|T. Behrens, “Chimenea” (1980)|
acrílico s/ tela, 110x90cm
T. Behrens and the so-called School of London
by ANTÓNIO CERVEIRA PINTO
Nobody is forced to remain in “history”. But nor is it easy to exclude someone from that same “history”, only because historiography and what has conventionally become known as ‘curatorship’ have allowed themselves to be distracted, or were in fact distracted, by the logic of everyday life. We know that “histories” are almost always fleeting tales about “power”, but even so it is hard to believe how frequently painstaking efforts are undertaken to erase facts that, had they not been censored, would have ended up attracting the attention of the general public, in the name of a description, or of some critical theory or other. For example, the surprise of discovering the work of the painter T. Behrens, at the very beginning of the 21st century, as something that is umbilically linked to the group of realists of various hues, christened by Kitaj as the “School of London”, raises some perplexing questions: does anyone know the young man sitting beside Lucian Freud in the famous photograph entitled Lunch at Wheeler’s? We know that his name is T. Behrens. But how many people have noticed that he paints in the style of a certain generation of postwar artists (1950s and 1960s), based in London, who used to frequent a pub called The Colony Room Club (1). Did he really have something to do with them?! Do in fact either his biography or art intersect in space and time with the existentialist furrows ploughed by Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Leon Kossoff or Frank Auerbach? For those who have seen this exhibition, the answer is obviously yes. Yet, in spite of this, T. Behrens, just like Craigie Aitchison, has practically disappeared from the compendia of modern art in the 20th century!
It might be presumed that such invisibility will find an immediate and efficient cause in the artists themselves. For reasons that have never been established, these two artists did little, or in fact nothing at all, to enhance their fame. Tim left the island, and Aitchison found himself stranded at some junction in London’s dense artistic network (besides the fact that the ingenuity expressed in his figures distracted the critical methodologies of that time, which were too heavily influenced by politically hypostasised phenomenologies). Yet, even so, with all the master’s degree and Ph.D. theses and dissertations that have been written in recent years, both in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, by students of art, art history, criticism and curatorship, how has it been possible for these two regular frequenters of the Colony Room, and “founding members” of the so-called School of London, to escape the incessant academic dissection? There is no doubt that Craigie Aitchison had a much more visible artistic career, having even enjoyed recognition by the Arts Council, who with the Serpentine Gallery organised a retrospective exhibition of his work in 1981. But the question still remains: what kind of myopia has determined this relative (Aitchison), or even absolute (Behrens), “historical” invisibility?
Let us concentrate on the case of T. Behrens, the youngest member of this group of Bohemian artists from the school of London realism, who had emerged from the great cultural disillusion caused by the carnage imposed on the world by the rise of fascism and Nazism.
Would it be honest, after Auschwitz, to speak of Art? This was the question asked by Adorno in such great anguish. It was in fact very difficult, when the ashes of so many dead and wounded were still warm, to insist upon the liberating properties of futurist modernity, the oneiric visionariness of surrealism or the radical progress brought to the arts by abstractionism. After such barbarity, the age of existentialism had arrived. In European art, it was the time of informalism that was beginning (Fautrier, Giacometti, Dubuffet), the time of a “new realism”, marked by an awareness of the value of the small things in life and everyday experiences. For those artists, or at least some of them, who were to find two decisive representatives in Giacometti and Francis Bacon, observed by Jean-Paul Sartre and Gilles Deleuzes, what imposed itself was a less ambitious set of aesthetic ideas, a more modest cultural attitude, a methodically workshop-based discipline and the return to a set of perceivable pictorial languages. Although the dominant critical discourse was absorbed by the linear logic of the “progress” of Modern Art and the vanguards, having, for a long time, cast a sidelong glance at the generation of English “realists” (perhaps until Gilles Deleuzes’ essay on Bacon, published in 1981), the truth is that this apparent creative conservativeness was essential for the encounter of British art with itself, within a panorama that was heavily marked by abstract internationalism. In the interview that Tim so kindly granted me, he says that, at the time, the accepted models continued to be those of abstraction… And yet, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, etc., copied Rembrandt and Velásquez, amongst other classics! Attentive artists, such as Kitaj and Richard Hamilton, took due note of the intrinsically pragmatic patterns of this generation of painters.
Despite our belonging to the era of the technical reproducibility of images, or perhaps even because of this, there was nonetheless an opportunity for figurative painting. The “School of London” returned to it essentially as an exercise in individual freedom, observation, imagination, drawing and painting, adopting a kind of anachronistic counterposition to the dominant currents of industrial and media-based art. British pop art (Richard Hamilton, Peter Blake, Hockney, etc.) took meticulous advantage of the apparent conservativeness of this “new realism” and definitively abandoned the timid abstractionist ambitions of British art throughout the first half of the 20th century, asserting with great humour the advent of the immediate, dithyrambic figuration of the agitated times of postmodernity: pop, mega-urban, technological, television-based, hyper-aesthetic, erotic, mundane, global and consumerist. In the British Isles, even at the height of conceptualism, which logically followed on from the triumph of pop art and the more radical investigations of situationism, a landscape variant was to impose itself, ecological and figurative of this kind of iconoclastic hara-kiri of the arts (Richard Long, Hamish Fulton, Gilbert&George, Art&Language, etc.). In the 1990s, the main protagonists of the so-called Young British Artists did nothing else but hypostasise the same premises of postmodern realism that had informed the (by then heretical and disdained) autonomy of the painting of Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, or T. Behrens, stretching them to the limits of what might be described as an extreme anatomy of Being. And it is, in fact, this impulse towards the meticulous and obsessive study of the interfaces of existence and death, perceived and manifested in the form of a symbolic representation, that has led Damien Hirst to return to the time-honoured Colony Room Club.
T. Behrens doesn’t like his painting being confused with literature (to which he also dedicated himself tangentially), for there is space for both of these, and they both describe reality in a way that we would call unique. Literature stimulates our vision of the world through a language that is directly linked to the highest and most abstract levels of the internal representation of things, thereby appealing to our faculty for constructing images and for feeling, based on a set of abstract signs. Painting, on the contrary, begins, first of all, by addressing itself to the lowest levels of intelligence, activated by our visual sensors. Before interpreting forms, we set up a decisive sensory exchange with the substance of the painting: its size, light, contrast, colour, morphology and pregnancies. Unlike text, all this begins by being decisive in our appreciation of the visual work, long before we decide whether the subject is a good one or if the story has been well told. Let us say that, in a certain way, the information expected from a painting is less interesting than the art that is contained within it! Or, to put it another way, what survives in the memory of a work of art is not so much its ostensible information, which, in a certain way, lies at its origin (the coronation of Napoleon, the deposition of Christ, a still life with lilies, the sensual nudity of a model, a monochromatic abstraction…), but its “form”, or, in other words, the experience of its apparition and of the way in which it has affected our sensory complex, our conceptual routine and our ideological structure.
However, we also know that the naming of forms and colours ends up instilling them with a kind of culturally conditioned pre-signification: the colour white, which in the west is understood as a message of peace, is a sign of mourning for the Chinese; the music of some cultures is no more than an unbearable noise for others; the stench of certain cheeses turns out to be extremely pleasant for some gourmets; there are few who, on first contact, can be said to appreciate the sickly taste of Beluga caviar (probably the most expensive in the world). This being the case, we can perhaps state that, in a certain sense, nothing can replace the sensory experience as the inescapable impact of reality on the sensitive interfaces of our body, since in this materiality of perception there is always something that cannot be reduced to reason. Yet, at the same time, we have to accept the fact that both the division and hierarchisation of sensations take place at a very early stage as a social, ideological and cultural construction. It is precisely in the midst of this sensory ambivalence that the persistence of painting is played out in its entirety.
Since the invention of photography, painting has lost much of its importance in the institutionalised systems of ideological imagination. Iconic representation, as a revelation of the truth, left in the hands of the sorcerer, demiurge, vicar and politician, has been greatly eroded since Daguerre and the Lumière brothers. From the moment when it became possible to find a process for mechanically transferring the images perceived by us onto supports for their representation, no painting, however realistic it may have been, could contain what Roland Barthes called the ‘noema’ of photography, the “this has been”, in other words, our capacity to convince ourselves that what is seen in a photograph actually happened, regardless of the material quality and resolution of the image. Particularly after the falsifications of the Kremlin photographs (from which Trotsky and other uncomfortable Bolsheviks were systematically erased by Stalin’s bureaucrats), it is, however, known that photography was also to be rapidly transformed into a language of social communication, repeatedly falsified in the name of the editorial policies of the respective authors. The much heralded photographic spontaneity of Cartier Bresson came to be revealed as yet another laborious construction of the image of reality.
Once the illusionist mechanism of the new medium had been explained, figurative painting was finally able to reclaim its niche of philosophical legitimacy. Pictographic objectivity, in other words the sensory factuality of painting, once again had all the time in the world ahead of it. And pictorial subjectivity, in other words the imagination constructed on the canvas, finally freed from heavy institutional responsibilities, which had meanwhile been transferred to photography, film and television, could now manifest itself amidst the giddiness of a newly acquired radical freedom.
Reduced to a merely imagetic ‘functionality’, painting was earning the right to the autonomy of its own voice and the duty of discipline in its own gestures of inscription and erasure. Yet the fact remains that, meanwhile, the pedagogy of abstraction and conceptualist iconoclasm, insistently disseminated from Paris, and then later from New York, for more than fifty years, fostered the development of an incredible cultural bureaucracy, whose intellectual superficiality and obsession with career building still continue even today to make it difficult to acquire an honest knowledge of the facts and issues.
One of my favourite theoretical exercises is demonstrating the impossibility of painting after Daguerre, Marx and Sigmund Freud. The other one is lingering over the infinite and apparently indestructible filigree of this extraordinary tradition.
Painting and Art in general have always had the ideological function of symbolically configuring the anthropological universes of societies and individuals. At a very early stage, a decisive part of this mission was linked to the need to inscribe and conserve the images originating from subjective and intersubjective processes on accessible supports, which could be shared by people and were resistant to the passage of a time that had meanwhile been divided into four scales of relativity: the individual, the family, society and the unknown.
When, for the first time, we discover our image reflected in the calm surface of a river, we also discover the reflective force that will never again desert us in the stubborn search for Knowledge. When we discover the intriguing existence of images, we develop the intuitive certainty that we are making our way not between things, but between light and shade. The very sculptures of light that we interpret, for our own convenience, as things are no more than allegories of reality. Just the protracted and patient contemplation of these, allied to the friction of life, has enabled artists, poets and philosophers, to fabricate the enormous tower of representations necessary for communicating, for making languages, for organising metaphysics and for experiencing ecstasy. And it was because we noticed that all that we are given to see is images that there was such a long and persistent attraction for mirrors and that we turned speculation into our first means of logical inquiry. We polished all of Nature’s reflective materials, we studied the broad spectrum of energy to invent lenses and membranes capable of retaining the infinite labyrinth of the world’s external and internal images, we hypostasised even subjectivity itself, in order to transform it into a diapason capable of revealing the ether of our passions, wishes and uncertainties. It was through our travelling along this path that an important part of Painting dissolved into Photography, Film and Television…
The inscription of images in representations, that mnemonic procedure of reason, has always been more urgent, in existential and political terms, than biography and the style of either the artist or the machine of representation. To interrupt the flow of time, to separate it from space, even in the illusory form of an image, this is what true representation has always sought to achieve, in the most direct and untouched manner possible. When Roland Barthes referred to the noema of photography as a this has been, he did in fact give an incisive explanation of the real strategic target of representation. But, if we compare this theory with the notion of the technical reproducibility of the work of art, advanced by Walter Benjamin, then we will be confronted with the picture of the crisis of representation that led twentieth-century painting to the enormous arc of the analytical, but also poetic and, in the end, neurotic, disfiguration of images.
Socially abandoned, and in a state of crisis, painting and modern art in general found themselves trapped between the appeal of abstraction (i.e. the representation of abstraction as a process of aesthetic research and design) and the duty of erecting a critical (phenomenological and meta-artistic) machine built on the basis of its own disgrace. The tendency to move towards abstraction and design never managed to free itself from demiurgic metaphysics, from theoretical ingenuity and even from conceptual pretentiousness. The irremediable aporias of this branch of modern dispersal are all born from the impossibility of symbolising the consistent reality of the very de-symbolisation of the world, inaugurated by the triumph of Capital, Science and Technology. The only means of escape (and exile) in the face of this historical trap became consolidated, through a great effort, as art criticism, meta-art and theoretical art. That is to say, as non-painting. However, halfway through this process of disfiguration that has been in progress since post-impressionism, and somewhere around the time of the Vienna Secession, Art timidly became aware of its desperate freedom, perceiving this not as the exclusive historical condition of its praxis, but as a more general condition of the urban, anonymous, qualityless individual. Between individual freedom and the protestant need of the capitalist world, there remained a frightened and defenceless skin, on the verge sometimes of a fit of nerves, and at other times of a brief bout of happiness. It was precisely in this interstice that Drawing and Painting lodged themselves, excavating, so to speak, the foundations of a new realist subjectivity. From this new form of painting, nobody expects institutional truths, nobody expects any ideological truth, nobody accepts systems of authority. Everyone, however, expects the intimacy of a genuine aesthetic experience. They expect this, it might be said, as a testimony to the presentiment, still kept alive in each of us, that, despite the hegemonic rationalisation of the world, there continues to be a body of sensations capable of vibrating with the rapid beating of wings of an unnoticed humming bird.
T. Behrens’ work belongs to this second category of the cultural crisis of the twentieth century. We can therefore regard his painting as an irresistible example of the aesthetic experience, arising above all from the complete detachment of his images. The theatrical constants of his compositions, so to speak, give rise to the coherent universe of his work, and, at the same time, genetically connect it to the existentialists who congregated, after the bloodshed of 1939-1945, at The Colony Room Club. The typically phenomenological presence of the flesh, as a prominent moment in the dramatic representation of the human body (Bacon’s male figures, Lucian Freud and T. Behrens’ male and female figures), the theatricalisation of the pictural pose (in which one can frequently note the representational typologies of amateur photography), and the symbolic insistence of the dogs as a cynical counterpoint to the excesses of cultural anthropocentrism that are so typically found in the man-mass, mark a whole style of criticism of the sophisticated superstructures of high culture and the hypostatisation of the right to urban marginality as both the proof of, and driving force behind, the very expansion of public freedoms, without which we all tend to yield before the undemonstrated absolute need for work, the undemonstrated absolute need for exploitation and the undemonstrated absolute need for power. Where truly is happiness to be found? This is the question we ask at each awkward moment in our lives. As we turn the corner, observing the peace of mind of a dog sleeping in the sun, T. Behrens’ paintings seem to answer us; sincerely defending the enthusiasm and illusion of a child on the day of his First Communion; contemplating the tranquil nudity of the lover still enveloped in a sleep that resists the morning light and the chirping of a sparrow that does not tire of announcing its virility; on a spring afternoon, painting a garden bench crimson red, next to the white rose-bushes that open up before us to our amazement and delight; in short, in the myriad of small things to which we do not attach the slightest importance, but which Tim’s live paintings cause to return to the world-view of each of us as proof of life, surrounded by occurrences, curiosities, memories and ghosts. Due to their photographic structure, the impact of these paintings becomes unavoidable. Escaping from the concretely epistemological moment of the Barthesian noema, the images of this kind of existentialist realism do, however, convince us, through a succession of different close-ups: the proximity of the species, the proximity of the invisible everyday things, the proximity of life, the proximity of death. Yet, if the worlds that are recreated in T. Behrens’ painting exert an irresistible appeal, this is also due, on the one hand, to the episodic, but very detailed, nature of the themes that are dealt with – a nude girl, lying on a sofa, reading a magazine, on a summer’s day, with a beach and several bathers visible through a window; men, women and dogs talking in a garden; a naked woman taking a nap, etc. – and, on the other hand, to the conceptual and sensory aspects of the style: interplays of perspective and colour. Time and again, people and dogs inhabit both the interior and exterior scenarios of his painting. These are scenes from everyday life, without a pose and without any dramaticism. In a certain sense, we can say that they are born in the image of, and with a similarity to, weekend photographs. But, in the distance that separates them from the peculiar world of Kodak realism, those representations of life reach us as the sensitive result of a perpetual coming and going between memory and imagination, between certainty and poetry, between representation and gesture, between today and tomorrow. They are both the painter’s biography and the biography of us all!
Copyright © 2003 by António Cerveira Pinto
The Colony Room Club was once again brought back into fashion by the most recent generation of “realists”, including the inevitable Damien Hirst. Through here have also certainly passed Tracey Emin, Jake and Dino Chapman, Ron Mueck, Gillian Wearing and a whole host of tourists whose enthusiasm has been fired by the “new Brit art”, which came into being during the Thatcher era, namely through the decisive strategic initiative of its greatest propagandist: Charles Saatchi.
Tim Behrens is in Wikipedia already!
“The fine art of drinking at Muriel’s bar”
Independent, The (London), Jul 22, 1995 by IAIN GALE
“Hello, cunty! Christ – you here again?” The words ring out shrilly across the smoke-filled bar. Although only four o’clock on a sunny afternoon, the curtains are drawn, divorcing this room from the outside world; making it, for all its foul, hurtfully acerbic language, a haven whose inhabitants are “members only”. The owner of the voice, and the bar, a severe, elegant, dark-eyed little woman perched on a stool by the door, is Muriel Belcher. Here, at the Colony Room, she presides over a drinking club which, although its decoration might be stained carpets, fake leopard-skin seats and bamboo, it can now, during the Fifties and Sixties, boast as glittering and talented a clientele as any Paris salon of the 1890s. Not least, it is spiritual home to the artists of the future “School of London”.
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Independent, The (London), Jul 22, 1995, by IAIN GALE