London Calling at the The Getty Museum feels not only like a significant moment in my life but in the cultural life of this city, everything I've loved about art since I was a boy crossing the pond from London to Los Angeles, perhaps I'm in the right city after all. This exhibition not only marks a legacy of masterpieces painted within our time but for me it sheds light on the growing ecosystem of brilliant artists working in Los Angeles emerging just below the mainstream, who uphold this legacy for the next generation. I received a number of texts and emails about this exhibition coming to LA, as my close friends know that these artists in particular caught my attention from a young age, being so fascinated by the human subjects in film and acting, trying to get some handle on behavior of others and myself. There is still a lot of repression in our society, its hard to tell just how much we've progressed since some of these pictures were painted (from 1960s to the present day). The body, the flesh, violence and sexuality are such taboo subjects in our language in the West. I’ve personally never understood the need for such mild mannered relationships, too much small talk and the outline of a person. I’ve always wanted to see underneath the skin, I want to understand their inner thoughts and desires. Conversation is obviously a good way to do this but it can just as easily cloak the truth. When I was younger I often felt like I walked around confused as to why people weren't talking about what was really going on, why they felt the need to hide their psychology in riddles of half finished distraction signifying no end. We’re all beautifully strange creatures, each with a unique psychology which should be respected for what it is.
The touch of The London Group comes as close and direct to the universal human experience as possible. Unlike an artist like Banksy who puts his enormous talent to waste. Riding the wave of news headlines always with a liberal message, that ultimately I’m in agreement with, yet I believe his talent with the spray paint would have ultimately found its way through the cracks in the brick wall regardless of his political subject matter, and whose associations with dispensable news grabbing and a shunning of the universal, shows a disbelief in his own talent which is undeniable and would be better off if he dropped the agenda and cultivated his craft to its full extent.
"You can’t deduce someone’s politics from their taste, any more than you can deduce their taste from their politics... Modern Painters, however, will continue as it began. We will defend aesthetic values against all those who threaten them - whether from the left or the right, or both."" - Peter Fuller
In the first edition of Modern Painters, The London Group was held up as the most significant artistic movement around at the time, my father as editor of the magazine championed artists painting in this vein as representative of a new Renaissance in British Art, the front cover featured Lucian Freud's "Dead Cock’s Head”. Hi first editorial entitled "A Renaissance In British Art?" championed the London Group and Higher Landscape painting in opposition to the avant-garde, Gilbert & George and fellow pop artists across the pond. He claimed the former's lineage was to the Pre-Raphaelites, a line of thinking that many found contentious even himself, when he said to art dealer Bernard Jacobson (one of the co-founders of the magazine) that 'the story of British Art would have to be re-written’. The first essay was by Lord Grey Gowrie, the then Chairman of Sotheby’s, it’s title was “The Migration Of Lucian Freud” it opened;
“Given the voraciousness of international appetites for art of any quality at all, let alone for a talent that can produce masterpieces. Freud’s obscurity is something of a puzzle.” - Lord Grey Gowrie, Modern Painters
Today Lucian Freud’s “Benefits Supervisor Resting” sold for $56M in 2015 at Christies auction house. And Francis Bacon’s triptych of Lucian Freud sold for $142M a couple years before. Though I’m not one to fetishize the price tag of a work of art the relevance of their commercial worth is particularly poignant in these cases.
The idea that a person's image has a value is a taboo subject of conversation, yet we participate in this exchange constantly throughout our day, it is one of the strangest contradictions of our culture. The image of a person when placed in the public sphere has a different connotation when in front of a single viewer, this changes again when the person is naked, both in private and in public, finally the context in which this image is placed changes it's purpose again.
"The idealized or erotic nude, particularly female nude, is a conditioning factor whether you've been brought up on Titian or Playboy" - Lord Grey Gowrie, Modern Painters
In Ways Of Seeing John Berger disects the female nude in the tradition of oil painting, 'she is not naked as she is. She is naked as the spectator sees her.' I explore this piece further in the Lucian Freud essay, but here I will say that I think it's a question of value. It's quite typical for the naked human figure to be marked on a scale of attractiveness, and for this to be an indication of their value in the marketplace. But Freud's pictures are devoid of conventional beauty, the beauty of the subject is not the purpose of the picture, which leads us to consider what is the purpose? Where does the beauty lie and what is it's value?
"This nakedness is not, however, an expression of her own feelings; it is a sign of her submission to the owner's feelings or demands. (The owner of both woman and painting.) The painting, when the King showed it to others, demonstrated this submission and his guests envied him." - John Berger, Ways Of Seeing
If Berger is correct in his assumption that someone is always the owner of the subject, then in the case of figurative portraits of the London Group the figure is wholly possessed by the painter. This is what I find so desirable about these pictures, the consciousness of the objectifier, how he sees that subject, how it absorbs him entirely. In this dynamic we see the nature and purpose of a muse. The muse is not akin to the artist, solidarity is not the objective. There is a canvas between the two, a point of view which is taken and expressed indirectly, and a thing apart from their exchange.
"There is no genuine art where there is no experiencing. It begins where feeling comes into its own" - Constantine Stanislavsky, An Actor Prepares
I often use art as stimulus in my preparation for a character, less for external character traits, but for the internal instigation of the imagination, to implant memories or to fill them out. What I realized recently when working on a scene was that it wasn't enough to just see them in my minds eye, or to look at them, I had to carry them with me and experience them later.
A major retrospective of Patrick Graham is on at Jack Rutberg Fine Art at the moment (extended until September 24th), perfectly coinciding with these works coming to Los Angeles. The lineage is made clear in the exhibition with an homage to David Bomberg (who appeared on the back cover of the 1st edition of Modern Painters), an underrated artist amongst the group in comparison to the success of Freud and Bacon, yet still an important artist within this story. One reason may be that uncharacteristic of the London Group, Graham has been working out of his home in Ireland, though heavily influenced by the movement and of early German Expressionists.
It's hard to determine what an Irish voice looks like having so few contemporary Irish artists to give us example, though Bacon was born in Ireland, and it must be said similarities can be found aesthetically in their figurative work on paper. Though more viscerally in the way in which they attack the canvas. In possibly the most interesting painting of the exhibition the canvas is ripped apart and stitched back together, then turned around and painted on the back. It's a very vigorous and masculine work, though his dealer Jack Rutberg assures that he is a soft spoken and sensitive man who has struggled with alcoholism. The paintings do feel less like a confrontation and more of an invitation an emotional act left open for the viewer to complete. This is a key aspect to Bacon's masochistic strivings which underly the emotional need in his work that I will explore further in the Bacon essay.
Another painter firmly in line with Expressionistic tendencies of the London Group is Marcelle Hanselaar. I bought my first Hanselaar aged 16, I bought it site unseen from a catalog in my mother's gallery where she held an exhibition her prints, it was Lot's Wife featured here, by the time I when I went to her studio in London to pick them up I was 18. I remember her saying that she was curious to meet someone my age who was interested in buying this sort of thing, I felt both flattered and like a strange outsider at the same time. The friendship developed over many years when I would go to her house once a month or so, have coffee and artichokes and just talk about everything, all aspects of life, a lot about her work too, she told me that she stays awake at night and draws in her bed until she falls asleep, out pours these kind of psychosexual dramas, with inner symbols and taboo acts which feel recurrent and familiar, a space exists in all of them where power play and misplaced desires feel at home in the under layers of the subconscious, humorous, grotesque and nightmarish like Goya, though similarly just as pleasurable to look at. Contemplation of a rebellious death, where pleasure and amoral experimentations abound with an unbroken connection to the primal, both in western man and in tribal Africa. If Francis Bacon were teaching an art school in early 20th Century Germany, alongside Beckmann and Grosz then both Graham and Hanselaar would have certainly taken their aesthetics from there, now both respectively master painters in their own right. Since moving to the correspondence between Marcelle and myself has taken shape over social media, email and hidden homages in my film interviews, but things may change again soon.
Another matriarchal figure and master of her craft that had a profound influence on my artistic development was Ivana Chubbuck, I worked with her for 18 months and she was certainly more than a mentor to me, a kind of behavioral guru. I broke off from her psychological grip around 2014 just before I booked Road To The Well though some of her teachings only grow stronger with the passage of time. In Russia they use her book purely as a motivational guide like the Americans use Tony Robbins, which makes a lot of sense when you consider the Russian psyche, she is constantly challenging us to reach in to expose the deepest and most uncomfortable parts of ourselves to overcome in our art;
“You’ve got to take risks, it’s not just the choices of the films you do, the parts you choose to play, more importantly the choices that you make within the material… It takes a lot of courage to expose the truth of who you really are… It takes more courage to do that, than it does to take a motorcycle and jump ten buses” - Ivana Chubbuck
The London Group speak with a voice that is in many ways a direct reaction against repression. Tabboo is present in at least half the pictures on display. During the time Francis Bacon was painting his male lovers for instance Homosexuality was illegal. Taboo is a Polynesian word meaning both the sacred and the forbidden at the same time. Forbidden fruit of the flesh, pleasures and temptations, give rise to Primitive fears of demonic forces, the snake behind the apple and the object of demonic possessions. This amoral exploration of the unspoken desires in man is liberating, when looking at a Bacon you feel any sense of shame for your own inherent nature shatter with as much violence as they come about from within.
A kind of secular spiritual prophet has been emerging on the Los Angeles art scene in recent years, making waves at this year's LA Art Fair with his painting In The Name Of God. I first saw Johan Andersson's work when I was being given a tour of students work at Snt. Martins school of art in London in 2006, I had just graduated from Drama School myself, at twenty years old my tastes were very much in line with the London Group aesthetic, I was constantly searching for someone who had both the promise of a future master painter and the spiritual depths to paint what they felt. To encounter a work by Johan Andersson is to have an intense emotional experience with the unobtainable essence of another human being. His work is also very cleverly scattered with religious iconography, turning his finger up at the hypocrisies of religious institutions whilst maintaining the compassionate depths these same institutions ought to represent in our culture, perhaps these thoughts and feelings are better represented here on canvas.
When I consider traditions and morals, I feel like when you see so deeply into things, people, paintings, characters, stories, films and their creations on such a consistent basis, you begin to wonder if any one thing can ever be unequivocally true. We are incredibly complex animals, so complex we are able to hold a paradox in our minds, understanding both the cause of a thing and its antithesis at the same time. I see on social media so often people wishing to define themselves to themselves as if a sense of ones own identity will save them from the confusion of other people, but why not just be who you really are and allow others to create that definition of you for themselves. Can it ever really work to tell someone else who you are? Or are you just revealing the various sides of your agenda? Much like the muses in Freud's paintings, there is no allowance for pretense, and I mean pretense in its purest definition. On the other side of tradition such pieces like these speak through the ages, well beyond my father's time however much he would like to claim era ownership of them.
An exhibition at Launch Gallery on La Brea caught my eye recently by Bradford J. Salamon, walking in I could feel the recently past ghost of Lucian Freud immediately, and yet there is something inherently American about these pictures too. Perhaps its the American iconography of cinema that influences the composition of the portraits as much as art history and Salamon's own subjectivity. My favorite painting was Pink Purse, featuring Oriana Small and her husband as subjects.
Though Auerbach, Kitaj and Kossof took both landscape and figurative subjects, characterized each by their distinctive style, Freud and Bacon are predominately figurative painters, at a time when people were connected to each other on a much more tenuous thread, communication was a much lengthier process and time between interactions solidified a depth of feeling with each interaction. There is still a significant space for landscape painting, a subjective moment in nature captured and reformed, within the London Group and amongst its predecessors, recently my mother Stephanie Burns visited me in Los Angeles and painted a brilliant series on the natural life around the California coast. The works are great examples of the subjective experience that we have of our consciousness within the world, our sensual perceptions of life as it unfolds, inhabited and reimagined on canvas. These works to me express the essence of being and the preciousness of life on this planet. Even in the mecca of Los Angeles there is great natural beauty for us to protect and cherish while we still have the opportunity to do so. A link below the painting will take you to her recent retrospective by Color In Your Life which aired on US and Australian Television this past week, now available online.
David Sylvester suggested to Bacon in their last interview that he was the antithesis of Hockney because he enjoyed the darker side of life. But I would say that the antithesis of Bacon is Freud. Bacon is so present in all his paintings, the canvas and the subject are reflections of himself, there is no distance between himself and the painting. The same could be said of his lovers, his willingness to express a violent space even in the most casual ways is not an intimidation, but an invitation. I will go on to explain this further in the next post focused on Bacon alone. Hockney's vibrancy can be seen with his latest exhibition at LA Louver in Venice CA, a series of iPad drawings entitled "The Yosemite Suite" until October 1st.
Seeing two rooms filled with major pieces by these artists side by side there is an oscillation between them that speaks in a kind of dialogue, George Dyer by Bacon directly faces Leigh Bowery at the other end of the room.
I will be posting more of my original articles about these artists and how we encounter them today and some by my father Peter Fuller who wrote about them throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s as they were emerging, until the exhibition closes November 13th. You will be able to find links to them here below and on my blog.