painting


painting
   A number of factors make discussion of postwar British painting difficult. The number of different, co-existing styles of painting is one problem. Another, perhaps more serious problem is the fact that painting has not been dominated by an avantgarde at any one time, as has certainly been true of painting in the United States. There has also been resistance to the idea of the avant-garde from some of painting’s major figures, notably David Hockney. British painting, in common with other forms of art making, is a centralized business, with the London institutions tending to dominate. However, painting is arguably less centralized than sculpture, and has competitions such as the biennial John Moores prize (at Liverpool) and Northern Young Contemporaries (at Manchester) having managed to focus attention outside London. There has also been vigorous promotion of Scottish painting since the 1980s, and the Glasgow Museum of Modern Art, which opened in 1996, has deliberately focused on such work.
   Two important tendencies in painting can nevertheless be described, defining collectively the practice of painting in the 1960s, and it is against this that current practice should be seen. On the one hand, the term School of London has been used to describe a generation of painters who emerged in the 1950s, including Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Leon Kossoff. Diffuse both in terms of style and the institutions with which the artists were associated, the ‘school’ can however be defined as deriving inspiration from expressionism, as opposed to the focus on the surfaces of domestic life evidenced by the so-called ‘kitchen sink’ realist such as John Bratby. Of the four artists mentioned, only one (Kossoff) was born in London, and his background was a Jewish immigrant family in the East End of London. It has often been argued that the distance these artists had from mainstream British culture was partly responsible for the alieneated appearance of their painting.
   Bacon’s work is probably the best-known: his Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) is regarded as the beginning of his career (the artist in fact destroyed most of the work he made prior to this), and the work in effect functions as a manifesto for the following forty-eight years’ work. The paintings usually describe what is in effect a stage, on which a figure, or figures, are shown; the disjunction in treatment between the figure and ground is often striking, the latter being dealt with in a matter-of-fact way while the former is often apparently subject to impressionistic violence. The original subjects frequently derive from old master sources. Study from Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1965) is a good example of these characteristics; the original source is the portrait by the Spanish seventeenth-century painter Velásquez.
   The work of Auerbach and Kossoff is technically similar, involving the use of heavy impasto (exaggerated in the case of Auerbach), thick, expressionistic brushmarks and strong colour. Their subjects differ, however: Auerbach’s work is basically expressionistic London cityscapes, worked up in the studio from numerous sketches, while Kossoff’s work focuses on the human figure, although the setting is often made extremely precise. A well-known painting of Kossoff’s, depicting a sea of children in a pool, bears the title Children’s Swimming Pool, 11 O’clock, Saturday Morning, August 1969 (1969).
   Freud’s work, although it has been described in terms of the School of London, is superficially quite different. The subject is the human figure (Freud’s models, including the late performance artist Leigh Bowery, have sometimes become celebrities in their own right), but the treatment is extremely precise, with only a little formal exaggeration. Contemporary with the emergence of the socalled School of London was pop art. This tendency in Britain developed out of discussions at the Independent Group at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in the early 1950s. The discussions were explicitly interdisciplinary, but the painter Richard Hamilton played an important part and helped organize the exhibitions This is Tomorrow and Man, Machine and Motion. His own painting in the late 1950s and early 1960s evidenced a collage technique, in which disparate elements would be juxtaposed. Hommage á Chrysler Corp (1957) is one of the better-known examples. Juxtaposing the headlamp assembly of a Chrysler car with Marilyn Monroe’s lips and a schematic brassière cup, it is an overt critique of the language of contemporary advertising. Hamilton’s work, in contrast to that of American pop artists, often had an overtly political edge: a grotesque portrait of Hugh Gaitskell ‘as a famous monster of filmland’ was made in response to the Labour party’s softening line on nuclear disarmament in the 1960s. A less critical approach is evidenced by Peter Blake, a student at the Royal College of Art and Hamilton’s contemporary. His Got A Girl (1962) incorporates already nostalgic photographs of Elvis Presley and the disc that gives the title to the picture above a schematic, but faded stripe pattern. The collaged material is already nostalgic, and the painted part is slightly distressed in appearance, giving a worn look: the piece in other words appears to have a history, an idea at odds with the fresh appearance of other pop art, a comparison especially striking if made with American work of the same period. A work from the same time, Self Portrait with Badges, continues this theme, showing the artists as an enthusiastic consumer of popular— specifically American—culture.
   A later generation of artists at the Royal College of Art included Patrick Caulfield, David Hockney, Allen Jones and Richard Smith. None of this work was as politically engaged as (for example) Hamilton’s work had been, but it evidenced a much more explicit sexuality than had previously been possible. While still at the RCA, Hockney had painted We Two Boys Clinging Together (1961), in which the artist had fantasized that a newspaper headline ‘Two Boys Cling To Cliff all Night’ referred to the singer Cliff Richard; the image itself is childish and ambiguous, although the homoerotic content is clear enough. But Hockney’s later work, made on the artist’s removal to Los Angeles in 1963, is much more explicitly homoerotic: the images of naked men in Californian swimming pools derive from homosexual soft pornography as much as from direct observation.
   Hockney encouraged Allen Jones to make use of commercially available fetishistic imagery, which resulted in a notorious series of furniture pieces involving female mannequins. There were also numerous paintings on the same theme, often using airbrushing and other techniques of commercial art. Richard Smith’s paintings could initially resemble American colour field painting in their size and soft geometrical forms, but their titles (or example Product (1962)) suggested otherwise. Closer examination of the works revealed the source of their imagery in graphic design, particularly cigarette packets. Patrick Caulfield, another contemporary at the RCA, made more explicit references to art history. His Portrait of Juan Gris (1963) places the Spanish artist against a yellow background, surrounded by abstract linear forms that seem to refer back to vorticism or constructivism. The work is highly ironic: the image of the artist is cartoon-like, shadowless and outlined in black, while the background yellow, applied uniformly, is a commercially available house paint. Working outside either of the traditions of pop or the School of London is Bridget Riley, whose so-called ‘op art’ canvases composed of regular patterns of lines produce a highly physical, often disorientating effect on the spectator. Her work had particular success in New York in the mid-1960s, and she won the International Prize for Painting at the Venice Biennale in 1968.
   During the later 1960s, and for much of the 1970s, British art production was dominated by sculpture and conceptual art, in common with most parts of the United States and Europe. The painters who came to prominence in the 1960s continued to produce, exhibit and sell work— Hockney might be singled out as having been particularly successful during the 1970s—but little sense remained of painting as a potential avant-garde. However, a reassessment of painting could be said to have occurred at the beginning of the 1980s. There was renewed critical and commercial interest in Auerbach, Kossof, Freud and Bacon, accompanied by the international revival of interest in figurative painting, especially with narrative content, represented by exhibitions such as A New Spirit in Painting at the Hayward Gallery, London in 1981. The exhibition featured work by Auerbach and Bacon, as well as new work by Frank Stella, Andy Warhol and Julian Schnabel. At the same time, painters of the same chronological generation were promoted as exemplars of a new style of painting that accepted the conventional limits of the practice, and was generally figurative and sometimes full of literary allusions. Such painters included John Hoyland, Howard Hodgkin, Ken Kiff, Stephen McKenna and John Walker, all of whom were exhibited at the British Art Show in 1984. A new movement in painting was therefore construed around artists who were at mature stages of their careers. A younger generation of Scottish-based painters, including Stephen Campbell, Jock McFadyen and Adrian Wiszniewski, worked in a similar way, and were often exhibited together with the older artists. Campbell’s work is a good example. His large canvases, painted using an eclectic mixture of styles, quote from art historical sources; like much of the painting of the 1980s, the works appear to set up narratives which are then deliberately frustrated. What remains is a play of surfaces, a manner of operation that compares with the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Umberto Eco, to give examples of two authors who were popular at the time. If the painting of the 1980s—in common with the sculpture of the same period—had generally accepted the technical and institutional limits of painting, in order to work within it, towards the end of the decade a new type of painting began to emerge which seemed to reopen a type of epistemological inquiry. Goldsmith’s College has in recent years been popularly associated with a reconfigured form of conceptual art during the late 1980s, and also produced a number of outstanding painters, among them Ian Davenport and Gary Hume. Davenport’s large abstract canvases seem to reconfigure the process-oriented painting of American artists such as Jackson Pollock and, particularly, Morris Louis. A canvas typically comprises a series of parallel stripes made by pouring; the process recalls Louis, and it is no accident that Davenport has frequently been photographed, paint-splattered, in his studio in a manner that deliberately recalls the famous photographs of Pollock taken by Hans Namuth in the 1950s. However the materials (commercial gloss paint, often in garish colours) suggests that the work reads abstract expressionism ironically. Davenport’s work seems to reconfigure abstract expressionism for a much cooler, better-informed audience. Gary Hume’s work makes more explicit use of historical sources, so After Petrus Christus (1994), included in the British Art Show IV, starts from a fifteenth-century portrait, obliterating detail with crudely-applied gloss paint in garish colours. The graffiti-like marks effectively vandalize the image. A comparable vandalism of painting could be said to be achieved by Chris Ofili, whose works on the theme of a childhood visit to Africa, also included in the British Art show, were stuck with elephant dung.
   But these artists, who would identify themselves as painters, are now in some respects atypical. For many prominent artists of the same generation, painting has simply become one mode of operation amongst many. Damien Hirst, better known for monumental installations involving preserved dead animals, has also produced painting, as has Mark Wallinger. British art schools continue to produce painters, especially outside of London, but in the mid-1990s, critical attention seemed to be focused elsewhere. Whether painting will revive as a discrete practice is unclear.
   See also: Royal Academy; Tate(s)
   Further reading
    Arts Council of Great Britain (1995) British Art Show 4, London: Arts Council. Hayward Gallery (1981) A New Spirit in Painting, London: Hayward Gallery.
    Royal Academy of Arts (1987) British Art in the Twentieth Century, Munich: Prestel.
   RICHARD J. WILLIAMS

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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