An atypical exhibition for the J. Paul Getty Museum opened Tuesday, July 26 – “London Calling: Bacon, Freud, Kossoff, Andrews, Auerbach, and Kitaj,” With most works coming from holdings of the Tate Britain, this is the first major U.S. exhibition to explore the legacy of six painters from the so-called “School of London.”
Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, R. B. Kitaj, Francis Bacon, and Lucian Freud had intersecting careers and somewhat similar painting styles that were difference from most art coming out of London in the mid-20th Century. Their art, and the time period in which it was created, is also a departure from the paintings typically presented at the Getty Center.
While called the “School of London” after a Kitaj described their style in a 1976 exhibition catalog, there was no “School.” The label referred to a group of artists (more than presented here) in austere, post-World War II London who rejected the minimalism, pop art and conceptual directions other artists were moving toward; instead, they carved a niche building on traditional styles with dramatic looks at their damaged surroundings and the people near by.
Part of the larger group, the six men featured in the Getty “London Calling” exhibit were personally close and friendly rivals. Only two were born in Britain, but all achieved renown there. As Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum and one of the show’s curators noted, this is not a comprehensive exhibit. There were other artists in the tableau and other points in these men’s careers. But, the 80 paintings and drawings chosen “allow us to aesthetically and conceptually look at what holds them together, playing off each other,” Potts explained.
He acknowledged, “An exhibit devoted to painting from the early to mid-20th century is a first for us. The majority of paintings and drawings in the Getty Museum’s collection are fundamentally concerned with the rendition of the human figure and landscape up to 1900,” he added. Potts also commented that this exhibit is a “vehicle through which we can complement what we have in our collections … and the space here [at the Getty Center] lends itself beautifully to the display of modernist art.
Besides not being typical of Getty exhibits, the work is not typical of what most people think of as art from England during the period. The artists in “London Calling” are not obvious manifestations of the mid-20th Century, when abstract and conceptual works increasingly dominated contemporary art. This group took what was then a fresh approach for depicting the human figure and everyday landscape. For example, building sites, abundant in London at the time as the bomb-ravaged city was being rebuilt after the war, fascinated Kossoff and Auerbach.
The 6 Artists and Some Works in the Getty Exhibit
Here is some information on the six, how their lives intersected and pieces on display at the Getty:
British born Michael Andrews (1928–1995) studied painting at the school where Freud taught and Bacon visited to talk about his work. His early works concentrated on portraits of his friends and contemporaries as well as party scenes with imaginative elements. One exhibit piece, “Deer Park” (1962), was an early social collage that included real-life figures like Marilyn Monroe and Bridget Bardot. Another piece, influenced by J.M.W. Turner, featured the river “Thames Painting, The Estuary “ (1994-1995) was his final, major subject after being diagnosed with cancer. The interesting piece included paint moved on the canvas using a hair dryer to create a sense of water churning and sand poured on paint to give the beach a sense of reality.
Frank Auerbach (born 1931) went to England at age seven from Berlin to escape Nazism. His early work focused on the people and numerous building sites scarred by the war and undergoing reconstruction. He quickly became known for his thick layer-upon-layer use of paint with thick strokes to create tactile images (much like some Van Gogh works) and, starting in the 1960s, bright colors. One of the most recent paintings shown, “Mornington Crescent—Summer Morning” (2004) refers to the same location as another work displayed that was done in 1966. Both show his intense use of large brushes to apply thick, bold strokes of paint energetically and rapidly..
Leon Kossoff (born 1926) was from east London and became close friends with Frank Auerbach at school. Kossoff always had an intense process and style, such as in his early drawings where he repeatedly erased and restarted the image. He developed a similar process to Auerbach is the use of heavy amounts or paint and bright colors in his paintings
R. B. Kitaj (1932–2007) was born in Cleveland to a family of European Jewish refugees. He moved to England to further his art studies and met the other five artists, who were all with the same gallery, in the 1960s. Early on, Kitaj combined figurative imagery with abstraction in collages. He later focused on figure studies and then, after reading widely about Jewish culture, on his Jewish heritage. His work, “The Wedding” (1989–93) brings together his Jewish identity and association as a School of London artist. It depicts Kitaj’s wedding to the American artist Sandra Fisher in 1983 and prominently depicts School of London artists Freud, Kossoff, and David Hockney.
Francis Bacon (1909–1992) was driven from his Dublin home at 17 by his father, who would not accept his homosexuality. He began painting and drawing in the late 1920s. After the war, he began using images of angst with historical significance that resonated with him personally as starting points for his work.
Lucian Freud (1922–2011), grandson of the Sigmund Freud, was born in Berlin and his family moved to London in 1933 to escape the Nazi regime. Freud described his work as autobiographical, with many of his friends, lovers, and family as subjects. His early work contained ghostly images of people, but evolved to later present a lot more flesh (many here are full frontal nudes) in lifelike (and life-size) works that are more three-dimensional. One piece in the exhibition, “Girl With a Kitten” (1947) is an eerie composition featuring his first wife, Kathleen (“Kitty”) Garman, tensely gripping a kitten by its neck.
The atypical Getty exhibit featuring the sextet of “London Calling” artists will be at the Los Angeles museum until Nov. 13, 2016. The museum is closed on Mondays and most holidays. During the summer, there are extended hours on weekends at the Getty.
Written and Edited by Dyanne Weiss
Exhibition visit and press event July 25
Getty: London Calling: Bacon, Freud, Kossoff, Andrews, Auerbach, Kitaj
Tate: School of London
New York Times: The School of London, Mordantly Messy as Ever
Thames painting, The Estuary, 1994–95, Michael Andrews, oil with sand and ash on canvas. Courtesy of Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, UK, (Wilson Gift through The Art Fund 2006). Image: Bridgeman Images. Artwork © The Estate of Michael Andrews, courtesy James Hyman Gallery, London
Mornington Crescent—Summer Morning, 2004, Frank Auerbach, oil on canvas. Tate: Accepted by HM Government in lieu of inheritance tax and allocated to Tate 2015. Photo © Tate, London 2016. Artwork © Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art
The Wedding, 1989–93, R.B. Kitaj, oil on canvas. Tate: Presented by the artist 1993. Photo © Tate, London 2016. Artwork © R.B. Kitaj Estate, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art