTS
- Michael Andrews (b. 1928) 6*
- Frank Auerbach (b. 1931) 4
- Francis Bacon (b. 1909) 1
- Adrian Berg (b. 1929) 3
- Peter Blake (b. 1932) 3
- Frank Bowling (b. 1936) 1
- Olwyn Bowey (b. 1936) 1
- Stephen Buckley (b. 1944) 3
- Rodney Burn (b. 1899) 1
- Richard Carline (b. 1896) 1
- Anthony Caro (b. 1924) 1
- Patrick Caulfield (b. 1936) 1
- William Coldstream (b. 1908) 1
- Richard Cook (b. 1947) 2
- Peter de Francia (b. 1921) 4
- Jim Dine (b. 1935) 1
- Sandra Fisher (b. 1947) 1
- Lucian Freud (b. 1922) 6
- Patrick George (b. 1923) 1
- John Golding (b. 1929) 1
- Lawrence Gowing (b. 1918) 1
- Maggi Hambling (b. 1945) 3
- Richard Hamilton (b. 1922) 5
- Nigel Henderson (b. 1917) 1
- David Hockney (b. 1937) 4
- Howard Hodgkin (b. 1932) 5
- Allen Jones (b. 1937) 3
- R.B. Kitaj (b. 1932) 1
- Leon Kossoff (b. 1926) 1
- Helen Lessore (b. 1907) 1
- John Lessore (b. 1939) 3
- Kenneth Martin (b. 1905) 1
- Robert Medley (b. 1905) 4
- Alexander Moffat (b. 1943) 2
- Henry Moore (b. 1898) 2
- Leonard McComb (b. 1930) 3
- Eduardo Paolozzi (b. 1924) 3
- Philip Rawson (b. 1924) 4
- William Roberts (1895-1980) 2
- Tony Scherman (b. 1950) 1
- Peter Schlesinger (b. 1948) 1
- William Scott (b. 1913) 1
- Colin Self (b. 1941) 1
- Stella Steyn (b. 1907) 1
- William Turnbull (b. 1922) 1
- Euan Uglow (b. 1932) 2
- Elizabeth Vellacott (b. 1905) 1
- Carel Weight (b. 1908) 2
(*)Numbers represent the works exhibited by each artist.
GROUP EXHIBITIONS (related to the so-called School of London)
— Recent Trends in Realist Painting; Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (1952)
— Dunn International; Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Frederiction and Tate Gallery, London (1963)
— British Painting since 1945; Tate Gallery, London (1967)
— Recent British Painting from the Peter Stuyvesant Collection; Tate Gallery, London (1967)
— Helen Lessore and the Beaux Arts Gallery; Marlborough Fine Art, London (1968)
— British Painting and Sculpture 1960-1970, an exhiition organized by the Tate Gallery and the British Council, London; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (1970-71)
— Drawings of People; Arts Council of Great Britian (1975); Serpentine Gallery (1976)
— The Human Clay, an exhibition selected by R.B. Kitaj; Hayward Gallery, London; Arts Council of Great Britian (1976)
— European painting from the Seventies: New York by 16 artists; Los Angeles County Museum (1976)
— Peter Moores Liverpool Project 4: Real Life; Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool (1976)
— British Painting 1952 to 1977, The Royal Academy of Arts, London (1977)
— The British Art Show, The Arts Council (1979)
— This Knot of Life, paintings and drawings by British artists; L. A. Louver Gallery, Venice California (1979).
– Part I: William Coldstream, Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Howard Hodgkin, Euan Uglow.
- Part II: Frank Auerbach, Franics Bacon, Peter Blake, R. B. Kitaj, Leon Kossoff.
— “The urge to create art movements has almost become compulsive. The general confusion we have experienced in the art world of the Seventies has been the result of the art critics and museum curators desire to comfortably package newly found artists, and some of the barren products they have made during the past decade, into groups of related ideas. Now that their haste has succeeded in creating chaos, perhaps it has also afforded a period for the healthy reassessment of certain artists’ work, and of aritstic values too hastifly abandoned. . . In Britain, in spite of all the changes of fashion dictated by the art world itself, certain consistent ideas have prevailed. This exhibition brings together a group of British painters who are preoccupied with making pictures that explore the figure and human landscape. The influence of these artitsts has been birmly felt in Britian. To a generation of art students during the Sixties, their work was in many respects a guiding light. To a generation in the Seventies, their influence has been a thorn in the side of the argument that painting is dead. There are some great painters working in Britian. I have selected ten of them for this exhibition . . . I am very grateful to Ron Kitaj for agreeing to reprint, and edit, his essay entitled The Human Clay, which was written to accompany an exhibition her curated in 1976...” – Peter Goulds. 5 October, 1979. Forward of catalogue This Knot of Life.
— Narrative Paintings; Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (1979-80)
— Eight Figurative Painters; Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT (1981). Artists: Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, William Coldstream, Lucian Freud, Patrick George, Leon Kossoff, Euan Uglow.
— Exhibition at The Colony Room Club, organized by Michael Parkin (1982). The exhibition which showed works by members Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Eduardo Paolozzi.
— Hayward Annual, Hayward Gallery, London (1982)
— The Hard Won Image, Tate Gallery, London (1984)
— The British Art Show; Arts Council of Great Britain (1984)
— A Circle: Portraits and Self Portraits by Arikha, Auerbach, Kitaj and Freud; Marlborough Fine Art, London (1984)
— The Proper Study; The British Council (1984-85)
— The British Show; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; British Council (1985)
— A Singular Vision; Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter (1985)
— The Human Touch, 50 years of British Painting about People; Cornerhouse, Manchester (1985)
— Forty Years of Modern Art; Tate Gallery, London (1986)
— British Art in the 20th Century: The Modern Movement; Royal Academy of Arts, London (1987)
— Current affairs: British Painting and Sculpture in the 1980s; Museum of Modern Art, Oxford and The British Council (1987).
— A School of London: Six Figurative Painters; organized by the British Council for: Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo; Louisiana Museum of Modern Art; Museo d’Arte Moderna, Venice; Kunstmuseum, Dusseldorf (1987).
— “The idea for this exhibition arose from a discussion between the Paris-based art critic, Michael Peppiatt and the American-born aritst, R. B. Kitaj. . . this will be the first time that foreign audiences will be given the chance of seeing together a representative selection of work by some of the leading figures in what both Kitaj and the writer, Lawrence Gowing and others have chosen to dub the ‘School of London.’ Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, R.B. Kitaj and Leon Kossoff; at first glance, it would seem that the members of this group possess little in common – certainly only one of them can claim to be a Londoner by birth, yet they all share an attachment to the city. The strongest link between them is their commitment to painting and to the figurative image. Their sustained dedication to an artistc ideal has resulted in a body of work of astonishing power and diversity which has been developed individually, and has remained largely unaffected by successive post-war artistc movements. . .” (from the catalogue). Jenry Meyric Hughes. Director, Fine Arts Department. The British Council.
— Exhibition Road, Painters at the Royal College of Art; Royal College of Art, London (1988).
— The Pursuit of the Real, British Figurative Painting from Sickert to Bacon, Manchester City Art Galleries, The Barbican Art Gallery, Glasgow City Art Gallery (1990).
— The School of London and their Friends, The Collection of Elaine and Melvin Menains, Yale Centre for British Art, Newberger Museum of Art (2000-01).
THE COLLECTION OF ELAINE AND MELVIN MERIANS
The School of London and their Friends: The Collection of Elaine and Melvin Merians. 2000-10-11 until 2000-01-07. Yale Center for British Art. New Haven, CT, USA.
The finest and most comprehensive collection of paintings by the School of London are currently owned by New York collectors Elaine and Melvin Merians. For the first time over seventy masterpiece paintings and drawings from this collection will be exhibited publicly at the Yale Center for British Art. The School of London and their Friends: The Collection of Elaine and Melvin Merians will offer a fresh introduction to contemporary figurative painting in England and reveal the range and quality of the Merians activities as collectors over the past twenty years.
The term School of London was coined by American-born painter Ronald Kitaj in order to draw attention to the extraordinary range and power he found in contemporary British art after the Second World War. The expression called attention to a common trait shared by half a dozen of Londons most prominent artists: their fascination with the human figure as well as the environment–whether it was the interior of their studios or the grimy streets of London. Lucian Freud serves as one of the original members of the movement together with Leon Kossoff, Frank Auerbach, Michael Andrews, R.B. Kitaj, and Euan Uglow. Through their commitment to portraying the human figure, the landscape, and the cityscape, the School of London has influenced a younger generation of painters.
They are represented in this exhibition by Christopher Bramham, Peter Doig, Tony Bevan, and others who are united by their engagement with the immediate world–from rich, dramatic depictions of the human form to crowded urban landscapes.
As a school they are a potent reminder of the tradition of modern British realist painting that extends through the twentieth century to such important artists from Walter Sickert and the Camden Town School, back to Matthew Smith, Paul Nash, and Wyndham Lewis. For many, their roots in London and London studio practice are strong and self-evident. For others removed from the London scene, such as David Hockney, there still persists a grip on the immediacy of place. The painters live and work off of the environment. The relationship is strong and unbreakable.
The collection of Elaine and Melvin Merians is of exceptional interest and quality as the foremost collection in America and Britain devoted exclusively to the School of London. It is the breadth of the Merians vision and the depth of their relationship with each artist that the Yale Center has sought to capture in this exhibition. Melvin Merians commented, …We have gotten to know most of the artists over a period of time. One of the great things about collecting contemporary art, I feel, is to know and have a relationship with the artist. It gives a greater insight into their work and one has an opportunity to ask them all sorts of questions.
Indeed, the Merians are collectors whose sharp focus on the School of London has given them an intimate knowledge of both the works of art and the artists who created them. The exhibition includes multiple works by nearly every featured artist including, for example, three paintings by Lucian Freud, five works each by R.B. Kitaj and Frank Auerbach, six paintings by Peter Blake and nine by Euan Uglow.
The Collection of Elaine and Melvin Merians is important for its comprehensive overview of the School of London. It is equally important as a vivid reminder that artists in Britain have continued to produce work of the highest quality no matter how the winds of fashion have blown. This collection demonstrates powerfully to the viewer that the tradition of painting and drawing as a deeply humanist art persists to the close of the twentieth century.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with an essay by Richard Cork, art critic for The Times (London) and author of A Bitter Truth (1994), Vorticism and Abstract Art in the First Machine Age (1977), and Vorticism and Its Allies (1974). The publication will also feature an interview with Elaine and Melvin Merians and a detailed description of their collection. Together with the exhibition, the catalogue will make a substantial contribution to the knowledge and understanding of 20th-Century British art.
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MICHAEL ANDREWS AT TATE BRITAIN
Michael Andrews was born in 1928 and died in 1995. He didn’t produce many paintings (although the ones he made tended to be large). In the exhibition at Tate Britain, until 17 October, the full range of his work can be appreciated for the first time. Andrews followed a route which depersonalises the act of looking. He was taught by William Coldstream, and said: ‘Bill gave me my first enlightenment. He persuaded me of the paramount value of looking, of appraisal and, in transcription, of direct statement, of which he said: “Just write it down.” It was so simple and unforgettable.’ The little lines and crosses which show through the paint in Coldstream’s pictures record intervals meticulously (sometimes obsessionally and even destructively). In paintings by Sickert the grid which allowed a squared-up drawing to be copied to canvas sometimes shows through the paint. There are paintings by Andrews in which remnants of construction lines serve a double purpose: they are a necessary scaffolding, but also marks which demonstrate effort, in Andrews’s case that which has gone into transferring the details of an intermediate image – a postcard or photograph – to canvas. Like the hallmark on a piece of silver, they can work only if they interfere with the surface which they authenticate.
The use of photographs as a substitute for personal observation is a drastic distancing tactic, particularly when they are commercial images taken out of the context – newspapers and magazines – in which their usual meanings are generated. It was a move Sickert used: you can compare a row of painterly little portraits of pop stars by Andrews in this exhibition with Sickert’s picture (taken from a newspaper cutting) of Peggy Ashcroft in Venice, which is currently hanging in one of Tate Britain’s thematic displays. Andrews moved from this kind of reinterpretation of mechanical images to a Rauschenbergian use of over-painted screen-printed photographs and then to a much more meticulous copying of visual artefacts. Making his pictures of Ayers Rock in Australia in the 1980s, Andrews worked from collages of coloured photographs; another series was painted from photographs he had taken of himself deer-stalking in Scotland; a picture in which he is teaching his daughter to swim is based on a snapshot. Throughout his career he painted small portraits from life – they are not particularly distinguished, but convincingly modest, and provide a continuing test of another, direct, way of seeing.
In English painting, even recent painting, an autobiographical engagement with people and places is common. You find it in the work of Freud, Bacon and Spencer. Freud’s interrogation of the flesh, both intimate and unloving; Bacon’s use of imagery which takes its force from a willingness to do violence to the look of friends and lovers; Spencer’s exposure of private life and private parts in his search for intimate truths – are all typical of English uses of painting. Things seem to have been done differently in France. Matisse’s nudes are not also portraits, and Picasso’s women, even when they are recognisable, are depersonalised and turned into players in more general mythologies. Vuillard and Bonnard made pictures of the places they lived in and the people they lived with, but do not require one to guess at more than the picture shows. Although you can’t generalise – Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach make pictures of ordinary North London without seeming to imply stories about the scenes they record – there is an English tendency to find the first impetus to picture-making in personalities and narrative, rather than in formal values of tone, shape and colour. Even an abstract painter like Howard Hodgkin can assert that his pictures are rooted in particular experiences and represent significant moments. Sickert, and those English painters who tried to follow his lead, proved that painters might find their best opportunities in ordinary rooms, common streets and popular entertainments. The narrative element in Andrews’s pictures is unusually complicated. His early subjects are mundane and suburban (family in back garden, the beach, a dull block of flats); then there is the shabby glamour of Soho bohemia (The Colony Room). Stranger, invented, exotic parties follow (The Deer Park, All Night Long) peopled by figures taken from pictures in magazines. Then there is a group of mysterious scenes in which elongated figures, based on pictures of singers and stars, stand like ragged clothes-pegs in front of a modern building with palms and a pool which might be a resort hotel. These canvases are called Good and Bad at Games.
Seven pictures – Lights I to Lights VII – show seaside piers, a suspension bridge, traffic at night, a skyscraper at night and the shadow of a hot-air balloon. The balloon, shown or merely implied by the height from which the view is taken, links the images. They have a dream-like strangeness in which the contrast between the snap-shot facts and the aesthetic implication of big canvases and carefully applied flat paint plays a part. You see the balloon, you see from it, you see its shadow. That there is a meaning intended (a communicated emotion, a non-verbal comment on the nature of our relation to the real, seen world) is confirmed by accounts of Andrews’s thoughts about his work. In this case the idea is freedom: ‘to be released and unselfconscious – how wonderful that would be,’ Andrews noted on a scrap of paper. But he also believed that the verbal and visual could tangle negatively. In the exhibition catalogue,* William Feaver records an exchange from an interview with him: ‘There’s such a marvellous difference between ideas and imagery. I mean you can’t paint ideas; you really cannot paint ideas. Pictures which are based on ideas are the ones which founder.’
Andrews’s pictures are like disturbing dreams. It’s not just the intrusions – such as that of curious animal-masked figures in the foreground of views of the formal gardens of Drummond Castle. There is something grey, threatening and unexplained about his blandest landscapes. Ayres Rock is a discomfiting presence despite the bright desert light; the water in which he teaches his daughter to swim is threateningly black; in the stalking pictures it is the distant deer that first catch your eye, the prone figures who hunt them hunt you too. These effects are made stronger when you see the pictures together because Andrews employed no recognisable single way of making marks which would let you live, as it were, in the painter’s hand and eye. There is air-brushing, neat small-brush painting and, sometimes on the same canvas, there are broad painterly strokes – like the ones in A View from Uamh Mhor which describe the nearer hillsides. On that canvas and on Edinburgh (Old Town), streaks of thin paint drip down the picture over bare patches which look as though they are waiting to be finished (but which would resolve things altogether too much if they were). There are small studies close in appearance to Constable sketches. Sometimes the canvas is primed, sometimes bare brown linen shows through. His life’s work reads as a calculated attempt to avoid a style which would have a life of its own, and you finish up not knowing who, as a painter, he is.
There are some early photographs in the catalogue of Andrews with Soho friends like Lucian Freud and Tim Behrens (whose portrait is in the exhibition). Andrews was excited by parties: he looks at once charming and shy. Other painters of his generation impressed their personalities on their time by finding identifiable ways of making pictures. Andrews’s unrepetitive, very memorable series of images are the closest our times are likely to come to painterly anonymity.
Peter Campbell is the LRB’s [London Review of Books] art guru and a typographer.
This is a reworked article from 1998 which was dropped from publication at the time due to a dispute concerning photographic reproduction rights.
The small oeuvre of intensely considered realist pictures left to the world by Michael Andrews, who died of cancer in his mid-sixties in 1995, has a poetry and integrity uniquely its own. His are deeply intelligent works, rooted in an understanding of the complexity of pictorial language, informed by photography but allied to observation. True, they can appear dutifully conservative at times, but in a way that just adds to their quirkiness. As Frank Auerbach once put it, “Mike does these things that at first look like old railway travel posters, but when you really look at them they are just truly beautiful pictures.” With Lucian Freud, Auerbach was a fanatically loyal champion of this quintessential artist’s artist. Although Andrews enjoyed the patronage of certain well-placed figures within the British establishment, his reputation remains pretty limited even within Britain, and virtually non-existent overseas (although one important work, All Night Long, is in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia). The combination of a small output, quiet life, uncontroversial subject matter and unostentatious painterly touch justify comparisons with Vermeer, whose reputation had to wait two centuries to be retrieved from oblivion. Luckily, Andrews may not have to wait that long. A retrospective is promised by Tate Britain in a couple of years, and in the meantime, his work can be seen, this Fall of 2000, at the Yale Center for British Art, in the exhibition “The School of London and Their Friends: The Collection of Elaine and Melvin Merians”.
A belated memorial show held at the Timothy Taylor Gallery in the spring of 1998 brought together the three Thames pictures which turned out to be his last. The series marked his return to London after many years seclusion in East Anglia. One doesn’t need to know they are last paintings (only two were finished) to sense their urgency of resolve. The expressive and spontaneous treatment of surface was unparalleled in his career. Not coincidentally, Mr Taylor’s Mayfair premises, in Bruton Place, once housed the Beaux-Arts Gallery where, in the 1950s, the redoubtable Helen Lessore championed British realism, exhibiting Bacon, Auerbach, Kossoff, the Kitchen Sink painters, and – for his first two shows – Michael Andrews. It was a resonant space in which to see his last works, especially as these deal with the river as repository of memories and symbol of the flow of time.
Much as Andrews deserves greater recognition, one could argue, in a bizarre kind of way, that a quiet exit from art historical consciousness would have fitted Andrews’s artistic character. A devotee of Zen Bhuddism, he actually made negation of ego one of his themes. In his haunting ethereal landscape paintings of the 1970s – the Lights series – he adopted the hot air balloon as a metaphor of selfhood. He had been chewing over the concept of “the skin-encapsulated ego” described in the writings of R.D.Laing when he was struck by a newspaper photo of a balloon which gave him his cue. He once confided to the writer Lawrence Gowing “I love the sense of homelessness and rootlessness. I’d like to die in a ditch.” He was, as it happens, buried in an unmarked grave, although at a well attendend funeral on the estate of his patron Baroness Willoughby de Eresby, on land where he was fond of deer-stalking.
Andrews was born in 1928 in Norwich where his strict Methodist family all worked for the Norwich Union insurance company. At the Slade in the 1950s he was the star pupil of William Coldstream, a realist as torturously self-doubting as he was fanatically empirical. In his own formative years at the Slade, a generation earlier, Coldstream had been torn between the rigorous observational realism advocated by Tonks and the temptations of Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, a dichotomy he passed on, in a way, to Andrews and – to a lesser extent – his other protégé Euan Uglow. In Andrews case the struggle was between the austerity of the Euston Road style, epitomised by Coldstream, and a new conception of the figure, in tune with the modish existentialism, presented by Giacometti and Bacon, although to be fair Coldstream enthused more about Giacometti among his charges than about himself.
Extistentialism won the day in the paintings which catapulted the young Michael Andrews to national attention in the Slade Diploma Examination (degree) show of 1952. “A Man Who Suddenly Fell Over” depicts a middle-aged, middle-class gent about to land, painfully, on the pavement, his besuited body twisted awkwardly between gravity and equilibrium, his expression also equally torn between perplexity, hopelessness and a frantic attempt at composure – he’s literally saving face. Much of the energy in this and other youthful works comes from its forceful awkwardness. Indeed, David Sylvester, an early champion of Andrews, identified awkwarness as his key trait. Partly, Sylvester argued, this had to do with his Englishness (think of the figures in Turner or Constable) but it also relates to “the awkwardness of almost every modern painter who has not been content to solve his problems by simplifying them…The modern artist who aims at the inclusiveness of traditional European art runs up against the difficulty of recovering that inclusiveness without embracing what have become the clichés of the tradition, and the awkwardness arises from trying to have one without the other.” Andrews’ awkwardness also had to do with the prevailing philosophical mood, however, and his temperament.
Meanwhile, the legacy of Coldstream’s example, if not advocacy, of observation would resurface periodically in Andrews’ oeuvre. A decade later he embarked on a large group portrait of his family in his parents’ Norfolk garden which attempted to remain strictly within the boundaries of perceptual analysis. His immediately preceding paintings had actually used the same garden, with its distinctive porch and pergola, as the backdrop of freely imagined bacchanals strangely redolent of Puvis de Chavannes. These featured his London friends, sunbathing or making out, in mannerist, distorted poses. In contrast, the family portrait, which absorbed intense mental energies, is sober and conservative, filial to his religiously puritan parents and aesthetically puritan master, but even so, a tension can be sensed between the competing philosophies – put crudely, existentialism and empiricism. The resulting style, as Peter Fuller described it, was of “clipped angst and trim unease”.
Still, there was more carousing to come. The 1960s were dominated by an ongoing series which explored the party theme. In violation of Methodist taboos Andrews threw himself into the drinking frenzy of Soho, keeping a sober eye, nonetheless, on the revellers at Dean Street’s Colony Room – Freud, Bacon, and a cast of hangers on, many of whom were also portrayed by Freud and Bacon – which Andrews immortalised in his famous group portrait of 1962. In another picture of the same year, The Deer Park, Norman Mailer’s evocation of orgies in the novel of that title fuses with the format of a Velasquez painting in the National Gallery, the Boar Hunt, as well as scenes from Fellini movies, in an extraordinary depiction of forced gaiety and social posturing. Bang in the centre of his image, isolated from the social throng by a billowy white couch, is a portrait of the poet Rimbaud, faithful in style to its photographic source. Elsewhere, an abstracted (in both senses) Marilyn Monroe is dancing. As much as a reinvention of figure painting and an exploration of the mood of the times, this image by Andrews belongs to the Pop canon. Indeed its collision of high culture, the vernacular, personal allusions and painterly physionomic distortion directly relates to a younger artist whose example obsessed him, namely R.B. Kitaj (pages of his notebooks are filled with comments about the controversial newcomer). This puts paid to the whingeing by self-proclaimed historical purists against the inclusion of both Andrews and Kitaj under the rubric “School of London”.
If anything, the connection between Andrews and Kitaj is stylistically safer than that between Andrews and his close friends and admirers, Freud and Auerbach. The act of painting The Deer Park was a new experience for him in that, working on board (instead of canvas) and under intense time pressure (six weeks), he escaped the “hard won” look which had characterised his work so far. He suddenly realised that the blotchiness that comes from constant revision and the texture built up by pentimenti constituted a kind of “special pleading”. As Lawrence Gowing put it, “He did not want painting to look like hard work any more; it was decadent to boast of the effort; the loaded pigment had come to seem like surplus fat.” The move later on to acrylic, and the incorporation of silkscreens, stencils and airbrush, betoken deep disatisfaction, in his own work, with precisely those tropes of angst and effort that eat away at the credibility of certain of his School of London allies.
One way that Andrews freed himself from the tyranny of observation was in his increasingly central use of photographs as source material, although images encountered in the press had rivalled observation from life and free imagination from the outset. History must judge Andrews by the beauty and poignancy of his images, not by his degree of perceptual observation, which is the means not the end of effectiveness, but it is reasonable to be aware of his varying dependendence on photography as this signals very different kinds of picture making. It doesn’t seem that he ever took to the photograph as a Dadaist stance against painting. Even his most extreme incorporation of found photographic material, The Lord Mayor’s Reception in Norwich Castle Keep on the eve of the installation of the first Chancellor of the University of East Anglia, 1966-69, with its mass of dinner-suited guests and its satirical edge, seems genuinely to be about a new kind of history painting rather than a critique of painting per se. Sometimes, in the tradition of Degas and Sickert, the photo is a way of invigorating his art by acknowledging another layer of visual language, revealing the unexpected quirks inherent in the art of depiction. Andrews himself talked about “articulate illusions”. This level of pictorial inquiry comes across in his masterful and intriguing figure composition, Melanie and Me Swimming, 1978-79 (Tate Gallery). Othertimes, though, the photograph is more of a shortcut to an easy-to-assimilate realism. And yet, one would be loathe to write-off such images for this reason. His Lights series reveal him at his most exquisite, eerie and ethereal, and yet also – technically – at his most unmediated in his use of the photograph.
This series deals metaphorically, as mentioned already, with the spiritual theme at the heart of Andrews outlook: the abnegation of ego. He believed that, in the very act of making images on the subject, he could effect his own enlightenment. To this end, the impersonal – selfless – quality of the snapshot represented per se a kind of ego-loss, letting go of an attachment to the fiction of the artist’s unique touch. The series, almost like programme music, followed a quasi-narrative sequence. The balloon, a metaphor of selfhood, at times puffed up, at others floating by magesterially, is seen crossing a noctornal Thames, then casting its shadow over a beach, and finally disappearing from the picture but presumably the vantage point still for aerial views of seaside scenes – a spa or a pier – suffused with an oceanic sense of release. But even before the series came to its conclusion, he realised that, from a Buddhist perspective, it hadn’t worked precisely because it implied a seperation of goal and journey. As Alan Watts put it in his 1957 cult classic, “The Way of Zen”, (a book Andrews read and was influenced by), “…the practice of Zen is not the true practice so long as it has an end in view, and when it has no view in end it is awakening – the aimless, self-sufficient life of the ‘eternal now’”. By a neat coincidence in intellectual history, by the way, after Andrews, inspired by Laing, painted images inspired by the notion of the “skin-encapsulated ego”, the French psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu devoted a paper to Francis Bacon exploring this “painter of rents in the skin ego” (…)
Post scriptum: I could not ask for permission to reprint the above copyright material. In case their authors wish so I will withdraw these extended quotations.