“London Calling” at the Getty
by Jacqueline Bell Johnson
Closes November 13th
The six major players from the “School of London” are given the spotlight and presented as a collective rebellion in the exhibition London Calling, at The Getty Center. The artists are Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, R. B. Kitaj, and Leon Kossoff. The rebellion is one against minimalism and conceptualism. These artists were working with landscapes and people as their subject matter, yet all retained a heightened consciousness of how subject matter can activate art. Meditating on these subjects through the act of painting brought forth dynamic handling of the medium. As Auerbach said, “Paint is at its most eloquent when it is a by-product of some corporeal, spatial, developing imaginative concept, a creative identification with the subject.”
Andrews, Thames painting, The Estuary is an explosion of Payne’s gray met with thinner and a few drops of oil, pooling so thinly on the canvas that you can start to see the pigment separate. The colored grounds behave like sand in water. Another cloudy pool is added along with a few tiny brushstrokes to indicate figures and the work has transformed from experiment to deeply calculated. The work is hypnotic. Subtle shifts in the saturation of hue on canvas play with the scale of the figures to bring your eye in and out of these levels within the piece.
I found the 1958 Self Portrait of Frank Auerbach utterly haunting. The portrait drawing itself is straightforward, executed in the expressive streaks from fingers working the charcoal into the surface. It is the surface that plays the biggest role here. Ripped paper is layered over charcoal drawings, the portrait is drawn again on top, again and again giving such depth and texture to the work. The edges of the paper go through the artist’s face and neck, turning the self-portrait into a psychologically charged reflection of Frankenstein’s Monster.
Francis Bacon’s Triptych August 1972 is a prime example of his work and very easy identifiable as his. However, seeing this large scale piece in person is still a mind blowing experience. It is a three-paneled work, each panel separately framed and the piece generously spaced on its own wall. From left to right, the figure is seated, the figure is curled up on the ground, the figure is seated. The painting is a pictorial of the passage of time of George Dyer, Francis Bacon’s lover who had committed suicide. The duet between id and ego as the sitter complies with the artist. Or maybe it is the mental negotiation of forced quiet as the sitter sits. Viewing the imagery all together creates a study in geometry as large blocks of yellow, tan, and black color flow through the panels to create a bigger joined composition. A mix of thicker strokes and nearly transparent drybrush organize into organic swirls to model the form of the body and simultaneously distort it. Movement and depth become established through the contrast of the complexity of the figures and the stillness of the simple background.
Borrowing mostly from the Tate’s collection, these paintings are presented in walled off sections for each artist, with a large darkened room halfway through to view etchings, drawings, and other smaller paper works by the group. The show is a big one with breadth and scope illustrated like only a large museum can do. The visual thesis is argued flawlessly. The works all convey an understanding of their subject matter that is truly personal, understood on an intimate level. The imagery depicted is not a mere replication, but something that brings forth the essence, the spirit of the thing.