Modernists & Mavericks: Bacon, Freud, Hockney & The London Painters, by Martin Gayford, Thames & Hudson, £24.95, 352 pp, ISBN: 978-0500239773
When Lucian Freud spoke of London it was clear that the city retained a magnetic hold over the artist’s sensibility even to his final years. “I still feel this is the most exciting, exotic place in the world,” he affirmed in a late interview, “Whenever I find myself considering going somewhere else, I think it would be mad to go when there are still parts of London I haven’t explored.” Freud’s Jewish German and Austrian parents ‑ his father, Ernst, was the son of the famous psychoanalyst ‑ had been sufficiently alarmed by the success of the Nazi Party in 1933 to flee Berlin for London when he was just eight years old. The lengthening shadow of Nazism would, of course, soon follow them over mainland Europe and across the English Channel when the Luftwaffe launched their first air raids on Britain. Yet it was amidst the ruins of the blitzed capital where Freud first began to feel his way into art and fasten the umbilical connection with London that would underpin his career as a painter.
In the besieged city of the 1940s Freud found himself in the company of an emergent bohemian milieu that would go on to determine the course of contemporary British art over the following three decades. The gritty allure of London’s central districts ‑ most famously the Soho area of the city’s West End ‑ drew together in close and vivid proximity a diverse a group of painters that included Freud, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, David Hockney, Bridget Riley and Gillian Ayres. The intimate territory they staked across Soho’s ramshackle network of clubs, pubs, restaurants and apartment rooms emboldened and gave coherence to a range of radical art forms and practices. As Martin Gayford asserts in his compelling new study Modernist & Mavericks: “They shared a belief that with paint they could accomplish works that in other media ‑ photography, for example ‑ they could not. This was the common factor binding them all together: the confidence that this ancient medium could do fresh and marvellous things.”
Modernists & Mavericks thrusts the reader onto the shelled streets and rubble mounds of London during the Blitz. When the first bombs fell on a bright September afternoon in 1940 they transformed the familiar contours of the city into a surreal spectacle that was both terrifying and thrilling. Poet Louis MacNeice captured the perversely exhilarating experience of many writers and artists who ventured out into the city after the sounding of the first all-clear, admitting that he found himself both “half appalled and half enlivened by this fantasy of destruction”. English painter Graham Sutherland, who travelled to London by train from his house in Kent following the first air raids, was equally moved by the stark forms of exposed iron and brick that stood like contorted figures in “the silence, the absolute dead silence”. The war at home resulted in widespread civilian suffering and loss of life throughout the United Kingdom, yet what is less known is the extent to which the conditions stimulated more invigorating social ruptures among the ruins. The peculiar excitement in peril recorded by writers and artists encouraged a broader loosening of social mores and conventions. For the emergent group of painters who form the subject of Gayford’s book and who would later become loosely identified as “The School of London”, this maverick spirit became centralised in Soho.
Gayford pinpoints Soho as “a district of London’s bohemia” during the war and into the 1950s. “Attitudes were prevalent there, in the mid-twentieth century, which did not reach the wider population for another fifty years. In its acceptance of idiosyncrasy and excess it was a microcosm of the future.” Cypriot restaurants, Italian barbers, French cafés and pâtisseries gave Soho a vibrant continental atmosphere that distinguished it from London’s drabber surrounding districts. Bustling market stalls offered an array of exotic delicacies and fresh produce not easily obtained elsewhere in a time of severe shortages and rationing. Pubs and clubs such as The Golden Lion on Dean Street and The York Minister, known locally as “The French Pub” after its Gallic owner, established themselves as the district’s countercultural hangouts. Less visibly, in the back alleys and basements the illicit thrills of the sex trade and gambling flourished.
Soho’s subversion of the civilities of British social convention saw it become a magnet for young adventurous writers and artists. What emerges intriguingly from Gayford’s study is the collective sense of a maverick art practice being shaped and emboldened by the eccentricities of its locale. During the war Freud would cycle down to Soho with his fellow painter and housemate John Craxton from their flat in Abercorn Place in North London. It was in the raucous afternoon bars and restaurants that he met and befriended Francis Bacon, who shared his wilfully unconventional approach to the business of picture-making. They were committed to the traditional art of figurative painting ‑ the representation of identifiable figures, scenes and objects ‑ but were determined to follow the modernist precedent set by van Gogh, Picasso and the Surrealists before them in tearing up the rulebook by which this should be realised. The major London art schools of the day held fast to inherited conservative traditions of fine draughtsmanship and compositional technique, which the dutiful student was expected to earn through innumerable hours in the studio copying from models and objects. For the largely unschooled Freud and Bacon, however, the aim was to develop highly idiosyncratic figurative styles outside of these formal structures.
Bacon’s art in particular drew its febrile energy from the life and atmosphere of the bars and restaurants of Soho he obsessively frequented. Bacon originally left his family home at Straffan Lodge in Naas, Co Kildare, at the age of sixteen following the deterioration of his relationship with his draconian English father. He then drifted first to London and with a relative to Berlin and Paris during the mid-1920s. It was in the thriving underground gay clubs and avant-garde cabarets of Berlin during the tumultuous latter years of the Weimar Republic that the young Bacon experienced the personal and sexual liberation that would infuse his creative outlook. He eventually returned to London in 1928 and, as with Freud, developed the artistic connection with the capital that saw him remain there for most of his life. Bacon resolutely pursued what he described a “gilded gutter life” in Soho: embracing the excesses of high and low society, nightly veering in his relations from wealthy gallery owners and patrons to illegal gamblers, pimps and sex workers. The extreme vicissitudes of this mode of living in turn shaped the conditions and contexts by which he conceived and created his art.
Bacon’s various London studios became notorious for their chaotic admission of decadence and squalor. The most famous of these was his studio at 7 Reece Mews in South Kensington, which was posthumously donated in its entirety to the Hugh Lane Gallery in 1998. The first-floor studio at Reece Mews was reached by climbing a steep wooden staircase with a thick rope used as a makeshift handrail. Visitors entering through the narrow studio door were immediately confronted by a deluge of materials. Detritus mounds of old paint tins, tubes and slashed canvasses reached up toward the pale skylight. The floorboards were covered in a congealing mass of magazines, photographs, catalogues. Bacon’s maxim was that “chaos breeds images” and he absorbed the anarchic atmosphere of his studio space into his developing art practice and aesthetic. Spontaneity and chance were portals of discovery. He drew inspiration for his nightmarish scenes from the photographic collage of screaming dictators, hysterical patients, bullfighters and wrestlers strewn beneath his easel across the studio floor. Images suddenly suggested themselves on the rough unprimed canvass in the slip of a brush or an accidental spatter of pigment. A single strong stroke could define the outline of a man’s jaw, a cloth smearing animate a recoiling movement. Bacon even brashly mixed dust from the floorboards into one of his early paintings to capture the charcoal texture of a suit lapel.
The lively transient atmosphere of Soho’s bars and restaurants set the informal social arena where such practices were nightly proposed and contested among Bacon, Freud and their contemporaries. Many of the artists featured across Modernist & Mavericks shared a reluctance to provide formally written statements of their methods to eager critics, reviewers or dealers. Rather, it was in the improvised phrase or pithy rebuttal of the raised voice above the revelling crowd where much of the debate on art transpired. Gayford observes that this was “an era in which the community of painters in London was still a village”. The social world was “intimate, in that almost everybody knew everybody else. It was crisscrossed by complex amorous relationships that took little account of gender or marital status.” Yet a particularly illuminating aspect of Modernist & Mavericks as it progresses is how the book charts the increasing permeation of this “village” by contemporary international ideas and influences. “After 1945 there was a great opening-up,” Gayford writes. “A London art world that had previously been small and provincial turned its attention to what was happening elsewhere.”
The rise of Abstract Expressionism in the late 1940s dramatically reoriented the nature and location of avant-garde art from war-ravaged Europe to a thriving New York and the monumental works of painters such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Powered by the rocketing political, social and economic influence of the United States across the globe in the aftermath of the Second World War, Abstract Expressionism renounced the continuing validity of figurative art to instate a radically opposing set of ideas and practices. The major artists who became associated with the movement turned away from pictures that directly represented people or the visible world to focus instead on the expression of intense emotional feeling through abstracted forms and colour-fields. Jackson Pollock created vast riotous patterns of colour by flinging paint in great arcs and loops across the canvasses he laid on his studio floor. Mark Rothko painted enormous oblong planes of reds and oranges to immerse the viewer and induce a sublime state of emotional transcendence.
The postwar cultural and commercial shift towards American abstraction posed significant challenges for figurative artists back in London. But as Gayford rightly argues, the perceived “barrier between abstract and figurative ‑ which seemed, at the time, a positive Iron Curtain ‑ was in reality much more porous”. So that we see Bacon eventually beginning to brighten his paintings with vivid abstracted sheets of colour against which he set his figures and heads. Younger upcoming artists such as David Hockney, who hitchhiked down to London from Yorkshire to visit the major Pollock retrospective in 1958, more freely assimilated the ideas and influences of Abstract Expressionism into their figurative art. Hockney’s fascination with all things American would seem eventually move from London to Los Angeles. His slick chromatic renderings of Californian swimming pools, such as A Bigger Splash (1967), recreated their sun-drenched brightness and tiled geometric outlines through the use of fast-drying acrylic paint. Other bright young things emerging at this time, like Pauline Boty, captured the rebellious energies of the budding Pop art movement, collaging sensational images from popular culture into her abstract paintings, such as a jaunting Marilyn Monroe in The Only Blonde in the World (1963). London would soon be awash with the brilliant heady colours of the Swinging Sixties, when the sexual and artistic energies bottled up in enclaves such as Soho burst out across Britain on a new wave of mass media and permeated everything from fashion and music to sociology and politics.
Modernists & Mavericks maps the currents of influence and association that flowed between the “villages” of London and New York in these years. This adds a panoramic transnational perspective to Gayford’s book that illuminates the contexts of a rapidly globalising art market. Yet if, as he writes, the London art world was indeed “becoming alive to what was happening elsewhere”, what about the unacknowledged “elsewhere” that was at this time flourishing on its very doorstep? Dublin may not have been a cultural centre to rival New York or Paris, but its art market underwent a significant transformation during the 1940s and ’50s which drew the capital into the wider international dynamics covered in Gayford’s study. Greater freedom of travel in the immediate postwar years encouraged the development of a range of artistic networks and affiliations across the Irish Sea that connected Soho with its kindred bohemian villages in Dublin’s Baggot and Grafton Street areas. For young Irish painters such as Patrick Swift and Nano Reid, the maverick creative energies in these urban pockets stimulated art practice and production just as Soho had done for Bacon, Freud and their London contemporaries. There were galleries opening up too among the pubs, cafés and bookshops of Baggatonia and Graftonia. London-born Jewish art dealer Victor Waddington gathered the most exciting young contemporary Irish artists in his commercial gallery at 28 South Anne Street and brought a series of international exhibitions to the postwar capital.
Freud experienced these developments first-hand when he visited Ireland in 1948. He was initially compelled to make the trip following the major retrospective exhibition of Jack Butler Yeats held in the Tate Britain earlier that year. Freud left the exhibition convinced that Yeats was the greatest living painter and travelled across the Irish Sea “partly on pilgrimage” to the ageing artist and the land that inspired his work. It was however in the company of Dublin’s younger artistic and literary set that he ultimately spent most of his time. He found the resilient bohemianism of Soho germinating behind the faded terraced facades of Hatch Street, where painters Patrick Swift, John Ryan and writer Anthony Cronin lived in the ground-floor rooms and basement flat of number five. English artist Nevill Johnson also rented a mews house with “bare rafters and bare floors” down a cobbled laneway off Hatch Street at Convent Place. Johnson, who had recently relocated to Dublin from Belfast and was becoming known for his surrealist post-apocalyptic landscapes, described his arrival in this raffish quarter as like moving “from pan to fire”. “I stepped out to join a weird company,” he recalled in his autobiography, The Other Side of Six, “a throng of crazed polemicists, smart Alecs, winking know-alls, jokers and gentle men”.
Freud was of course at home in such unorthodox company and became a regular visitor to Hatch Street during his stay in the city. He developed a close working relationship with Swift in particular, with the two painting together in Swift’s studio each morning. The artists were well-paired in terms of temperament and philosophy. Swift shared Freud’s staunch commitment to figurative painting. He also proved a match for Freud’s eccentric public face. Though he had only turned twenty-one in 1948, he had already established himself as a notable character in Dublin’s literary and arts scene. Cronin and Ryan have recalled the consciously provocative nature of his “dandy dress” at this time. He typically flaunted a dark well-cut suit along with a brash gold-knobbed cane salvaged from a local junk shop. Such flamboyant attire set the tone for a confident and charismatic personality that belied his youthful age. Swift was loquacious company, equally at ease discussing the merits of Cézanne or Auden. His keen interest in both art and literature set the characteristically expansive bounds of his conversation and drew him into the drinking circles of both poets and painters alike.
Like Freud and the Soho coterie that gravitated around Francis Bacon, Swift firmly believed in the continuing validity of the figurative painting tradition. His early portraits and still-lives shared their combination of incisive observation and imaginative expression. The stimulating association between art practice and place evident in wartime and postwar Soho was in many ways recreated by Swift and Freud in Hatch Street and its environs. The bare decaying walls and gaunt windows of Swift’s Georgian studio room provided the austere setting and cold palette for their intensive scrutiny of figures and objects. Freud was attracted to the rawness he found in the laneways around Hatch Street. He was particularly fascinated by the way the local butchers displayed their meat unwashed of blood. The two artists would bring into Swift’s studio a variety of dead game to paint, arranging grouse, cocks and rabbits among the sparse furnishings where a lone red velvet chair represented the only embellishment. A pervasive sense of tension and coldness dominates the paintings they completed at this time. Cronin, whose own room at number five was separated from Swift’s studio by two large dividing doors, would typically find both artists busy at work by the time he “surfaced” each morning. “There is in both painters an intensity which may at first not seem justified by the actual subject matter,’ he wrote, “a sense of life as always, even in its banalities, perhaps especially in those, verging on horror and partaking of tragedy.” Swift’s Girl in Garden (1951-52) captures this subtly enveloping atmosphere of anxiety. Viewed through the back doorway of 5 Hatch Street, the lone girl sitting on the garden steps with her arms folded tightly across tucked knees is the American surrealist poet and Swift’s then girlfriend, Claire McAllister. McAllister’s tense demeanour is deftly heightened by the encroaching foliage above and around her. The twisting branches and jagged plant leaves oscillate between the ordinary and that of a menacingly animate presence. Swift himself alluded to the taut atmosphere of his art when he stated that “I believe when you bring, say, a plant into a room, everything in that room changes in relation to it. This tension, tension is the only world for it, can be painted.” The tension in Swift’s paintings resonates beyond the formal relations of the canvass as emblems of postwar disquiet. It is the same tension exhibited in Freud’s scrutinising gaze and more explosively in Bacon’s nightmarish images. Their maverick art transmitted the energies of the bohemian enclaves of London and Dublin in the late 1940s and early ’50s, where radical practices were pioneered against the backdrop of war and postwar recovery.
Conor Linnie is a visiting lecturer and researcher at Trinity College Dublin. He has published on contemporary and mid-twentieth century Irish art. His recently completed PhD thesis at TCD is the first full-length study of the Irish literary and arts magazine Envoy: A Review of Literature & Art (1949-1951).