In the years following World War II, the biggest art conversation was about abstraction and what to do with it. The critical center was New York and the artists in question were Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, Gorky, and Kline. At the same time, several painters in England (though not all British-born) were complicating the idiom of representational painting. Each side had things to say about the other. Francis Bacon, the most articulate of the British artists, called Abstract Expressionism “decoration.” Harold Rosenberg, one of Abstraction’s house critics, called Bacon’s work “too figurative, too narrative, too concerned with Christian imagery yet dangerously unpious in its view of religion.” Barnett Newman said (approvingly) that Abstract Expressionists were “freeing [themselves] of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth.” Bacon and five other figurative artists working in and around the ruins of postwar London were cultivating those “impediments,” and a sampling of their work is on view in London Calling, currently at the Getty Center.
These artists ate and drank together; they argued about and observed one another’s work; Bacon and Freud gambled together in casinos. I first saw Francis Bacon’s pictures in 1972, during the opening credits of Last Tango in Paris. I was a 27-year-old poet with no thought of ever writing about painting, but seeing those illustrations stirred a desire to say something, sooner or later, about Bacon’s work. (I’m slow: I didn’t get around to it until the 1990s.) The Tango images — a woman slouched in a chair, a figure sagging on a divan — were expressions of emotional disfigurement, solitariness, and tense anticipation kneaded into mercurial shapes, appropriate icons for Tango’s drama of carnal appetite and existential strain.
Dublin-born (in 1909) of British parents, Bacon was the oldest of what one of the six, R.I. Kitaj, termed the “London School,” and his palette of incited yellows, billiard-table greens, flamingo pinks, indigos, and reds gave a posh, privileged look to his vision of human animalism, of life as meat with an expiration date. The gamble of accident was part of his process. Artists before him had invited randomness into their interaction with the canvas, but Bacon’s interventions were more purposeful. He required instability. As a picture came into a structure, he’d destabilize it, pull it out of an achieved form, sometimes by swiping a rag across the canvas. It was an aggressive kind of painting-against-itself. His portraits of acquaintances and lovers, usually photograph-based, featured smeared skulls, enfolded faces, and elastic bodies composed of glistening planes that shed a protoplasmic “skin,” a kind of shadow incarnate.
Bacon left home at 17, traveled, worked as a furniture and interior designer, and by the early 1930s, virtually self-taught, was making paintings on profane and messily sacred subjects. His work responded as much to the containments of space as to human mood and expressiveness. Within the pictures he created staging areas, boxy structures or display platforms that look like laboratory containers or jewelry displays. The settings expose more than they enclose. The figures’ mouths sometimes remodel the mouth of a screaming woman in Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin. In the 1954 Figure with Meat, her mouth appears on a figure derived from Velázquez’s 1650 Portrait of Pope Innocent X: the blue-robed pontiff shares a caged space with split halves of a beef carcass, meat-and-blood wings that obliterate any sense of the transcendent.
Other of Bacon’s photographic models were the stop-action motion studies Eadweard Muybridge made of wrestlers, acrobats, and ordinary people walking, jumping, and climbing steps. Bacon subverted photography’s stillness by working color to make it look a little runny and decomposing. In the central panel of Triptych August 1972 two males muscle around each other like wrestlers or lovers. On the left panel is a seated George Dyer, Bacon’s model and lover who had recently killed himself, and on the right, the artist. Seeping from the figures is that familiar flayed-skin human spoor, a puddling pinkish flesh tone that looks like a spill of selfhood.
Bacon met Lucian Freud in the 1940s. Freud’s ambition was the pursuit of fleshly countenance. In an early work like Girl with a Kitten from 1947, the girl’s skin has a bruised pearliness, a tone Freud would work many variations on in his career, and her lost gaze directs her consciousness way beyond the picture. (She’s holding the kitten by the neck, like a trophy.) Freud experimented with consistency of surface and the elasticity of interior space. The surface of Girl with a Kitten is smooth, chaste, indifferent. The placid flesh from the 1950s pictures gradually gets eroded and corrupted by time; the fineness of finish breaks down into flaky cellular bits and knobs as Freud inquires more and more into the contemplative weathered-ness of the human form. The later work has coarser, broken consistencies, and his nudes look as if they’ve just now dropped or been pushed awkwardly onto beds. The skin in Freud’s work is a blast of carnal presence. He painted the life of time in the body, the decrepitude, the fat, the little and great collapses, just as in the early work he showed a lovely, though tough, youthfulness of presence.
One of Freud’s students at the Slade School of Fine Art was Michael Andrews, born in 1928 and, dead at age 67, the shortest lived of the six artists in London Calling. Of them, he was the most social; his paintings observe human consciousness registering its awareness of others and its surroundings. One of his best known pictures, A Man Who Suddenly Fell Over, doesn’t illustrate the act of falling so much as it reveals two states of mind in that moment. A portly businessman, trying feebly to break the fall with his shoulder, is suspended in a state of worried amusement that there’s nowhere for him to go but down, while the woman observing the event registers a shocked queasiness. Andrews liked parties and liked making pictures based on them. In the busy drinking-club crowd in Colony Room I (not included in the exhibition), his friends Bacon and Freud mix it up with journalists, arts people, and hangers-on. In his landscapes, Andrews aspirates the surfaces and breaks them down into a beautifully expressive unevenness. In a swirling grayish 1994 painting of the Thames Estuary, globs and chunks of clotted ash and dirt are mixed with the paint to create a pensive, elegiac moment in the mind: the churned textures of land and water become a platform for fishermen revealed high in the scene like presiding spirits. The entire picture feels like a modernist dream of 19th-century representation.