'London Calling' at the Getty

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In every vein of cultural endeavor, the British operate unto themselves -- EU or no EU. The current show at the Getty Museum focuses on a group of painters who were determined to work from the figure, either from live models in the studio or from photographs, despite the larger international interest in abstract or pop art from the 1950's to the 1970's. Most are well known: Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach, especially. Michael Andrews less so, perhaps deservedly based on some of the paintings here.

Lucian Freud, "Girl with a Kitten," 1947
Oil on canvas; 41 × 30.7 × 1.8 cm (16 1/8 × 12 1/16 × 11/16 in.)
© Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Copyright Service
Photo © Tate, London 2016

However, all were lumped together as School of London by R.B. Kitaj, who was actually American, a label that distinguished them from the School of Paris artists earlier in the 20th century. The artists themselves did not consider themselves connected to one another in any way other than friendship and influences but those can be seen quite clearly in this exhibition.

Surprisingly, this is one of the first exhibitions to look at these artists together. Each is given a solo presentation in an individual gallery, which allows us to draw our own conclusions about the connections. As a tightly edited overview, the curators chose mostly strong work by each artist, most of which belongs to the Tate in London.

Francis Bacon, "Triptych August 1972," 1972
Oil and sand on three canvases; Each 198.1 × 147.3 cm (78 × 58 in.)
© The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, NY 2016
Photo © Tate, London 2016

The eldest is Bacon, born in 1909 in Ireland, and not seriously productive until the 1940's though the show includes a rare 1936 "Figures in a Garden" that reveals the influence of Surrealism. The highlight is seeing his amazing" Triptych August 1972" (1972), tracking the progression of movements by his model, who was also his recently deceased lover, across three vertical canvases that stand as a single work. Bacon worked from photographs and was affected by the movement studies of Eadweard Muybridge.

Lucian Freud, "Leigh Bowery," 1991
Oil on canvas; 51 × 40.9 cm (20 1/16 × 16 1/8 in.)
© Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Copyright Service
Photo © Tate, London 2016

Bacon's paintings are in the gallery adjacent to those of the artist he most influenced, Freud. Brought to London from Nazi Germany by his father Sigmund Freud with the rest of his family, Freud's work always seems riddled with psychological nuance. Freud himself always denied such ideas. The earliest work, "Girl with Kitten" (1947) shows his first wife with wide set, almond-shaped eyes that are mimicked by the eyes of the kitten, staring pitiably at us as she holds it by the neck. The German realist artists of the 1920's and 1930's, known as Neue Sachlichkeit, are the probable progenitors of this early hyper-weird painting. However, Freud pushed himself out of that tightly focused and controlled sensibility to work in a looser fashion. His nudes of men and women are unforgiving yet undeniable. The standing portrait of the rotund performance artist Leigh Bowery dominates the gallery in the tradition of English swagger portraits but without the costumery.

Leon Kossoff, "Children’s Swimming Pool, Autumn Afternoon," 1971
Oil on masonite attached to auxiliary wooden framework
168 × 214 × 5.6 cm (66 1/8 × 84 1/4 × 2 3/16 in.)
© Leon Kossoff
Photo © Tate, London 2016

Leon Kossoff, whose work has been exhibited in LA more than the others, both at the Getty and at LA Louver Gallery, is known for working every day. (He and Auerbach are the only two of the artists who are still living.) Painting and drawing are diaristices processes for him and his dirty colors and rough strokes churn up scenes from what were once the less desirable corners of London, such as Spitalfields where he repeatedly painted the architectural wonder of Nicholas Hawkmoor's church. In addition to one of that series, this show features "Children's Swimming Pool, Autumn Afternoon, 1971," a riot of movement and energy, of bodies colliding in a rectangle of blue paint.

Frank Auerbach
"Mornington Crescent with the Statue of Sickert’s Father Father-in-Law," 1966
Oil on masonite attached to auxiliary wooden framework
122 × 152.5 cm (48 1/16 × 60 1/16 in.)
Courtesy of the Daniel Katz Family Trust, London
© Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

A collection of graphics and drawings by the artists reveals the importance of that technique, which was taught with unfailing rigor in the art schools of their times. Now that drawing is barely taught at all, it is worth looking closely at the good that came out of that tradition.

Originally organized by the Tate, it is on view through November 13. (But if you go this weekend, it is the last weekend to catch the photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe and those collected by his partner Sam Wagstaff.) London Calling was curated by the Getty's Julian Brooks and Timoth Potts, along with Elena Crippa from the Tate.