Contemporary British Painting (c.1960-2000)
The 1960s decade - the decade that gave birth to contemporary art - saw a great increase in national wealth, the spending power of the individual hugely enhanced. Air travel became available to everyone; gramophone records played for longer and every adolescent had the resources to buy them. War receded into the past, but its technological spin-offs were everywhere. The material world of the commercial artifact came to dominate everyone's perception of reality. Television was in most homes, and the commonplace images of daily life were more and more those provided by the news photographer, or invented by the advertising agent. Drug-taking, which had been common in bohemia for a century or more, became fashionable. The introduction of the contraceptive pill in 1963 rapidly rendered obsolete traditional constraints on behaviour between men and women.
In all these matters, American life and culture came to represent a standard to be imitated. American servicemen, still stationed in Britain long after the War, helped to naturalize their way of life. American films were seen on television, American slang heard in the streets. Jimmy Porter, the anti-hero of John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger (1957), observes ruefully that he lives in 'the American age'. In the arts, that age was announced in the work of the 'Beat' poets and novelists round Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, and the New York School of Abstract Expressionist painters, led by Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. Pollock's grand canvases, articulated with all-embracing gestures of the painting arm, often using bucketfuls of paint splashed and dripped in swirls and spirals, are perhaps Existentialist exercises like the less titanic work of his contemporaries in Europe. But they are also positive, assertions of the energy of creativity, or, in Rothko's case, of the spiritual heights and depths to be plumbed in the contemplation of a coloured void.
This sort of positive energy was something that appealed to Patrick Heron (1920-99), who is one of the few British painters to have been associated directly with the New York group. In the later 1950s he abandoned the figure subjects and still-lifes inspired by Braque and Matisse that he had been painting and started to make large abstracts, often at first 'stripe paintings', tall piles of many-coloured brushstrokes, which were early reflections of the developments in New York; Heron himself claimed to have arrived at this point independently, and to have led the way for some of the Americans.
Heron lived for much of his life in or near St Ives, which had been home to many of the most perceptive landscape painters of the pre-war years, notably Ben Nicholson (1894-1982). His pictures of the late 1950s and early 1960s are like blurred, strongly coloured reminiscences of Nicholson's neat geometries. They have something in common with the work of another painter associated with St Ives, the Northern Irish artist William Scott (1913-89), who was preoccupied with the abstract implications of the still life: a pan or jug on a table is seen in plan, as if from the air, and becomes the basis of a much simplified arrangement of colours and shapes. Heron's abstractions became very large indeed in the 1970s and 1980s. They consist of cheerfully coloured pink, blue or yellow patches floating in and out of each other, managing to graft their Americanness onto an unforced freshness and sense of natural beauty that is entirely English.
Many English painters - as well as the influential critic Herbert Read - continued to find inspiration at St Ives, and developed a tradition of abstraction (see also Vorticism) that deserves more recognition. Roger Hilton (1911-75) and Terry Frost (b.1915) are among the distinguished artists to have worked there since the war. The joie de vivre that characterizes much of their work testifies to a mood of contentment, if not optimism, that pervades much St Ives School art. In Peter Lanyon (1918-64) the town had a native son, trained in Cornwall, who like Nicholson was happy to blend fine art painting and 3-D sculpture in a free, expressive way that led him naturally to large abstract works, drawing on the characteristics of the local landscape. He met Rothko in New York in 1957, and in scale and breadth his work has links with the New York artists. But his paintings typically have the colours of the English country and seaside - swirling greens and browns shot through with blue and white, the paint thick and energetically applied in big, open-air strokes. These pictures physically embody Lanyon's concern with the organic cycle of life, death and rebirth, and they evoke the outdoors, the rush of fresh wind. It is perhaps poetically appropriate that Lanyon died as the result of a gliding accident.
St Ives, with its white, slate-roofed cottages and narrow streets, intricately winding harbour front and wide bays, seems to have possessed an extraordinary capacity to lead artists forward in the search for a language to express their strong sense of these eloquent surroundings. The inspiration was crucial, since the question of abstraction had not been resolved. Was it an inevitable development, the goal to which every serious painter and sculptor must tend? Or was there always to be an underlying reference to that demanding reality outside? In St Ives it was possible to have it both ways. The place was a kind of abstraction of itself, asking to be drawn and painted.
The English painter Victor Pasmore (1908-98) visited the town in 1950, and about that time broke decisively with representational art, abandoning his delicately coloured, poetic Thames scenes and solidly modelled figure-studies for pure abstraction, which he pursued with evangelical vigour as Director of Painting at the Art School of the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He adopted the new international language of non-representational art, in which he was at once word perfect. But he deliberately allowed his pieces, whether paintings, collages or relief sculptures, to bear the marks of 'do-it-yourself' construction - splintered edges, visible glueing - that are a stamp of authenticity running counter to the ostensibly 'mechanical' quality of these pared-down, ingenious exercises in pure composition.
Before all this, back in 1937, Pasmore
had been a founder of the Euston Road School with William Coldstream
(1908-87) and Claude Rogers (1907-79) in an attempt to get away
from the uncertainty about abstraction and representation. Although they
admired much of what had been achieved recently, they felt that painting
should be comprehensible to the uninitiated. Coldstream was much affected
by the social problems raised by the economic depression of the 1930s.
He felt that a truly left-wing art must be generally accessible, not the
rarefied intellectuality of abstraction. "I became convinced that
art ought to be directed towards a wider public", Coldstream wrote.
"Whereas all ideas I had learned to be artistically revolutionary
ran in the opposite direction." His own method of dealing with the
problem was to subject reality to a careful scrutiny, a measuring by eye,
which was transferred to the canvas by means of a half-notional, half-real
grid. The grid, which a Euston Road pupil, Lawrence Gowing (1918-91),
referred to as a 'scan', gives the pictures a faintly mechanical look
that perhaps helps to validate an appeal to modernity if not Modernism.
Gowing talked of "an aesthetic of verification", and it is apt
that contemporary British philosophy was much taken up with 'Verificationism'.
A pragmatic need to state only what is confirmably true permeates Euston
The master who bestrode the modernist and
traditional worlds was Stanley Spencer (1891-1959), and it isn't
surprising that some artists found his example valuable in the struggle
to forge a workable personal style. Norman Blarney (1914-2000)
made Spencer's monumental figure compositions his starting-point, working
out complex spatial designs in a bold, simplified language. He also followed
on from Spencer's profound religious involvement. His life's work was
dominated by a series of paintings recording the rituals of the High Anglican
Church. His Scene during the Deanery Mass at St Pancras Old Church,
(1960) is a powerful example. Religious themes have not been by any means
dead in 20th-century Britain. Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant,
in the latter part of their careers no longer avant-garde, made large-scale
murals for Berwick church, near Charleston, their house under the South
Downs. In Kent, at the little country parish of Challock, John Ward
(b.1918) executed a lyrical series of Scenes from the Life of Christ
(1958), set in the local countryside and with a cast of local people.
For many years the walls of the Royal
Academy showed paintings by Carel Weight (1908-97) which give
voice to a more uneasy, late 20th-century spirituality, setting events
of a vaguely transcendental nature in the drab landscapes of suburban
These singular artists found their respective
voices largely by opting out of the intellectual battles of the period,
and by ignoring its glossy commercialism. For those who engaged in the
debate it was this that provided the inspiration for a more complete grasp
of reality. In the 1950s the so-called Kitchen Sink School - perhaps
the most realistic of all modern
art movements - had appeared which took Sickert's love of domestic
squalor a stage further: the coarsely handled pictures of John Bratby
(1928-92) and Jack Smith (b.1928) glory in the actuality of stub-filled
ash-trays, bathroom fittings and messy kitchens. In both America and England
a wealth of messages from the street - road signs, advertisements, newspaper
photographs - was finding its way into the images of what quickly became
known as Pop Art - one of the first international contemporary
art movements. And while oil paint
did not go out of fashion, the new, industrially produced acrylic
painting, with its clean, smooth texture and easy application, offered
an appropriately shiny alternative.
During the mid-1950s, the English painter
Peter Blake (b.1932) began to incorporate postcards and magazine
covers into his pictures, creating a hybrid of painting and collage -
a technique that has its roots in Cubism. From the beginning Pop
Art embodied the tensions of the new Anglo-American culture. Blake's
Girls and their Hero, 1959 (Elvis), painted in acrylic, records
in images borrowed from newspapers and popular magazines the overwhelming
British enthusiasm for American commercial music, Rock 'n' Roll and Elvis
Presley. In Self-portrait with Badges (1961) Blake identified himself
in terms of his current affiliations, interests and loyalties as affirmed
by the collection of iconic tin badges he shows pinned on his clothes.
The self-conscious youthfulness of artist and accoutrements is representative
of the moment.
The overall gentle irony of these artists gives way to a fiercer satire in the work of Allen Jones (b.1937), who has been obsessed by the use of the female figure in commercial art. The obviously suggestive purpose of these images is satirized in his sharp-breasted, fishnet-legged but often significantly faceless figures with their gaudy colour and slick outlines. There is irony, too, in the social comment of Richard Hamilton (b.1922), whose images, often based on press photographs and advertisements, distil the ethos of the anti-Conservative satire that spread through the media in the 1960s.
It is worth remembering that the British
painter and etcher Walter
Sickert (1860-1942) had pioneered the use of newspaper photographs
as the basis for pictures back in the 1930s. The identification of a recognizable
'London' quality in painting owes much to the presiding genius of Sickert,
though the so-called 'School of London' that flourished in the
1970s couldn't be said to have a single style or approach. Under its umbrella
have been grouped many of the artists discussed in different places here
according to their preoccupations. Perhaps the coarsely handled swimming-bath
or tube-station scenes of Leon Kossoff (b. 1926), with their very
heavy impasto and urgent
spontaneity, continue to see London through Sickertian eyes. We encounter
similarly dense paint in the work of Frank
Auerbach (b. 1931), whose technique, like Kossoff's, derives from
the later style of Bomberg, who taught them both at the Borough Polytechnic.
Like Kossoff too, he chooses London subjects - its people and its landscapes.
It is a rewarding experience to penetrate the apparent confusion of Auerbach's
contorted surfaces to discover the firm, tautly disciplined structures
beneath, whether of a face or of a tree on Hampstead Heath. Michael
Andrews (1928-90) by contrast uses paint with great delicacy, specializing
in the traditional subject matter of urban daily life, group portraiture
and topographical landscape, albeit working on canvases that are sometimes
Most of these developments had their parallels
in abstract art. The careful scrutiny
and measurement of Coldstream's studies of the everyday world are matched
in the work of Kenneth Martin (1905-84) and his wife Mary Martin
(1907-69), whose paintings and reliefs are a development from Piet Mondrian
and Russian Constructivism. They built
up their compositions by means of mathematical calculations, placing minimal
marks - lines, blocks or spaces - on the canvas not as a consequence of
aesthetic decisions but following a carefully planned sequence of 'sums'.
The resulting patterns are cool and dry but, in Kenneth Martin's case,
surprising and sometimes highly expressive in their understated way. They
extend themselves naturally into three dimensions in the form of delicately
balanced mobile sculptures. The paintings of Mary Martin, equally coolly
calculated, possess a rare stillness and equilibrium.
In the same way, the commentaries of Pop
Art on the imagery of commerce and the media found a counterpart in the
abstractions of Bridget
Riley (b.1931). Riley has been a single-minded exponent of the
international Op Art movement that enjoyed its
heyday in the 1960s and 1970s. This was an approach to abstraction that
concentrated on rigid but subtle geometry and optically startling colour
combinations. Riley began painting in black and white alone, titillating
the eye with finely modulated stripes or dots that seem to flicker, fade
or fold out of view as one looks. Her cool, hard objectivity took her
so far as to employ assistants in the actual application of paint: the
artist's personality, and all representational reference, are deliberately
eliminated to an extent that has been unusual in British abstraction -
compare Pasmore's anxiety to retain his personal imprint. Mondrian's grids
lie at the root of Riley's approach, but it is interesting that when she
attempted to make a copy of his Broadway Boogie Woogie she abandoned
it, unable to feel her way into Mondrian's creative processes. Her own
abstract language is, then, essentially different, and it is one of the
most original of the post-war period.
At the opposite end of the artistic spectrum
from Riley and the Martins is the lushly sensuous painting of Howard
Hodgkin (b.1932), who has sustained the native tradition of abstraction
founded on representation: the nudes and still lifes of Sir Matthew
Smith (1879-1959) and the watery landscapes of Ivon Hitchens
(1893-1979) all seem to have influenced him. He has painted portraits,
interiors, landscapes, all transformed into glowing cauldrons of colour,
variegated with polka dots and molten rainbows, in which the very glossiness
of the paint contributes to the luxuriant effect. He has spent much time
in India, and the brilliant patterns of Indian fabrics play an important
part in his work. Even his frames are painted, extending the opulent breadth
of his brushwork beyond the picture space and into the room. A younger
exponent of the values of lusciously applied colour
pigment is Therese Oulton (b.1953), whose often large canvases
are inundated by tides of rippling paint, floods of rich, sombre colour
illuminated by intermittent flashes of fitful light.
Perhaps it is no accident that the presiding genius of painting in Britain at the end of the century is an older artist who has insisted repeatedly on the virtues of the art school- an institution that had seemed seriously threatened in the iconoclastic 1960s and 1970s. Lucian Freud (1922-2011) came from Vienna with his family in the 1930s, and his early work breathes Surrealism and themes of German Expressionism, shot through with the tense anxiety of the early post-war years. But already in his portraits of the 1950s there is an uncompromising fascination - obsession is not too strong a word - with the minute details of the human body. Over the years the scrutiny has become more microscopic, drawing remorseless attention to every vein and pore. We are sometimes reminded of Spencer's earthy nudes, and of his explicit comparison of human with dead animal meat - not perhaps as far from the preoccupations of Francis Bacon (1909-92) as might at first appear. In the long run it has never been necessary for Freud to leave the art school: all his materials are there. The willing model, candidly exposing him- or herself to the artist's intense observation, the significantly unimportant surroundings - a sofa, a roughly draped bed, bare boards. All of this is of ancient lineage, and Freud makes no attempt to dress his subject matter up as modern. Yet it is modern by the very nature of his gaze - uncensoring, unshockable, compassionate. These are the qualities on which we pride ourselves in the aftermath of a liberation that we are still trying fully to understand.
Freud has painted many portraits, though he is not a portrait painter in the old-fashioned sense: he does not cater to self-love, and wishes to flatter no one, least of all himself. It was his grandfather, Sigmund Freud, who made the metier of society portrait painter almost impossible in the 20th century. Now the painter of the human face is almost obliged to set forth his own psychology whatever his ostensible subject. The portraits of Auerbach with their tortured, heavily worked paint are a case in point. But for this reason we should give credit to the many artists who continue to fulfil the function of social portrait painter. They do so in a world that makes it increasingly difficult to respect the old agendas of power, status and wealth that dictated the parameters of portraiture. It is typical of British patronage of painting that portraiture remains a preference. The desire for a recognizable likeness is as strong as ever. Blarney and Ward are among those who have produced technically accomplished portraits for purposes of record, and Howard Morgan (b.1949) has reworked the tradition of glossy flattery so effectively exploited by Thomas Lawrence and John Singer Sargent to create a style very much of its media-conscious moment.
Freud's example has stimulated a fresh interest in the figure, and indeed the last decades of the century saw a revival of subject painting, as in the enigmatic, often Surrealist landscapes and interiors of the Irish artist Stephen McKenna (b.1939), and the fantasies of Ken Kiff (1935-2001), whose fairy-tale stories, some with a Grimm-like horror to them, some comic, are told in simple, childlike forms and vibrant, unmixed hues, often using a dense yet luminous watercolour.
We have seen how some 20th-century painting
- by Nicholson, Martin and others - has tended to lead naturally to sculpture.
In recent decades the boundaries between the various media have become
increasingly blurred, many artists working in several together. The camera
has played a more and more prominent role: still photography, film and
video have all entered the arena of mixed-media creativity. Conceptual
art has tended to steal the limelight, notably among the 'Britpack',
a highly publicized group of enfants terribles led by Damien
Hirst who emerged in the 1990s, reinventing in their Britart the
old techniques of the avant-garde: bizarre incongruities, everyday objects
or erotica are deployed to explore the increasingly diverse experience
of modern life. Yet despite this explosion of technical means, many younger
artists have adopted painting as an appropriate medium for their reflections
on the world. But the mood of the time has been shot through with a self-conscious
awareness of the art of past epochs, and there is a steady undercurrent
of ironic borrowing, a post-modern love of deconstructing traditional
concepts and methods of working.
Starting from a very different position, Jenny Saville (b.1970) takes Freud's 183 anatomies of the human frame a step further, presenting her vast female nudes in Brobdingnagian close-up, distorted and sometimes deformed like mutants.
By contrast, the Scottish painter Jack
Vettriano (b.1951) has achieved enormous commercial success with
his formulaic genre painting portraying nostalgic, if somewhat suggestive,
man-meets-woman scenes, as exemplified by The Singing Butler (1992,
References: we gratefully acknowledge the use of materials from Five Centuries of British Painting (Thames & Hudson, 2001) written by Andrew Wilton. This magnificent work contains a wealth of beautiful images together with an erudite and perceptive explanation of the evolution of British art from 1960-2000: essential reading for any students of UK painting.